When coaching at UCLA, one will be measured against the Wizard of Westwood himself, John Wooden. Wooden lead the UCLA Bruins to 10 national championships and lead the team to 4 undefeated seasons in the 60’s and 70’s. It is tough for any coach to even dream of matching those credentials, but Ben Howland is definitely been on the right track.
After taking over the Head Coaching position from Steve Lavin, Howland used his half court “lock down” defensive philosophy to lead the Bruins to three Final Fours and twice being the runner up of the tournament. Howland is one of only three coaches to compete in three consecutive Final Fours. The other two: Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski. The only thing that these two have that Howland doesn’t: A National Championship.
Born in Lebanon Oregon on May 28, 1957, Howland was a strong High School Basketball player who was named twice as a member of the All Conference team and twice MVP of the Suburban League. He would play College basketball first for Santa Barbra City College and then transfer to Weber State University in Ogden, UT. He would earn a degree in physical education at Weber state and then go on to play professionally in Uruguay for a season.
It is reported that Howland wanted to be a coach during his teen years. Howland’s coaching career includes a variety of stops, and success along the way. His first position was as an assistant coach at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash in 1981. While there, Howland was a practice partner for future NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton. While at Gonzaga Howland would also receive his Master’s degree in Administration.
Howland’s next stop was as an assistant coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1982. After serving on the staff for 11 years, Howland decided to put his name in consideration for multiple coaching vacancies in California. This included Loyla Maymount University and the University of California at Irvine. Howland was turned down for both jobs, but stayed at UCSB until 1994.
After Santa Barbara, Howland got his first opportunity to be a Head Coach at Northern Arizona University in 1994. As the head coach of the Lumberjacks he would achieve 2 Conference Championships and 1 Conference Tournament Championship.
His performance at NAU lead to Howland’s next coaching gig, at the University of Pittsburgh starting in 1999. At Pitt, Howland would lead the panthers to a Big East Tournament Championship as well as two Big East Regular Season Championships.
At PITT Howland learned how to play a great inside game using a strong frontcourt. This would serve him well at his next coaching stop: UCLA. Traditionally, UCLA has played front court basketball (with the exception of Centers Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton), during Steve Lavin’s tenure at the university the team featured strong guard play and won championships in the 90’s with players like the O’Bannon brothers (Charles and Ed) at guard. However, after a string on less then stellar seasons fans and the UCLA administration thought it was time for a change in philosophy. Howland was hired in 2003 after Steve Lavin lead the Bruins to a 10 and 19 record. Ironically, that Athletic Director at UCLA who hired Howland, Dan Guerro, had declined to hire Howland for the position at UC Irvine.
The emphasis on frontcourt play as well as defensive toughness that Howland brought combined with strong guard play made UCLA one of the more complete teams in the country. Another trademark that Howland brought the Bruins was a man-to-man defense instead of playing zone.
The situation that Howland arrived into was bleak, but the light at the end of the tunnel was there. Howland’s first season at the helm, the Bruins improved to 11-17. In Howland’s second season (2005), the team would improve to 18-11 and clinch a NCAA tournament birth. In the three years that followed (06,07,08), the Bruins would play in three consecutive Final Fours. Unfortunately, they would go on to lose eventual champions, the University of Florida (twice) and the University of Memphis (who would finish as runner up to Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks.)
This past season was a difficult one for Howland. Armed with a underclassmen laden team he suffered his worst defeat as Head Coach at UCLA at the hands on the University of Portland (74-47) and would coach UCLA to their first loss against Long Beach State. Hope for the future comes in the former of young frontcourt players like Anthony Stover, who can benefit from Howland’s philosophy.
Howland, a former player seems to have success recruiting around the California area. Former Howland recruits include NBA players Kevin Love, Jordan Farmar, Russell Westbrook, Arron Afflalo and Darren Collison. The downside for Howland is that many of these players have left before their college eligibility was exhausted. This was a problem for the previous Head Coach Steve Lavin who lost future NBA All Star Byron Davis early.
Currently rumors are abound that Howland is heading to DePaul University, to fill the vacancy left by fired coach Jim Wainwright. This position would take Howland back to the familiar Big East to a team that didn’t win a single conference game this past season.
The rumor that has not been started is that Howland may be contacted to coach the University of Oregon. With the new arena opening up at the start of the season, it seems oddly peculiar that a coach with Pac-10 experience, who was born and raised in Oregon, would not be under consideration for the job.
Off of the court, Howland is active in charities. One that stands out is the Jordan Farmar Celebrity Golf Classic and Gala, hosted by former Howland player and current Los Angeles Laker’s star Jordan Farmar.
Unfortunately Howland will always be compared to John Wooden. People will point to the lack of wins and titles, declare that he hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the program. Howland is young and his track record proves that he can win in small schools, big schools and California. Combine those factors, and you can make an argument that even though Howland hasn’t measured up to the Wooden standard, he has been, and will be a successful coach at UCLA.