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A Man of Letters

UCLA is a magical name for Southland native Howland, but he may be hard for Bruins to get

March 25, 2003|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

BOSTON — 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.

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