Tuesday, January 17, 2006

King of the Gym Rats

By Mark Patton
Senior Writer, Santa Barbara News-Press
Originally published 12/10/05 in SB News-Press
(Reprinted with permission)

It didn't take Mary Howland long to realize that she had to get her bouncing little boy out of the house and bouncing a basketball.

"I was a wild and out-of-control little kid, and she needed a break," Ben Howland conceded. "She took me to the Goleta Boys Club for the first time when I was about 8 or 9.

"That turned out to be a pretty great thing for me."

Four decades later, during his third year as UCLA's basketball coach, he has the Bruins bouncing back into national prominence. They were ranked 16th nationally entering this weekend's John Wooden Classic at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim.

The third season has always been the charm for Howland. It was his breakthrough year as a head coach at Northern Arizona University, where a 21-7 season marked the 10th best single-season turnaround in NCAA history.

He led the University of Pittsburgh -- once described as "the graveyard of basketball coaches" by Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News -- to a 28-5 record and No. 4 ranking by the end of his third season there in 2002-03.

And Howland's third year in resurrecting UCLA's once proud program comes during a milestone season: His 25th in college coaching.

But those who know him best say he set his course much earlier than that -- way back when he became king of the gym rats at the Goleta Boys Club.

"I remember him telling me back in eighth grade how he was going to become the best Division 1 basketball coach that anyone has ever seen," said Tom DeMarcus, a fellow Boys Clubber. "He was saying this all the time.

"We'd tell him, 'You've got to be kidding . . . C'mon, Ben -- just shut up, will you?' "

But Howland would stop at nothing short of breaking-and-entering to prepare himself for his big break in basketball.

"The great challenge for us was to sneak into the club," he recalled fondly. "I mean, we couldn't get enough.

"I remember how upset Sal (Rodriguez, the club director) would get. He would drop by on a Sunday, when the gym was supposed to be closed, and find the place full of kids playing basketball."

It soon became a game of "cat and mouse," especially after Rodriguez started putting chains on the gym door on weekends.

"We would have to climb up onto the roof and through a window, and then climb back down to open the front door," Howland pointed out. "That's how much we loved to play -- it meant everything to us to get in there and play basketball."

He earned a reputation as a determined coach with a brusque approach, a persona that was formed at the club.

"There was a guy there back then by the name of Pablo Lino who would just hammer you in dodge ball," Howland said. "So you learn about toughness -- the toughness of being able to take a Pablo Lino ball off the head and keep playing, and not go home crying."

He said the Boys Club was also where he developed the "thick skin" to deal with the criticism that comes with coaching a high-profile program.

"If you lose at the club, you're going to hear about it," he pointed out. "Your friends at the club are very clear about that."

Chris Carlson -- a former UCSB assistant who has accompanied him during his tours of Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and now UCLA --said it's helped Howland in his approach with a sometimes combative media.

"I think he's learned over time that it doesn't serve a purpose to avoid everything or give cliches to everything," said Carlson, who is now the director of basketball operations at UCLA. "In that respect, I think he's formed a pretty good relationship with the media.

"When they speak to him, they know they're getting the truth."

Howland also learned some practical lessons at the Boys Club, such as the simple value of a game of 3-on-3.

"Kids today, they can't stand to do that -- for everyone, it's 5-on-5 or nothing," he observed. "I make our players play 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 halfcourt because that's where you learn how to cut, and screen, and move without the ball.

"These are things I learned right there at the Goleta Boys Club as a child. It made a big impact on my career and how I coach the game."

He figures he still holds one Goleta Boys Club Tomahawk League record: Most shots in a game.

"In 32 minutes of running time, with one minute of stopped time at the end of each half, I once attempted 48 shots," Howland declared proudly. "I think I made 15 of them."

Rodriguez verified Howland's record, although with one correction: "It was 49 shots, actually."

Howland's mother still lives in Santa Barbara, although his dad, the Rev. Bob Howland, passed away just a few months after his son took the Bruin job in the spring of 2003.

"That UCLA press conference was a special moment for me because both my mom and dad were there," he said. "And I was coming back home."

