He isn't just the tough guy

November 01, 2008|BILL DWYRE

Being with Ben Howland in the off-season can be a walk in the park. In this case, it was a walk in Westwood.

It is a warm October Thursday. A couple of weeks later it will be time for Howland to lead yet another group of talented UCLA basketball players onto Pauley Pavilion's hallowed court to start playing games.

For now, it is time to split a Cobb salad, talk about old friends and new seasons and watch our money disappear before our eyes. It is one of those days in the stock market, and the big-screen TV facing Howland in Jerry's Deli is counting it down in red numbers: minus 400 points . . . minus 425 . . .

"I can't even look at it," Howland says.

Assured that he is better off than his luncheon companion -- he at least has something left to lose -- Howland laughs and returns to less painful topics, such as Bruins basketball.

When the center tip takes place at Pauley on Monday night for one of those just-work-up-a-sweat exhibitions, this one against Cal Baptist, it will mark the beginning of Howland's sixth season in the captain's chair.

When he took over, the expectation was that he would slowly return John Wooden-esque respectability to a program steeped in Wooden-esque history.

He has done that, and not all that slowly.

He filled in the potholes in his first season, and by his second, 2004-05, he had paved the way for the Bruins to return to the NCAA tournament, an event they once owned under Wooden.

We all know what happened next: three straight trips to the Final Four, one of them a spot in the final.

The discussion gets around to rapid success building unrealistic expectations. Howland doesn't buy it.

"I don't worry about those things," he says. "At UCLA there will always be high expectations. That's why you want to play here, or coach here.

"The success we have had here is good for our players, because they are driven by it. Instead of fighting it, I embrace it."

Last season, Howland had a freshman from Oregon, a rugged center, who many said would be great right away. Kevin Love wasn't just great, he was a first-team All-American.

Now, he's gone to the pros, the No. 5 pick in the NBA draft.

Howland also had a gangly and talented sophomore guard from Hawthorne, who many thought might be exceptional in another season or two. Russell Westbrook, who was more than willing to come off the bench when Howland asked him to, turned out to be so good that staying around for that next season was not financially logical.

Now he's gone to the pros, the No. 4 pick.

Howland also had a great rebounding junior forward from Cameroon, who many thought would need yet another season, this one, to polish his skills. Turns out Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was ready sooner than later.

Now he's gone to the pros, the No. 7 pick in the second round, No. 37 overall.

But at great programs the cupboard is never bare, and this season's inventory includes Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya. They are all seniors, all possible draft picks and all part of the continuum of ongoing Bruins success.

"They are our leadership," Howland says. "They are guys who have been there, done that."

So has Howland, who is one of those rare people who always seems to know where he is going -- and always seems to get there.

He is a fascinating study in image versus reality. He made his name in the tough-guy world of Big East college basketball, where wins are measured in final scores and number of bruises dished out. When he talks about the key elements of his teams, the stress is on the blue-collar stuff.

"We need to play tough defense," he says, "and have a sound offense. But mostly, we have to outrebound the other team."

Nor is there any question about who is in charge, about his feelings on discipline. Asked what he was going to do to make Aboya understand how costly his frequent foul trouble can be, Howland said he would stop practice when Aboya committed a stupid foul and make the entire team run sprints.

Indeed, it is that sort of folklore, along with the Pitt coal-miners' image, that has UCLA fans celebrating their tough guy from the East.

Howland is a tough guy. He's also from Santa Barbara, where the toughest guy is the lifeguard who has to police the surfers.

UCLA opened at No. 4 in national polls this week. Its schedule includes the likelihood of extensive early travel to the later rounds of a tournament in New York. Then there is a Dec. 4 game at Texas, five of its first seven conference games on the road, and a home game against Notre Dame squeezed between games against two of UCLA's toughest Pac-10 opponents, USC and Arizona State.

"Not sure why I did that," Howland says of scheduling Notre Dame.

Soon, it is time for dessert, and for a walk. The tough guy likes smooth yogurt from Pinkberry, with fruit.

"Try the peach. Melts in your mouth," he says.

He is right. It's as mellow as the person who recommended it.

That's the same person who won't be like this again until sometime in mid-April.


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