ON THE EVENING of Nov. 6, 2007, legendary former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden spoke to about 600 Bruins student-athletes and coaches. The occasion was the debut of The Wooden Academy, a seminar series in which former UCLA athletes and coaches returned to campus to describe how the tenets from Wooden's Pyramid of Success had helped them in college or life.
Wooden was 97 years old at the time. He spoke while seated in a padded chair on a small stage just off the baseline of the basketball court at Pauley Pavilion. To his left was a microphone stand with a long arm attached, which positioned the microphone so that Wooden could sit back in his seat.
Wooden talked about some of the players he had coached, and recited the 15 blocks in his Pyramid, which include cooperation, self-control, team spirit and intentness. Wooden also used a metaphor that will ring familiar to readers of his books. Think of a team as a train, he said, and its star player as the locomotive. There is much more to a train than just that engine. If any part of a train fails, if just one nut or bolt gives away, the whole chain of cars can derail.
At the time of Wooden's talk, UCLA's basketball program was one of the smoothest-running trains in the country. The Bruins had made consecutive Final Fours and would reach a third in 2008 behind freshman Kevin Love, the team's new locomotive, who was in the audience that November evening. UCLA coach Ben Howland would join Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski as the only active coaches to lead teams to three straight Final Fours. Howland's reputation for teaching defense and instilling discipline made him appear to be cut from Wooden's cloth.
But then the program started veering off the rails. Two years ago the Bruins went 14--18, only the third time since 1948 (the year Wooden was hired) that they had finished with a losing record. They entered this season ranked 17th in the nation but through Sunday were only 16--13 (9--7 in the weak Pac-12) and needed to win the conference tournament to avoid missing the NCAAs for the second time in three years.
UCLA's fall has been something of a mystery. It has most often been blamed on players jumping early to the NBA (six Bruins have done so in the last four years, including Love and fellow first-round picks Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday), players transferring (five have departed) and even a supposed dearth of quality big men coming out of high schools on the West Coast. Inside the team, however, more fundamental problems have been at work, eroding the sense of unity, leading some players to leave the program and sending the blocks of Wooden's Pyramid tumbling down.
Over the last two months SI spoke with more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams. They portrayed the program as having drifted from the UCLA way as Howland allowed an influx of talented but immature recruits to undermine team discipline and morale. Fistfights broke out among teammates. Several players routinely used alcohol and drugs, sometimes before practice. One player intentionally injured teammates but received no punishment.
Such problems are often symptomatic of underachieving teams, and UCLA provides a fascinating case study. The former players and staff members who spoke to SI offer a detailed inside account of how seemingly minor problems, if left unaddressed, can quickly sabotage even a storied program led by one of the nation's most respected coaches. The Bruins' struggles tell a cautionary tale of the risks of recruiting hyped players, the challenges of managing recalcitrant teenagers and the consequences of letting discipline and accountability break down. Most of all, the problems at UCLA underline the precariousness of college basketball success.
TO UNDERSTAND what happened at UCLA, it is important to examine what made the Bruins so successful during their Final Four streak. The program has always had talent. Steve Lavin, Howland's predecessor, twice landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class. Lavin's teams were said to lack discipline, however, and after a 10--19 finish in 2002--03, UCLA hired Howland.
Howland, now 54, had built his reputation at Pittsburgh as a coach whose teams not only won—he was named national coach of the year in 2002 after guiding the Panthers to the Sweet 16—but also were highly disciplined. He'd been a vocal, tough-minded high school guard in Southern California and later at Weber State, and he liked players who shared his aggressive, hardworking approach. When Howland arrived at UCLA, he earned praise in the media for bringing much-needed order.