Born a Bruin
Howland living dream of leading UCLA to brink of title
Posted: Friday April 4, 2008 3:35PM; Updated: Friday April 4, 2008 4:23PM
Ben Howland is looking to top his "magic wand moment," as he once called it. That came five years ago, when he was named coach of UCLA, the program that he had idolized as a child. To stride the court where John Wooden had once walked, to be entrusted to lead a team in Bruin blue-and-gold onto the Pauley Pavilion floor -- that was what Howland had dreamed of as a boy growing up in southern California. To actually add another championship to the UCLA legacy? To hold the trophy aloft as Wooden and Alcindor and Walton once did? Howland couldn't even dream that big.
"I just wanted to have those four letters across my chest," Howland said. "I don't think I ever got beyond that in my mind when I was a kid. I never got to thinking about what I'd actually do if I got there. I didn't really think about winning a championship."
The kid who used to sit in front of the television, watching UCLA build its dynasty of the '60s and '70s victory by victory, has the Bruins on the brink of another championship.
But Howland didn't lead UCLA back to the top with any magic wand. After back-to-back trips to the Final Four ended with losses to eventual champion Florida, his persistent Bruins got to San Antonio with the passion, toughness and attention to detail for which Howland's teams have become known. He brought a harder edge to the Bruins, turning them into a team that made defense, clean but hard-nosed defense, a priority. UCLA played with a ferocity that matches its coach's personality. With Howland demanding that his staff keep track of charges taken in practice, with him balling his fists up, crouching down in a defensive stance and urging his team on from the sidelines, with him studying opponents' game films until deep in to the night, how could the Bruins be anything but fierce?
If ever a school and a team were meant for each other, it was UCLA and Ben Howland. The opportunity for them to join forces came when Steve Lavin was fired after a 10-win season in 2003, and athletic director Dan Guerrero quickly hired Howland away from Pittsburgh as the replacement. Having rebuilt Pitt's downtrodden program and gone 57-11 in his final two seasons, Howland could have commanded attention from any number of schools, but he didn't exactly play hard to get. "I told Dan I knew how to be a good employee," he says. "I didn't care if they paid me a dime. I just wanted to be the coach."
To be entrusted with the task of restoring UCLA was an honor beyond measure to Howland, who grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Goleta, Calif. entranced by the Bruin mystique. He would watch UCLA games on television, then, with the volume turned low to keep his parents from hearing and sending him to bed, he would watch the game again on the late-night local replay, a precursor of the way now he watches and re-watches tape of opponents into the wee hours. "He's Mr. Rewind," says forward Josh Shipp. "He can take a five-second piece of tape and go back over it 10 times and show you something new each time."
Even now, to engage Howland in a trivia contest about UCLA basketball is to invite certain humiliation. "He's a walking UCLA encyclopedia," says his wife Kim, with whom Howland has two children, Meredith and Adam. "Ask who the sixth man was in 1968 and he won't just tell you the answer, he'll give you the starting five, [too]." Not just watching, but studying the Bruins was a common pastime among SoCal kids of the era. "It wasn't just me," he says. "All my friends back then loved the Bruins and knew everything about them. We could name the key players and the bit players. UCLA just seemed like the classiest, most successful program you could imagine."
Howland, meanwhile, was developing into a pretty fair player himself, although not the kind of smooth, graceful one associated with the Bruins. He was more the hard-nosed kind, longer on desire than talent, with an intensity and single-mindedness that was nurtured at home by his father, Bob, a Presbyterian minister. To his son, Bob Howland preached three essential paths to fulfillment -- discipline, attention to detail and self-denial -- and those teachings still resonate. Discipline? Watch how his big men step out to "hedge" or slow down the dribbler, on the high pick-and-roll, not sometimes, but every time. Attention to detail? Howland makes sure that such minutiae as deflections and the number of times the Bruins make contact in setting screens is charted, not just in games but in practice. Self-denial? Howland doesn't touch alcohol during the season.