A Smooth Pitt Stop

Times Staff Writer

It didn't take long after Ben Howland became the men's basketball coach at Pittsburgh for a Big East coach to seek a scouting report from Howland's former boss.

"Jim Boeheim wanted to know about this Ben Howland," said Jerry Pimm, who coached at UC Santa Barbara for 15 seasons, with Howland as his assistant for 11.

"I told him, 'He's a winner. He's going to make a splash in the Big East,' " Pimm said. "Jim looked at me with a little bit of cockiness, and he said, 'The East is a little different from the West.' "

Or maybe not.

Three seasons after leaving Northern Arizona to take over a losing Pitt program, Howland was national coach of the year last season, having taken the Panthers to the Sweet 16 and having won a school-record 29 games.

This season, the Panthers are ranked second in the nation and considered a Final Four contender with their blend of grinding defense, disciplined offense and good old-fashioned Big East toughness.

Boeheim, the Syracuse coach, has long since granted that Pimm was right.

Many a Big East assistant has failed after coming West to start his career as a head coach -- Rod Baker at UC Irvine, John Olive at Loyola Marymount, Wayne Morgan at Long Beach State -- but Howland made the transition work in the other direction.

He has displayed a remarkable ability to adjust to the circumstances -- East or West, Big West, Big Sky or Big East.

At Northern Arizona, where the Lumberjacks had little hope of recruiting big-city athletes, Howland sought out small-town shooters.

His teams twice led the nation in three-point shooting -- coming within a three-pointer of taking second-seeded Cincinnati to overtime in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament.

At Pitt, the first thing he did was help make sure point guard Brandin Knight would stick around. Knight had signed before Howland was hired, but Howland had Stanford's Mike Montgomery, who had coached Brandin's brother Brevin, reassure Knight's parents.

Then Howland seemingly changed his style, recruiting a bunch of brawny urban bruisers to compete in the Big East.

"He's done a good job, working with the kind of player he can get wherever he's been," said Utah Coach Rick Majerus, such a close friend that Howland introduced Majerus to the woman Majerus is dating.

"He did a great job at Northern Arizona, and he's done a great job at Pitt," Majerus said. "He's a very hard-driven basketball guy. I think players sense his passion."

That passion leads him to figure out exactly what will work where.

In stark contrast to those Northern Arizona teams, Howland's Panthers rank nowhere near the top of the NCAA three-point shooting list.

But they are among the top handful of teams in defensive field-goal percentage (36.6%) and rebounding, with a margin of nearly 12 a game.

"Playing for him, he only asks you to do two things: Play defense and rebound," Knight said.

What might surprise people more is that at the moment, Pitt ranks No. 1 in offensive field-goal percentage at 51.9%.

That isn't the result of a stable of lights-out shooters, but rather the way the Panthers play, moving the ball around, searching for open, high-percentage shots.

"We rarely have guys take bad shots," Knight said. "As much as I watch basketball, I never paid much attention to good shots and bad shots and how shot selection sometimes determines a game. Now, when I'm watching games, I sound like Coach Howland saying, 'That was a bad shot.' "

As shooting guard Julius Page put it, "We share the ball. That's tough for other teams. It takes a lot of discipline to play tough defense for 25 seconds or so."

At 45, Howland would seem to have found his niche at Pittsburgh. The school has a sparkling new 12,500-seat arena, and Howland isn't the only family member on the sideline: His daughter, Meredith, is a cheerleader.

How he ended up having his great success so far from home -- he grew up in Santa Barbara and played two seasons at Cerritos High before playing at Santa Barbara City College and Weber State -- is a question to ask a lot of Southland athletic directors.

Howland's career is the story of how a good coach can be passed over, time and again, before he gets his chance.

It sometimes seems as if half the schools in the Southland turned him down at one time or another, among them UC Irvine -- twice -- Loyola Marymount, and most disheartening of all, Santa Barbara.

"It's hard to get a job," Howland said. "There are more lawyers within a five-mile radius of wherever you're sitting than there are Division I jobs.

"Northern Arizona was a job no one had ever survived, and a lot of people said I was crazy to take it. But to build a program and win there gave me a lot of confidence when people said we couldn't do it at Pitt."

Pittsburgh was never on his radar. It was always Santa Barbara, where his mother and his father, a retired Presbyterian minister, still live.

"I had it in mind he'd take over when I left," said Pimm, who took the Gauchos to the NCAA tournament twice and used to battle Jerry Tarkanian's Nevada Las Vegas teams in their heyday but was forced out after a 7-19 season in 1997-98.

