Lieberman: UCLA basketball scandal should serve as a reminder to Oregon football

On Wednesday morning, Sports Illustrated published a special report detailing serious transgressions — both on and off the court — within the UCLA basketball program. Allegations in the story range from the bizarre (head coach Ben Howland obsessing over the temperature of the team’s film room) to the cruel (former forward Reeves Nelson intentionally injuring teammates in practice) to the outrageous (players showing up to a New Year’s Day practice under the influence of Ecstasy). @@[email protected]@

Although Howland and former players may dispute some precise details of the story, the bottom line remains: UCLA was out of control and was underperforming as a result of distractions. Despite landing the country’s No. 1 recruiting class, a group with five players ranked in the top 50 nationally (something even the Fab Five can’t claim), the Bruins struggled mightily during the time frame of the alleged scandals. The program quickly regressed from attending two-straight Final Fours to barely qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.

Insurrection within the program is purported to have begun as early as 2008, but the charges of the report extend all the way into the current season. The dismissal of Nelson last December and the underwhelming play of big man Joshua Smith are chalked up to the same common thread that runs through much of the team’s defiance: a severe lack of discipline by an increasingly distant and socially awkward Howland.

The team’s lack of structure was magnified by something familiar to generations of high-profile student-athletes: fame and adoration. As UCLA players gained access to the glitz and glam of Hollywood (escorted rides in a Rolls-Royce, VIP access to exclusive night clubs), they felt they were owed a certain lifestyle and level of respect. The flashing lights blinded the players to their own shortcomings; though several of Howland’s teams received substantial preseason hype, the core of the program consisted largely of unproven underclassmen that failed to deliver on elevated expectations.

In Eugene, there is only one athletic team with the talent or notoriety to rival UCLA basketball. Coincidentally, Oregon football is sitting in a position similar to that of UCLA years ago. The Ducks are ending a run of highly successful seasons (three-straight BCS bowls) while ushering in a new group of prized recruits. The two situations share another commonality — like the Bruins, the Ducks recently vacated a group of talented players who served as leaders for the team in multiple facets under a newly minted coach.

The point? Oregon is in a highly precarious situation. Potential NCAA violations aside, the team faces some serious questions this season. Who will fill the leadership void left by the departure of Darron Thomas? Who will replace LaMichael James as the team’s public ambassador and most valuable player? More importantly: After flirtations with the NFL and admitted recruiting violations, has the authority of Chip Kelly been undermined?

Fans can only hope that Kelly — one of the most revered public figures in the state of Oregon — has retained his standing with players. But when you consider that the program is experiencing serious player overturn while ushering in a group of underclassmen accustomed to high levels of success and recognition, you can see the ingredients for turbulence start to stack [email protected]@On point, my [email protected]@

Let me be clear: I have not seen or heard anything to concretely indicate rebellion within Oregon football. But having been in Eugene for some of the recent low points of the program (LeGarrette Blount’s punch, the Jeremiah Masoli saga, the arrests of Kiko Alonso), I feel compelled to address the fact that the Ducks are currently sitting on relatively thin ice.

I think Cliff Harris should serve as a reminder of what a quick rise to renown can do to an undisciplined player. Most Oregon fans witnessed Harris morph from messiah to maligned discontent in the course of a few months.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not questioning the intentions of Chip Kelly, nor trying to compare him directly to Howland. But when you consider that Kelly is in charge of roughly six times as many young men, you should see how a small amount of neglect nurtures a mentality among players that can quickly get out of hand.

To be honest, I think Kelly has had great fortune with the players he inherited, much like Howland at the beginning of his tenure as UCLA’s coach. As the SI report says about his glory years: “The players were also mature beyond their years, a vital attribute given that Howland was neither a nurturer nor a player’s coach. Other than during practices and games, he had little contact with his athletes, according to players. He showed up moments before a workout began and was gone before players paired off to shoot free throws at the end.”

I think most could agree that Oregon’s recent crop of standouts — James, Thomas and David Paulson among them — fits the same bill. While I stop short of taking credit away from Kelly, I think it’s fair to say that he lucked out by having a group of players that was largely self-sufficient. And though I doubt Kelly is as distant from his players as Howland was, it’s impossible to argue that he’s much closer considering that he’s responsible for a much larger and more diverse group of athletes in a town where they stand out like sore thumbs.

Going forward, Oregon football and its fans should be proud of recent victories and optimistic about heralded recruits. But as Kelly enters his fourth year leading the program, fans better hope the complacency and a sense of entitlement that eroded UCLA basketball remain barred from the Ducks’ locker room indefinitely. @@[email protected]@

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