When he was hired as basketball coach at UCLA, Ben Howland framed a picture of himself, his father, mother and son with the chancellor at the time, Albert Carnesale.
Howland had a small metal nameplate made and affixed below the photo that read:
The Dream Come True
April 3, 2003
He’s looking for the photo now. His office was remodeled recently, he says, as he rummages through other discarded memorabilia stuck between couch and refrigerator.
Maybe no surprise it’s been taken down. ...
“Here it is,” Howland says, the nightmarish past week or so gone as he stares intently at the photo while reminding himself how much he always wanted to be here.
And still does.
“Am I broken man right now?” he says, defiance turning to defense in a nearly two-hour interview, and then later a coolness that suggests you are either with him or it’s time to leave.
“Have I lost confidence in myself? Absolutely not,” he says, for a moment welling up. “It hurts. It’s no fun, that’s for sure, and did I have a tear in my eye when all this came down? Yes, I did.
“But in terms of all these attacks directed at me from the media through the Sports Illustrated article, it’s been most gratifying to find out all the people who do care, who do love me and appreciate me. I’ve received so many great emails and texts from people who I have coached.
“I’m a good person and a good guy,” he says in a raised voice, and I’m certainly not here to argue that. “I’m a good coach, I do the right things for my players and I try to support them; I try to help them almost to a fault.”
He says he also doesn’t put any stock into reports that some of his former players, now in the NBA, do not hold him in high regard.
“That may be the perception, but I don’t agree with it; I think my former players respect me and like me,” he says, while calling it “bull” if people think players left Coach John Wooden’s program immediately singing his praises.
In response to the magazine article, he gave some lip service initially to making adjustments. But cutting through the politically correct rhetoric, he says now, “People want us to win big, and when we’re not winning big, people are unhappy.”
“It’s that simple?” he’s asked.
“Yeah,” he says.
Howland’s teams haven’t been as successful as they were early on. And now he’s being accused of losing control of his players.
“If you went and did a microscopic investigative report at Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, Carolina, Indiana — what are you talking about?” he says. “You’re always going to have some stuff come out that will be looked upon as not being good. Syracuse. What are you talking about?”
Howland will be 55 soon, his resume bulging with success, and he sees no reason to re-invent himself because of a magazine article.
He says he has no idea what motivated an SI writer to go after him, and he’s in no mood to hear about someone just doing their job. He dismisses the article’s findings, attributing them to a disgruntled former team manager.
“They really tried to blow me up,” he says.
While SI suggests Howland has lost control behind the scenes, UCLA replies by re-issuing an earlier directive to the media in an effort to better control reporters.
UCLA outlaws any interviews on or off the record in the J.D. Morgan Center should a reporter make it past the machine gun nests without being summoned or winning an appointment first.
And instead of opening practices to demonstrate he has nothing to hide, Howland says they will remain closed. He says in the intense teaching environment, he pushes players, yells at them and it would be embarrassing to the players to have the media as witnesses.
Embarrassing to the players, or the coach?
He says he also doesn’t trust the media covering the team, which is funny, because it wasn’t the local media that went public with the problems at UCLA.
As for the suggestion he does not relate well to today’s players, he says, “I don’t buy that. Yes, kids have changed, but a lot of it is because of technology.”
And with that he launches into an all-out Twitter rant, which draws no argument.
“Do you realize there are grown adults out there following the Twitter accounts of these 19- and 18-year-old kids with their whole lives hanging in the balance on every stupid little tweet. Tweeting — let’s be honest, it’s like I’m the center of the universe; it’s all about me. Everybody is listening to my every thought, and my current thought at this very moment is ... it’s ridiculous. Let’s get that straight.”
He does not tweet, he says.
As for UCLA’s retreat from national prominence, he says, “It starts and finishes with recruiting. We’ve made mistakes. But I think we’re in position to get back to where we were a few years ago.”
So what’s different now?
“I like the kids coming in and the ones that are staying,” he says. “With the quality of our recruits coming in, potentially this will be a special class.”
It better be. There’s speculation now that Howland’s job is in jeopardy, or as I put it to him, knowing how UCLA Director Dan Guerrero works, “You are now on the Rick Neuheisel clock.”
“What does that mean?” says Howland, as he begins to shut down.
“You can’t afford a slip of any kind and you must be eminently successful next season,” I say.
“We’ll be better because I think we’ll be better,” Howland says, and somewhere Neuheisel has to be smiling.
“I think we’ll have to be an NCAA team playing its best at the end of the season with a chance to go really deep in the tournament.”
That sounds like someone who has the situation under control, or a dreamer who knows they can come true.