Howland was at Northern Arizona by then, but the Santa Barbara athletic administration had changed, Pimm had gone out on a sour note, and Bob Williams, Santa Barbara's choice, had just won the NCAA Division II title at UC Davis.

"It didn't work out," Howland said. "That's fine now. Things couldn't have worked out better for me."

As Pimm put it, "It would have been a lot harder to be Division I coach of the year at Santa Barbara than at Pitt."

Brian Shaw, the Laker guard who starred at Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s after transferring from St. Mary's, still shakes his head in disappointment, even though Williams took Santa Barbara back to the NCAA tournament last year.

"It's fortunate for Pittsburgh and unfortunate for Santa Barbara; they let a diamond in the rough get away," Shaw said.

"He gets the credit for getting me to Santa Barbara. At the time, I didn't even know Santa Barbara was Division I, but Ben called and talked to me and I went down and took a visit. He picked me up at the airport and right away we hit it off. By the time I left, I called home and told my mother I was canceling my other visits.

"He's honest, very knowledgeable and has tremendous passion for the game. Some coaches are so rigid and structured, their teams get out there and play like robots. Ben has a game plan, but if a team devises a defense to neutralize that, that's where instinct has to take over. He wants you to be a basketball player and not be afraid to play.

"When he called me and told me he was taking the job at Pitt, I knew it was just a matter of time. Then when Ben got coach of the year, I called, and it took him two weeks to get back to me. I said, 'Oh, are you big-timing me, coach of the year?' "

The story of how Howland ended up at Pitt is deceptively simple: Steve Pederson, the former athletic director at the school who recently took over at Nebraska, saw him on TV.

"I watched that NCAA tournament game when his Northern Arizona team played Cincinnati," Pederson said. "His team played great defense, took good shots, and I thought, 'If I'm ever looking for a coach, I'm going to find out about that guy.'

"Lo and behold, a year later I was looking for a coach, and when I asked people about him I got nothing but the highest recommendations.

"It's funny, because the print media and a lot of fans were critical of the hire. One of the people from our department heard another coach from the Big East on an airplane saying, 'That's what happens when a football guy hires a basketball coach.' But I wasn't worried about people saying he was a risky hire. It never entered my mind Ben would ever fail."

Now, in a strange twist, the guy who couldn't get hired in Southern California could end up in line for the biggest job of all: UCLA.

Dan Guerrero, UCLA's athletic director, was one of two UC Irvine athletic directors to interview Howland and hire someone else -- Guerrero picked Pat Douglass, who had won three Division II titles at Cal State Bakersfield -- but can't have forgotten Howland.

Howland won't discuss a job that isn't open, and talk of his going somewhere else last season didn't get far. The Washington job had barely opened before Pitt extended his contract through the 2008-09 season.

"I'm sure he's very happy and feels pleased the way things have worked at Pitt," Shaw said. "The UCLA job is a great job, but right now Steve Lavin's still there. For him to get an opportunity possibly to return to the West Coast where he's from, that would be great. But Ben's the kind of guy who, when he's made a commitment to Pitt, that's his focus."

Pimm paused to consider the prospect too.

"He's a UC system guy, and if the conditions and terms were right, being a Western guy and being relatively young in the business, I'm sure he'd be enticed," Pimm said. "But I know he's happy and not thinking about anything now except Pitt."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Ben Howland File

High school: Played at Santa Barbara San Marcos before transferring to Cerritos, where he was a two-time Suburban League most valuable player and a two-time All-CIF pick.

Collegiate days: Starred at Santa Barbara City College, where he led the Vaqueros to the California finals in 1978. At Weber State, he was the team's defensive MVP in 1978-79 and 1979-80, leading the Wildcats to two Big Sky Conference titles and two NCAA tournament berths.

Coaching start: Graduated in 1979 with a degree in physical education before spending one season playing professionally in Uruguay. In 1981, he landed his first NCAA Division I coaching job as a graduate assistant at Gonzaga, where he coached Utah Jazz guard John Stockton before moving to UC Santa Barbara the following year.

At UCSB: Was an assistant from 1982 to '94.

At Northern Arizona: Howland's first two teams at Northern Arizona finished 9-17 (1994-95) and 7-19 (1995-96), finishing in seventh place each season. His 1996-97 team went 21-7 and set the school record for victories and achieved the 10th-best single-season turnaround in NCAA men's basketball history.

At Pittsburgh: In 2001-02, his third season at the helm, Howland led the Panthers to a school-record 29 victories, surpassing the previous record of 25 set in 1973-74. He led the Panthers to the Big East West regular-season championship.

Coach of the year: Last season won nine coach-of-the-year honors, including Associated Press, Naismith, Henry Iba and the Sporting News.

Source: www.Pittsburghpanthers.com

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