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HELENE ELLIOTT

Howland's wizardry is in the details for UCLA

March 29, 2007|HELENE ELLIOTT

THE home theater in Ben Howland's basement can seat 10 very comfortably, in cushy recliners. But UCLA's basketball coach prefers to sit on the floor by himself while he watches game films until all hours, feverishly taking notes on a legal pad in search of something -- an opponent's weakness, a player's flaw -- that will give his Bruins an edge.

The pages barely contain his ideas. Meticulous and precise in every other area of his life, Howland fills dozens of pads with his scrawls.

"I write big," he said. "A page could go quickly on one diagram."

If he's not diagraming plays, he's calling members of his inner circle, men he played for or worked with before he was hired by UCLA in 2003. He might solicit an opinion or just need the sound of a familiar voice to illuminate the dark, quiet night.

"When he was in Pittsburgh, I always knew at 11 p.m. my time when my phone rang it was Ben calling because he needed someone to talk to because he couldn't sleep," said Michael Adras, who succeeded Howland as coach at Northern Arizona.

"Anything he does, he does with gusto. He demands a lot from his players but also from himself."

Howland has pushed his team to a level of consistent excellence not seen since John Wooden coached the Bruins to seven consecutive NCAA titles and 10 in 12 seasons starting in 1964. Under Howland's guidance, UCLA has advanced to the Final Four the last two seasons, the first time that has happened since Wooden's final year, 1975, and Gene Bartow's first year, 1976.

UCLA will face Florida in a national semifinal Saturday at Atlanta, a rematch of the championship game the Bruins lost a year ago. Should they win, and then prevail in Monday's final, Howland would join Wooden and Jim Harrick, coach of the 1995 championship team, as the only men who have led the Bruins to an NCAA men's basketball title.

The prospect genuinely thrills Howland, 49, a Cerritos High graduate who watched UCLA telecasts while he grew up and still idolizes Wooden.

"It's his program and always will be," Howland said. "I'm the current caretaker right now. But when you think of UCLA basketball, you always think of John R. Wooden first, whether that's now or 100 years from now."

Their means to a successful end are dramatically different.

Wooden built his teams around superstars and molded players such as Lew Alcindor -- now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- and Bill Walton into basketball Hall of Famers. Wooden was -- and at 96 still is -- gentlemanly and professorial.

Howland has had considerable talent at his disposal, but, so far, no one likely to become an NBA star. He has made defense and grit his cornerstones, a style that's tough to sell to players because it's not flashy. It has worked, perhaps because it's the natural product of his intense nature -- one that's often misunderstood.

When Howland repeatedly interrupted a news conference last week in San Jose to streamline the proceedings -- among other things, he asked NCAA officials to reduce the noise coming from an adjacent room and to stop passersby from chatting in a hallway -- reporters unfamiliar with his manner branded him a fire-breathing, micromanaging monster.

It didn't matter that he didn't demean anyone or throw a tantrum, as other college coaches have done. He was insistent yet never profane -- and right each time.

Howland is not a monster.

A micro-manager? Yes.

"I should have handled that more diplomatically. I should have told the moderator, 'You handle that,' " he said. "But to me, it was hard for our players because we had noise in the background. ... I wanted to make sure they were hearing everything. Everything I do is about my players."

Obsessed with details? Yes, again.

"Ben wants everything statted in practice as though it were a game. Everything. Even the most minute stuff," said Central Michigan Coach Ernie Zeigler, who spent five years as an assistant to Howland at Pittsburgh and UCLA. "Deflections. Who takes the most charges in practice. Who takes shots and where. That's just how particular he was. It definitely keeps players in position to be accountable at all times."

He also has some unusual and little-known quirks.

When he discusses opponents' field-goal percentages or rebounding averages, he's accurate to the decimal point. "He has a mind like a steel trap," said Barry Rohrssen, an assistant to Howland at Pittsburgh for four years and now coach at Manhattan College. "Being on his staff was like going to a basketball academy every day. He doesn't just teach players to play, he teaches coaches to coach."

Howland shrugged. "I do have a good memory for phone numbers and statistics," he said. "It's important to know as much as you can and get as much information as you can and learn from it."

He also likes to place a water bottle in the middle of a roll of tape at the end of the scorer's table before each game. Last year the NCAA -- talk about obsessed -- banned his bottle because it had a logo. After much grumbling, he poured the water into an NCAA-approved cup.

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