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Starkey: Howland tarnished the UCLA way? Ha!

| Sunday, March 4, 2012

This was one bombshell that failed to explode.

Twitter nation foretold Tuesday of a salacious Sports Illustrated story -- written by Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter George Dohrmann -- to be released the next morning.

Word was, it could destroy coach Ben Howland and severely damage the UCLA basketball program. When I got ahold of the online version early Wednesday and saw the ominous headline, I could scarcely imagine what might be revealed:

Not The UCLA Way ... Inside the Fall of a Storied Program.

Then I read it.

And laughed out loud.

Basically, it is the tale of a power-crazed coach (really, Howland?) and a few bad apples he failed to control. I'm guessing the NCAA won't hit UCLA with the death penalty for this. Or even impose a single sanction.

Howland might get fired, but it won't be on account of the story. It'll be because he is losing at a rate that got his predecessor, Steve Lavin, canned eight years ago.

The story describes the same Howland many came to know and loathe, er, love in Pittsburgh -- aloof, idiosyncratic, controlling -- only not imposing the kind of discipline he was known for at Pitt and hired for at UCLA.

Maybe he was scarred by so many Bruins players leaving early for the NBA and got lax. Some will be pleased to see Howland humbled like this.

In the end, though, the "bombshell" comes off as yet another sensationalized piece put forth by a desperate and decaying publication. Call it the college basketball version of the SI Swimsuit Issue.

Most troublesome is that Dohrmann falls prey to the myth surrounding UCLA basketball history. He should have known better. He themed his piece around not just Howland's troubles but Howland's troubles soiling the (alleged) high ideals of the John Wooden dynasty.

Dohrmann writes of the UCLA program always having had "its own special shine." He begins with Wooden explaining his "Pyramid of Success" to 600 UCLA student-athletes in 2007. Atop each page of the SI story sits a UCLA logo and the phrase "Not the UCLA Way."


What exactly is the UCLA way• Because I'm here to tell you that even if Howland messed up in myriad ways over the past four years, at least his program didn't cheat. Not that I'm aware of, anyway.

You do know that Wooden's UCLA dynasty cheated, don't you?

If not, you and Dohrmann and anyone else interested in the truth should go back and read a real investigative piece. It appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 1, 1982.

Now that was a bombshell.

Reporters Alan Greenberg, since deceased, and Mike Littwin, now a general columnist for the Denver Post, interviewed 45 people connected to the UCLA basketball program, including former players and coaches.

Their story portrayed wealthy booster Sam Gilbert as a "one-man clearinghouse" for players. It detailed how members of seven of Wooden's 10 championship teams were lavished with "cars, stereos, clothes, airline tickets and scalpers' prices for season tickets," all against NCAA rules.

Even before Gilbert, UCLA boosters were paying players, if you believe Jack Hirsch, a starter on Wooden's first title team in 1964. Hirsch told authors Dwight Chapin and Jeff Prugh, in the Wooden biography "The Wizard of Westwood," that players were paid by the rebound.

Nobody knows how much Wooden knew of all this, but for however great a person he was, he clearly did not promote an "atmosphere of compliance," as the saying goes.

Weigh all of that against Dorhmann's report that players on one of Howland's recent teams "one evening partied at the Beverly Hills mansion of a wealthy UCLA fan."

Ooooooooooh. Tell us more.

Other players drank and smoked pot• Wow, I bet that doesn't happen anywhere else.

I called Littwin in June 2010 and asked him how the '82 piece was received.

"No one other than Sam Gilbert ever disputed a word we wrote," he said. "No one said they were misquoted."

So tell me again, what exactly is the UCLA way?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 "The Fan." His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at .

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