A Man of Letters

Times Staff Writer

California dreaming ...

Ben Howland gets a faraway look in his eye when UCLA is mentioned, a daily occurrence because the coaching position is open and he is a leading candidate.

He is flattered. The name UCLA is magical to him, the way it is to so many who grew up learning basketball in the long, splendid shadow the program cast over the Southland for decades.

He wants the job. The desire is expressed in the delicate manner of a coach whose current team, Pittsburgh, is winning and whose current town is aghast at the prospect of his leaving.

"I'd love to be considered," said Howland last week, when Pittsburgh was playing NCAA tournament games at the Fleet Center. "But I am putting things in the bank here. I love this team. I love the kids I have. This team has so much character and toughness. They deserve my full attention."

The Pittsburgh program is a textbook model of what Athletic Director Dan Guerrero envisions in Westwood. The players are tough, unselfish, competitive and consistent.

Yet hiring Howland will not be as simple as an offer, an acceptance and a news conference.

You think Pittsburgh's defense in NCAA tournament blowouts of Wagner and Indiana was tenacious?

Wait until it becomes clear that Howland might actually bolt.

The blue-collar steel town embraces winning coaches, from Danny Murtaugh to Chuck Noll to Chuck Tanner to Bill Cowher. Howland's stature is rising to their level.

Never mind that he grew up in Santa Barbara and Cerritos idolizing the Bruins, that he was an assistant at UC Santa Barbara for 11 years, that his family and friends are sprinkled across the Southland, that his top assistant and operations director are L.A. products who miss their home area so much they might as well be named Randy Newman and Brian Wilson.

Steve Pederson, the Pittsburgh athletic director who hired Howland and spearheaded the construction of an on-campus arena that opened this season, left last summer for Nebraska, his alma mater.

Howland, a bit coyly, said: "You can never blame somebody for wanting to go home."

The locals cover their ears. They cling to the idea that Howland has become as Pittsburgh as Primanti Brothers' sandwiches. But deep down he's Original Tommy's burgers.

And he believes UCLA can be restored to a semblance of its former glory, ideally in John Wooden's lifetime. Howland shows no signs of the ego of a Rick Pitino or John Calipari, but is confident he's the right man.

He watched the opening unfold with intense interest. It's almost as if he was listening via speaker phone when Guerrero described the ideal profile of the next Bruin coach.

"Year in and year out UCLA can be in a position to be what Dan wants," Howland said. "Compete every year for the conference championship and get a high seed into the NCAA tournament.

"You're not going to see Bill Walton or Kareem coming in every three years. Those days are over. That's what makes the job so difficult.

"But it's the dream job for anyone who has spent a career in coaching and has a sense of what UCLA means."

Pittsburgh is 28-4, won the Big East regular-season and conference tournament championships and is in the Sweet 16. Last season the Panthers were 29-6 and made the school's first NCAA round of 16 appearance since 1974, when it was a 34-team tournament. Every home game at the new arena that opened last fall was sold out and resulted in victory.

Marc Boehm, the interim athletic director, is prepared to sweeten Howland's contract, which pays about $800,000 a year through 2009. An extension has been approved by the chancellor, a source said, and could be presented within days.

UCLA won't get into a bidding war. Guerrero is expected to offer his choice as coach slightly more than what Howland makes now, plus incentives that could bring the package above $1 million.

Howland, 45, indicated that money would not hold up a deal, a sound approach because Guerrero would turn to Mark Few of Gonzaga, Tom Crean of Marquette or Rick Majerus of Utah without much prodding.

Few, in fact, might be the leader anyway. Guerrero won't say. The choice could come down to which coach has the more impressive interview, much the way a close call was determined when Karl Dorrell was hired as football coach over Mike Riley in December.

Guerrero had a chance to hire Howland at UC Irvine in 1997 and passed him over in favor of Pat Douglass. At the time, Howland was just beginning to turn around Northern Arizona and Douglass had won three Division II championships at Cal State Bakersfield.

There are no hard feelings.

"Pat had a better track record than I did," Howland said. "Dan and I hit it off very well and he hired the right guy."

Sometimes the best interview is one that doesn't result in a job. Douglass has yet to get Irvine beyond the Big West Conference tournament despite a succession of winning records.

Northern Arizona, meanwhile, averaged 21 wins in Howland's last three seasons, led the nation in three-point shooting percentage and made its first NCAA tournament appearance.

Pittsburgh hired him in 1999 and the first season was almost as miserable as his first two seasons at Northern Arizona, when he was 16-36.

Pittsburgh was 13-15 in 1999-2000, several players left and freshman point guard Brandin Knight had run-ins with the coach.

Now Knight is a senior All-American and his mind seems to have melded with Howland's.

"Coach brought in guys who buy in to exactly what he wants to do," he said. "No one steps out of character and does more than asked. He instilled the will to make the extra pass and to play defense with passion.

"We've both matured. He accepts the things I say and I'm receptive to the things he says."

Said Howland: "I've grown as a coach. I listen more. I trust Brandin because I came to realize his ideas have merit."

Adapting is key to Howland's development. He warmed to a zone defense at Pittsburgh, something he did not use at Northern Arizona.

Recruiting has also changed. At Northern Arizona, a small Big Sky Conference school in Flagstaff, he had little choice but to recruit slow players with shooting skills. His motto, in fact, was "Recruit to Shoot."

At Pittsburgh, a Big East school with few top prospects within a 100-mile radius, he combed the Northeastern corridor for rugged, fundamentally sound players with athleticism.

He has a strong class coming in next season, but recruiting is another reason he catches himself gazing longingly to Los Angeles.

"The number one thing in recruiting in terms of making it a great job is players in your own area," he said. "And we don't have a lot of good players year in and year out in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is a football town.

"But we are two hours from Cleveland, three hours from Washington and a 45-minute flight from New York and New Jersey. We've got the new arena and some momentum. I could stay here and I believe we'd continue to get it done."

Settling in at UCLA would be fairly simple. The recruiting base is strong. Although Howland insists there is no need to run players out of a program, to stay they must accept his philosophy of strong defense, interior passing and relentless work in the weight room.

He does believe Pauley Pavilion is in serious need of renovation. The Petersen Event Center, which he proclaims "easily the best on-campus facility in the nation," spoiled him.

"[Wooden] lost two games in Pauley Pavilion. Two games," he said. "It can be a tremendous home court. But [renovation] has got to be done. Even if it means playing a year at the Forum or wherever.

"At our facility, the students surround the court. It was built so they can stand the entire game and not impede the view of the paying public who sits behind them. You want to maintain the ambience and sense of history, but you have to upgrade."

It wouldn't need to happen overnight. He wants to avoid the impression that he is overly demanding. The UCLA job might not open again for many years. It might be now or never.

That's why even on a weekend when his team buried two NCAA tournament opponents and is steeling for a Sweet 16 matchup against Marquette, Howland can't help but indulge in a little California dreaming.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Howling Success

Ben Howland's college coaching record:

*--* Season School Rec Pct 1994-95 N. Arizona 9-17 346 1995-96 N. Arizona 7-19 269 1996-97 N. Arizona 21-7 750 1997-98 N. Arizona 21-8 724 1998-99 N. Arizona 21-8 724 1999-00 Pittsburgh 13-15 464 2000-01 Pittsburgh 19-14 576 2001-02 Pittsburgh 29-6 829 2002-03 Pittsburgh 28-4* 875 Totals 9 seasons 168-98* 632 NCAA appearances: 1998 (first round), 2002 (round of 16), and 2003 (round of 16*) *Current record

*--*

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°