Ben Howland's own children are both back in Pennsylvania. Daughter Meredith, a former Pitt cheerleader, is in her last year of nursing school there. Son Adam is a freshman playing Division 3 basketball at Haverford College in Philadelphia.

"I've had great experiences everywhere I've been, but Santa Barbara is home," Howland affirmed. "I'm a part of this community. I think that Santa Barbara is the greatest community in the United States."

He attended Fairview Elementary School, Goleta Valley Junior High and Dos Pueblos High School for a year until his father changed churches and moved the family to Cerritos. But Howland was soon back in town, rejoining such fellow Goleta gym rats as DeMarcus, Danny Pagliotti, Arnie Beck, Greg Henderson and Mark Mattos on the basketball team at SBCC.

He also played with Mattos at Weber State. And after spending a year as a graduate assistant at Gonzaga, Howland was back in Santa Barbara, beginning a 12-year career as a UCSB assistant coach.

"I went through every level of education in this community," Howland pointed out. "It means so much to me, and I'm so proud, to represent Santa Barbara in a small way everywhere that I go. And I tell you, it all started for me at that club."

He helped Jerry Pimm take UCSB to two NCAA Tournament berths and three NIT appearances during a six-year span from 1987-93.

"Jerry was a great mentor," said Howland. "I'll always be thankful to him for teaching me as much as he did."

Pimm also helped settle down Mary Howland's bouncing baby boy. The retired coach laughs when recalling the early days at UCSB, when he had to keep Howland from confronting referees:

"I used to tell him, 'Ben, let me handle the officials -- one of us is enough, and I've done it for enough years. If you want to yell at our team, but not the other team, that's fine. You've got carte blanche to get after our team.'

"But the thing is, Ben became a very good teacher. Players respect him because he puts his heart and soul into it."

Howland left UCSB to take the head job at Northern Arizona in 1994. Those close to him say he was bitterly disappointed when the Gauchos bypassed him to hire Bob Williams as Pimm's successor in 1998, but that was before Pitt and UCLA.

"I'm at UCLA now, which is a dream job," he said. "To me, UCLA is something I dreamed about back in my parents' home in Goleta, watching those games on TV, night in and night out, when John Wooden was the coach.

"This is the dream. I'm living the dream, and I couldn't be more blessed or more happy."

He lost a home game to UCSB in his first season at UCLA -- a game set up by his predecessor -- but he won't schedule the Gauchos or most other Southern California schools.

"I still pull for the Gauchos," Howland said. "Bob's a real good coach and I wish him the very best. I appreciate all the people up there."

He has remained close to many of the old Goleta gym rats, even the ones who used to fire dodge balls at his head. He spoke at a local Boys Club benefit in September and was in town for a Halloween party just before this season started.

"The big thing about Ben is what a great friend he is," said DeMarcus. "He's been known by some for his gruffness, but one of his great qualities is that he doesn't forget the people he grew up with. That's a pretty neat quality."

Carlson said that while Howland may seem doggedly stubborn, his success has come from an acquired trait of adaptability.

"Each place where he's been has been very distinct and different from the one he'd just left," he explained. "At the same time, his experiences at NAU and Pitt and UCSB have all served him well here at UCLA."

Howland said his plan at Northern Arizona was to "recruit to shoot."

At Pitt, he targeted "tough, inner-city prospects who wanted to bang."

"Here at UCLA, I want to get the upper-echelon kid who wants to get up and down the floor," he said. "That's our anticipation, to get an up-tempo game as much as possible.

"It just hasn't materialized yet, because we've been so banged up this year. We've only been able to play eight or nine guys. I've been doing this for 25 straight years as an assistant and head coach, and I've never even had close to this many injuries."

That has made this one of his most frustrating seasons so far, he admits. But it has also had its moments of satisfaction, particularly when UCLA advanced to the semifinals of the Preseason NIT in New York.

"It allowed me to spend Thanksgiving with my kids back there, with my entire family," said Howland.

Carlson said it was the perfect holiday for a man with few hobbies.

"He's all about just basketball, his program and his family," he said. "There really is not much else in between."



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