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This Alum Embarrassed by UCLA Mess

So now it's my alma mater, UCLA, that has made a mess of things. But of course. It was inevitable. That's the game colleges play so they can play - no, make that win - the games.

The whole concept of big-time college sports is nonsense anyway. And the fact that participants are labeled student-athletes - what else could they be if they are students and athletes? - doesn't alter the essential fact that we often judge our educational institutions not on the quality of their libraries but on the achievements of their sporting teams.

I'm no less guilty than the rest. You mean my Bruins didn't even make the NCAA basketball tournament? You mean USC beat us 50-0 in football? Fire everyone, and never mind receiving my alumni dues.

Are we all misguided? Quite probably, but with the millions coming in from television and the tournaments, and with the recognition given champions, the situation won't change. And neither will we.

There is no intercollegiate competition in Europe besides a boat race between Cambridge and Oxford. The Sorbonne is concerned with students learning Voltaire, not watching Vitale. The thought is to develop doctors and lawyers, not sports stars.

But what do they know? They've only been in operation for 600 years. UCLA? Started in 1918 as University of California, Southern Branch, some 50 years or so after the other school in town, the private one, the University of Southern California.

The Trojans. The "hated'' Trojans, UCLA types call them. But that's the way sports makes us think. Nobody says the "hated psychology department.'' Nobody says, "We've got to stop the math department's hot streak."

UCLA became very good in basketball under John Wooden, and, not to be ignored, with players such as Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (nee Lew Alcindor) and Bill Walton, all individuals who come along once in a lifetime, if that often.

After Wooden retired, UCLA, was in a dark cave, kept groping for a successor, someone able to handle the history, the pressure and the legacy. Finally, that savior came along. Or that's the way it seemed.

Ben Howland was a bit gruff and impersonal, and there were rumors his players liked his grind-it-out style less than they liked the man himself. But Howland coached the Bruins to the Final Four three straight years, from 2006-08.

Situations change as quickly in sports as they do in life, and according to Sports Illustrated, the players a desperate UCLA recruited of late who weren't partygoers and marijuana smokers were semi-thugs. At least one of them, Reeves Nelson, was a semi-thug.

In December, Nelson was on a regional cover of a Sports Illustrated issue, the human tattoo. In January he was off the squad for clubbing several of his teammates under the guise of physical play and for insubordination to Howland. Oh, horrors.

The Bruins family, to use a now-popular term about universities and the people connected, has been shocked. Almost as shocked as by the results of another poor basketball season.

Nobody's happy at UCLA. Still it's hard to tell if they're less happy about the bad publicity from the SI article or by the bad season.

Who cares if the business school is ranked? The basketball team is unranked. The basketball team is awful.

Several of the perceptive commentators on ESPN Radio, such as Colin Cowherd and Scott Van Pelt, pointed out that if UCLA were decent this season, if this were like the old days, nobody would care about players' behavior. It would be a trifle.

You recall the John Madden observation, "Winning is a great deodorant."

At the moment, the odor from one of the most beautiful campuses in creation, red-brick mini-castles spread along a hill below Sunset Boulevard, is all too strong.

Howland, Athletic Director Dan Guerrero and Chancellor Gene Block quickly responded to the SI expose with a blend of indignation and contrition.

"A bump on the road,'' is how Guerrero framed it. Sure, a bump the size of an elephant.

Howland, a man who coaches disciplined basketball, reportedly didn't pay attention to the discipline of the basketball players. Some were running wild, in contrast to the Howland style, which restricts running on the floor.

UCLA isn't giving up basketball, not with a remodeled Pauley Pavilion and more expensive seats for alumni, already disgruntled, set to open in the fall. And UCLA isn't giving up on Howland, who did things right before they started going wrong.

But a school that takes as much pride in its academic reputation - one of the nation's leading public universities - as its athletic reputation is depicted as a place where some in charge have lost control.

This alum, for one, finds it highly embarrassing.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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