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UCLA's Ben Howland admits mistakes, says, 'We're going to fix it'

Basketball coach is upset beyond the 2-5 record, saying Reeves Nelson's behavior is 'totally uncharacteristic' of what's expected, and Josh Smith 'didn't do the work' to stay fit in off-season.

December 05, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • UCLA Coach Ben Howland speaks to forward Reeves Nelson during a preseason game against Cal State San Bernardino on Nov. 6. Howland isn't one to pamper his star players.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland speaks to forward Reeves Nelson during a preseason… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

His UCLA office was stifling. Ben Howland went through three bottles of water while fidgeting there on the hot seat.

"I like it warm,'' he says, which is good, because it's time to turn up the heat on Howland.

The Bruins were the pick to win the Pac-12 Conference this season, but right now they are as disappointing as a Rick Neuheisel-coached team.

"We're 2-5 and we're UCLA and that's not a good position to be in," says Howland. "Yeah, I feel the heat — the heat I put on myself. We've got to do a lot better than what we are doing, and we will."

Nice speech, but atop all the losses there's the feeling Howland's team might be getting away from him.

"No, it's not," Howland insists. "We're going to fix it."

Yet his two top players have done nothing so far but disappoint. In addition to Josh Smith taking the off-season off to eat away his effectiveness as a player, there were disturbing media reports over the weekend about Reeves Nelson.

Broadcasters and reporters noted that Nelson, suspended once already this season for his poor behavior, was sitting on the bench and laughing it up while his teammates were losing to Texas.

For a guy who likes to call timeouts as much as Howland does, what's stopping him now?

Why is Nelson still wearing a UCLA jersey?

As much of a control freak as Howland appears on the sideline, it appears his players do not share his intensity.

And that has to be troubling to Howland with pressure mounting on the basketball program now that football has been so disappointing.

The Bruins lost to Loyola Marymount, and Steve Lavin wasn't within a thousand miles of the building. And Loyola Marymount was without its top player.

Then Howland suspended Nelson indefinitely, the Bruins losing to Middle Tennessee and scheduled next to go to Maui with possible opponents like Duke, Kansas and Michigan.

Nothing cuts an indefinite suspension to one game like the urgency to win again.

Down 0-2, as soon as Howland reinstated Nelson, the kid missed the team bus and plane to Hawaii. Who misses the chance to go to Hawaii?

Who makes such a blunder right after having an indefinite suspension lifted?

Why didn't Howland tell the kid to stay home after missing the team plane?

"In retrospect, you're probably right for sure," says Howland. "But I think my charge is to try and help these guys."

Last week against Texas, Nelson irritated Howland so much that Howland decided at halftime not to play Nelson the rest of the game. The Bruins went on to lose and Nelson appeared unfazed.

Howland says he was unaware of Nelson's behavior on the bench, which included pointing to folks in the crowd and laughing, according to media reports.

Was the kid challenging Howland's authority?

"No question," Howland says. "And no question his behavior is totally uncharacteristic of what we want from a UCLA basketball player representing this history and tradition.

"It's something that is going to be dealt with when we get together again. It's been an ongoing problem the past two years which has gotten worse.

"And I get it. I understand where people are on this. I know people are disenchanted that this could be happening here. If you knew how miserable I was, you'd know where this whole thing is headed. I just want a guy who puts the team first and understands what a privilege and honor it is to wear this uniform at UCLA. But he hasn't gotten that yet."

As for Smith, Howland says, "We had high expectations for him, but he didn't do the work necessary in the off-season to be in the condition necessary."

Is this UCLA basketball?

Howland had UCLA in the Final Four three times early on while spoiling everyone here. But the last few years it's been a struggle to recapture the magic.

"I really do believe we're going to get this turned around," he says.

What does that mean?

"I believe we'll be competitive in every game."

Is this UCLA basketball?

"The only way we can get into the tournament now based on our record is to win the conference tournament," he says. "So we have to evolve as a team, grow and come together. And we will."

That gives Howland until March to get things right, about the same time folks can expect Dan Guerrero to hire a football coach.

YOU HAVE to admire Guerrero, who seems intent on finding everyone in the country who doesn't want the UCLA job.

Neuheisel was doomed before the season began, and yet Guerrero seemed to be unprepared when he fired him. And that was with the school hiring a coaching recruiter.

I still say Washington's Steve Sarkisian is the inspired hire, the former USC guy to unnerve Lane Kiffin while coming armed with a ton of Pac-10/12 recruiting experience.

Sarkisian went to Brigham Young and has two sisters who graduated from UCLA. His Trojans experience is not a liability, but an asset. To think otherwise is small-time thinking.

Jim Mora Jr., meanwhile, is being mentioned as a candidate. He was an intern with the Chargers when I covered them more than 20 years ago.

I thought he had the makings to be a terrific coach and suggested his name before UCLA hired Neuheisel. I don't know why I continue to be so helpful knowing no one is listening.

People forget, but USC gambled when it hired Pete Carroll, and did so again with Kiffin.

Mora didn't fare all that well in the NFL, like Carroll and Kiffin, but his personality is better-suited for college football. He would have a lot to do to catch up with Kiffin, who seems to be a gifted recruiter, but, like Carroll, he's hyper-competitive and hungry to prove himself.

That probably means UCLA won't hire him.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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