SACRAMENTO — UCLA Coach Ben Howland will face his alma mater today when the Bruins play Weber State in a first-round NCAA tournament game here.
And while he is concentrating on game matters, some of his former Wildcats teammates took the opportunity for a trip down memory lane.
Howland arrived at Weber State from Cerritos College, they say, full of vim and vigor. He was a redhead and had a mouth on him. Oh yes, he would talk.
"He would offer you his opinion," said Dave Johnson, the team's center, "whether you wanted it or not."
While Howland played at Weber State in 1977-78 and 1978-79 under coach Neil McCarthy, the Wildcats twice went to the NCAA tournament and he became known as a tough-minded guard who rarely missed on a shot from the top of the key, earning the respect of Johnson, forwards Steve Condie and Todd Harpert and guard Mark Mattos.
Together, they bonded through McCarthy's intense workouts to the point where even now the four buddies attend as many UCLA games as possible.
They were basketball nerds -- most, like Howland, having come from junior colleges.
"Ben was a lot more vocal than the rest of us," said Johnson, who has owned several businesses and now lives in Salt Lake City. "If somebody, anybody, said something Ben didn't agree with, he told him. He didn't care who it was or what was said. Ben was always right. In his mind."
Johnson remembers another thing about Howland: "He loved Santa Barbara. He would always go around saying, 'I'm from San-ta Barbara, the greatest place on Earth,' " Johnson said in a dead-on imitation of Howland's voice. "I had to hear that for two years."
Johnson and Condie recall the accuracy of Howland's jump shot from the top of the key.
"If he'd get open there, the score was as reliable as me shooting a layup," Johnson said.
Said McCarthy, the coach: "That's not a surprise. Those guys always remembered the shots the others took."
Condie, who was a sophomore when Howland was a senior, remembered the day they met:
"Coach McCarthy, on our first day of practice, would always have a three-mile conditioning run and you had to complete it in under 20 minutes," Condie said. "It was always something you dreaded, no matter how good a shape you were in. Ben would come in yelling 'I love to run,' and he'd finish one of the top three every time.
"He was just like that on court. We had an intrasquad scrimmage a few days later. He was telling everyone else what to do. He'd be yelling at guys to 'Get your hands up, get your hands up,' and we'd be yelling back, 'C'mon Ben, it's just a scrimmage.' But nothing was ever 'just' anything to Ben."
Johnson said that in the same way Howland pursued basketball perfection, he pursued Weber State's head cheerleader.
"Her name was Kim Zahnow," Johnson said. "One day at practice, Ben pointed to her and said, 'I'm going to marry that girl.' I said to him, 'You're going to marry Zahnow? She's the head cheerleader. Are you kidding?' "
But he wasn't; and he did.
"That wasn't a surprise," Condie said. "He would shoot whenever he could, he always put his two cents in with Coach, and he's a great, persuasive talker. Kim didn't have a chance."
Ever since Howland became an assistant at UC Santa Barbara then coach at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA, Howland has had the support of his Weber State teammates. They gather in the summer for fly-fishing trips in Wyoming and Montana. And they go to the NCAA tournament -- they will be behind UCLA's bench today.
They also still occasionally get phone calls at two in the morning, when Howland is watching game tape.
"The phone will ring and he'll say, 'Condie, what are you doing?' I'll say, 'What every other normal person does. I'm sleeping.' And he'll just start talking," Condie said.
Johnson once owned a printing business near Weber State that did business with the school. But when he went to a Northern Arizona-Weber State game and was spotted rooting for Howland and against Weber State, a Weber State coach threatened to never again give Johnson's company work. (No loss, Johnson said, since he was doing the work for free.)
"He works so hard I get concerned about his health," Johnson said of Howland.
And then there was this about Howland's confidence:
During Howland's senior year, Weber State beat New Mexico State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Two days later, the Wildcats drew an Arkansas team led by Sidney Moncrief, who went on to star in the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Legend has it that Howland called the Razorbacks standout and told him that he would defend him so tightly that Moncrief would end up with a groin pull.
Johnson said he believed the story, but Arkansas won and there seems to be no record of Moncrief pulling a muscle.
"But it wouldn't surprise me," Johnson said. "If Ben says he's going to do something, he does it."
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At the dance
Ben Howland's experiences in the NCAA men's basketball tournament:
* At Weber State -- Howland was the standout defensive player on two Wildcats teams that won Big Sky Conference championships and went to the NCAA tournament, both times being eliminated by Arkansas.
* At UC Santa Barbara -- As an assistant coach from 1982 to 1994, Howland contributed to Gauchos teams that advanced to the tournament in 1988 and 1990.
* At Northern Arizona -- Howland's fourth Lumberjacks squad became the first in school history to qualify for the tournament, after winning Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles, in 1998. Northern Arizona lost to No. 2-seeded Cincinnati, 65-62.
* At Pittsburgh -- It took Howland only three seasons to get the Panthers into the Sweet 16, in 2002, and his 2003 team repeated the feat.
* At UCLA -- Howland's second Bruins team, in 2005, ended a three-year drought by getting an NCAA bid. One year later, UCLA played in the national championship game.