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Sadness of Father's Death Hovered Over Howland

March 16, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

Ben Howland felt a void the first time his UCLA team took the court, and it had nothing to do with a marginally talented lineup.

One reason he took the job, leaving behind a national championship contender at Pittsburgh, was to be close to his parents. Bob Howland, a retired Presbyterian minister, wore a Bruin cap and a broad smile when his son was introduced as coach at a news conference.

Bob and Mary, married 50 years, planned to drive from their Santa Barbara home to Pauley Pavilion for every home game. They would sit behind the bench, near John Wooden and other decades-long members of the Bruin family.

Ben turned to the stands that November night of the opener. He looked at the seat next to his mom and realized that regardless of the score of the game, he already had suffered his first loss.

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Bob Howland, 76, was wearing that Bruin cap when he fell May 24, tumbling down a steep hill at a Marin County park that overlooks the San Francisco Bay. Ben, his wife and two children were 10 minutes behind him, preparing to enjoy a barbecue the day after a cousin was married.

Ben pulled up to the gate and the park employee said an ambulance was ahead, that someone had fallen. Ben got a sick feeling.

"It's probably my dad," he thought.

Bob Howland was taken to a hospital, where he was released after a few hours. During the drive back to the park, though, he vomited, gripped Mary's hand and slowly lost consciousness. Ben was at the wheel, frantically driving back to the hospital.

Time became a blur. Bob was in a coma, and Ben commuted from Los Angeles to Marin County while trying to settle into his new job. He was en route to the hospital, driving along the Central Coast on his birthday, May 28, when top recruit Jordan Farmar called his cellphone to commit to UCLA.

Bob died June 20. Ben, 46, was immersed in his work and has yet to allow himself time to properly grieve. Perhaps now, the season over, the impact will hit like one of the waves his father liked to watch from a bluff high above the Santa Barbara coast. Ben is braced for it.

"It was an accident, and he should still be alive right now," he says. "We had a great relationship. He knew how much I loved him, I knew how much he loved me and my family, and how much he loved my mom and my brothers and sister."

*

The season was more difficult than Howland thought possible. Twice before, at Northern Arizona and Pittsburgh, his teams endured growing pains before turning into winners.

But this was the third time around. He believed he could avoid some of the pitfalls and make an easier transition. After all, hadn't he been the 2002 national coach of the year?

A 9-3 start was promising. The players were saying they had bought into Howland's philosophy of rugged defense, unselfish offense and relentless rebounding.

Then without warning, the losses began to pile up. Opponents employed zone defenses, daring the poor-shooting Bruins to launch from the perimeter.

Confidence visibly wavered and Howland was unable to do anything to halt a skid that included 14 defeats in the last 16 games. Losses in the last moments at California, at Arizona State, at USC, at Oregon, and, finally, against Washington in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament, were especially dispiriting.

His methods were openly questioned. He doesn't understand the mindset of Southern California kids, critics said. The offense had too many plodding sets. He ought to let the Bruins run. Stubbornness. Maybe that's his Achilles' heel.

Bob Howland would have comforted his son and offered some perspective. He had counseled hundreds of parishioners in 33 years as a minister. He was a gentle soul and a wise man, educated at Princeton Seminary and ordained the day Ben was born in Lebanon, Ore.

He had his son's back, and he had his ear.

"He'd been through this with me," Howland said. "He would have said, 'You've done it before, you guys are going to do it again. This is a necessary part of the process.' "

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Howland recognizes parallels between coaching and the ministry. Coaches, like pastors, must inspire their flock of true believers. Both engage in a fair amount of sermonizing, teaching and counseling, a coach doing so in a more heated environment and employing decidedly coarser language.

It follows that sons of ministers gravitate to coaching. Examples are Gonzaga Coach Mark Few, whose father is a Presbyterian minister, and Laker Coach Phil Jackson, whose parents were Pentecostal ministers.

"One difference about a basketball coach, the bottom line is either the W or the L," Howland said. "But it's also about building something, it's about character, people giving themselves for the common good, the team."

When he preaches the "all for one, one for all" philosophy, it's as if he is on a pulpit. His eyes widen and he points his hands skyward as if seeking divine blessing.

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