Ben Howland is out there, waiting

Former UCLA coach Ben Howland is looking for the right opportunity

In a bleak Southland college basketball winter devoid of wow, it's the most startling of sights.

Ben Howland, sitting in a Century City restaurant in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon, showing off a smartphone photo of him reading a book to his 2-year-old grandson Ben.

"He really loves those pop-up books where the sharks and dinosaurs jump right off the pages," he says. "Pretty cool, huh?"

Yeah, and pretty weird. UCLA is struggling to sneak into the NCAA tournament, USC has lost 26 of its last 29 conference games, and the most accomplished active college basketball coach in town is hanging out playing grandfather.

His current resume includes three consecutive Final Four appearances, the educating of 18 former UCLA players who have appeared in NBA games, and a couple of questions.

How does Ben Howland still not have a job?

And, admit it Bruins fans, you sort of miss him, don't you?

It has been nearly two full seasons since he was run out of Westwood, yet the closest Howland comes to coaching is advising his numerous former players who fill one of the most illustrious contact lists in college basketball. In recent weeks he's texted Kevin Love, heard from Shabazz Muhammad, checked in on Russell Westbrook and been bearhugged at an NBA midcourt in Philadelphia by Luc Mbah a Moute.

"I don't know where people got that I didn't have a good relationship with my players," Howland says. "I'm demanding, yes, I'm on their butt, I expect 100%, but they all knew I loved them, I cared for them, and I'll always be there for them."

It seems like forever since Howland walked off the floor in Austin, Texas, after a first-round tournament loss to Minnesota in 2013, but the closest he has come to being involved in an actual game since then is with his work as a studio commentator on Fox Sports 1 and a game analyst for NBC Sports Network.

"The TV has been great, but it's made me miss coaching even more,'' he says.

Coaching has missed him. He has been offered jobs and turned them down because he didn't think it was the right fit. But coaching has also gone on without him. There are a couple of places where he has inquired about jobs but been passed over.

This is amazing when one considers this: Since the first of Howland's three consecutive Final Four appearances in 2006, there have been 23 different coaches of Final Four teams, yet Howland is the only one who is not retired and doesn't have a job.

During an hourlong lunch interview filled with hope and absent of bitterness, Howland shrugs. He's not sweating it. He says he needed time to heal from his stormy final months as a Bruin. He says he's been willing to wait for the right opportunity. He says the fact that UCLA will be paying him $300,000 annually for the next two years to finish his contract — payments that will disappear when he takes a new job — has nothing to do with his job search.

"In my mind, my next job is where I'm going to finish my career,'' he says. "I want to make sure it's the right situation where we have great success."

In typical Howland fashion, he then tightens his jaw and makes a promise.

"I'm really fired up about getting back into it, and I hope to do it next year,'' he says. "And this time around, I will do the best job I've ever done.''

Considering he returned a dormant UCLA program to glory and came within 40 minutes of a national championship that today seems light years away, it's hard to imagine him doing a better job anywhere else.

Of course, that's not how it seemed two years ago, when his Final Four reputation had gone sour with a UCLA administration that grew tired of his reported distance from his players, his insistence on deliberate and defense-oriented play that didn't fill Pauley Pavilion seats, and his insistence on shunning Hollywood glitz for gym-rat grit.

Howland says he will forever be thankful to UCLA, noting, "I had a great time in my 10 years, a lot of ups and downs, but I will look back fondly and feel very blessed I had the opportunity.''

Howland, however, has some thoughts about a career that ended during a season in which his team won the Pac-12 regular-season championship with highly touted recruits and finally played the sort of frantic offense that the Bruin fans demanded.

His first thought is that he shouldn't have stuck around for that 10th and final season.

"Before the season even began, I was led to believe by friends that UCLA had already planned on firing me," he says. "At the time, I had some major schools interested in me, and, in hindsight, I should have gone to one of them.''

But Howland said that at the time he was told of his possible firing, he had already recruited Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, and was planning on signing Tony Parker and Muhammad, and didn't want to walk away from what could have been a saving opportunity.

"I couldn't quit on my dream job," he said. "I thought I'd roll the dice, I thought if I had another good year I could get it all back, but I couldn't."

As Howland walked off the court in Austin after the loss to Minnesota, he was showered with applause by Bruins fans. The sound of that cheering has since grown in the wake of his absence, particularly after his replacement Steve Alford led a group of mostly Howland players to the Sweet 16 last season.

"Steve's a really good coach, but this year, he's going through all those first-year kind of experiences," Howland said. "Because last year, well, you normally don't walk into a situation with four pros waiting on you from a returning league champion.''

Howland said if he has one regret as a Bruins coach, it's that it took him nine years to buy into the sort of offensive style that helped his final team lead the conference in scoring. But Howland doesn't agree that his slow play kept fans out of new Pauley Pavilion, where the Bruins are still struggling to consistently attract large crowds.

"The problem is when they jacked the prices way too high, told people who have been in the same seats for 40 years that they had to change seats, caused a lot of friction with people," Howland says. "That really was a problem, I heard it with a lot of fans, and I'm like, 'Hey, I've got nothing to do with that.'"

Many of those 40-years-in-a-seat fans loved Howland, and still do. He recently dined with a booster, and is still greeted by them whenever he comes to Los Angeles from his Santa Barbara home. He wears a watch from his first Final Four. Fans see that watch when he puts his arm around their shoulders in gratitude.

"Lot of people come up, I have no idea who they are, they say, 'Coach, you did a good job, thank you,'" he says. "I say, no, thank you."

Bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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