LOS ANGELES — Players and staff members from the past four UCLA basketball teams say that coach Ben Howland allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale as the once-proud program has struggled to live up to its storied history, Sports Illustrated reported Wednesday.
The report on Sports Illustrated's website, which says SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from those teams over the last two months, outlines a program in disarray. Teammates have come to blows, several players routinely used alcohol and drugs – sometimes before practice – and one player intentionally injured teammates but received no punishment, according to the story, which quotes its sources anonymously.
"Obviously this is not a great day for our program or for me," Howland said on a teleconference Wednesday. "I'm responsible for this program and everything that happens in it. If there's any need to make changes, I will make them."
UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero didn't answer directly when asked about Howland's job status for next season.
"We'll go through the rest of the season, and then we'll sit down and talk about the situation like we always do," he said on a separate teleconference. "The article certainly raised some issues, but believe me we were aware of some of the issues."
In 2008, Howland agreed to a new seven-year contract, which runs through the 2014-15 season. He is due to receive $2.3 million in the final year of the deal. Now in his ninth year in Westwood, he has a record of 205-96 going into the final weekend of the regular season.
"I am very confident of my abilities to lead this program into the future," he said.
Guerrero said some of the allegations mentioned in the story were known by Howland and his staff and they consulted with the athletic director or his staff. Other issues were handled by Howland and his staff, while some allegations came as a surprise to Guerrero, who said they would be investigated.
"Could decisions have been made differently in some regard?" he said. "I would venture to say ... yeah, we probably should have done things differently."
UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said about Howland, "He's not perfect. He's admitted both publicly and privately some of his shortcomings and mistakes."
According to players who spoke to the magazine, Howland had little contact with his athletes beyond practices and games. The report says the task of indoctrinating a new player fell to veterans. Howland's former players told the magazine he had very little to do with instilling camaraderie.
"That's hurtful," Howland said on the teleconference. "If you talk to my former players, that may be the opinion of a specific player, I would think that actually would not be considered to be accurate."
Several players from the 2008-09 team who spoke to SI say that some of that year's freshmen affected the team's unity and performance because of behavior that included drug and alcohol use, sometimes before practice.
The report says older players tried to counsel them with little success.
"We're talking about a few isolated incidents with a few young men who have made bad decisions," Guerrero said, adding that UCLA has alcohol and drug testing programs in place.
Howland said Wednesday he has handled inappropriate behavior by his players correctly, although he declined to speak specifically about individuals, citing federal privacy laws.
"There's no question that I've made mistakes along the way when you look at recruiting in terms of evaluations of players or character in an instance or two," he said. "For the most part, I've been very, very blessed and been lucky to have great kids. We want to recruit great kids, good people. For the most part we've done that."
Kevin Love, who starred in 2007-08 as a freshman before leaving early for the NBA, said he was surprised by the allegations in the story.
"I knew there were a couple of bad eggs, but I didn't figure there was anything going on," he told The Associated Press while in town to play with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "I've been removed now for, what, three or four years, so some of those guys I don't know particularly well. But obviously, in the year behind me, I knew a few of the guys and some of those guys have either transferred or been kicked off the team."
Players also spoke to the magazine of an alarming number of fights to begin the 2009 season, including one that began when Reeves Nelson, then a freshman, hit fellow player Mike Moser in the chest with his forearm and shoulder.
"The instances you're talking about in the article had to do with hard fouls and cheap shots. Never was there any during my watching and being there for every minute of every practice an assault," Howland said. "A cheap shot is different than a closed fist punch in someone's face.
"Anything I felt was something serious in nature I would always bring to Dan and my superiors and I would discuss firsthand with whichever players were involved."
Guerrero said he never had any players come to him with their concerns and that he speaks to the players often.
Nelson confirmed on-court incidents to SI and expressed his regret, saying, "On all that stuff, I have no trouble admitting that I lost control of my emotions sometimes. I take responsibility for my actions. I'm really just trying to learn from the mistakes I made on all levels."
Nelson was eventually dismissed from the team last December after twice having been suspended for insubordinate behavior this season.
"We spend a lot of time dealing with issues of hazing," Guerrero said. "The one thing we have probably fallen short of is bullying and that's very concerning."
The report says that team members who spoke to SI were unanimous in their belief that leadership from Howland would have prevented or at least curtailed the damage to the program.
"I still have a great relationship with him and always will," Love said about Howland. "I hope it's handled the right way because John Wooden's looking over us."