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KURT STREETER

With UCLA's Ben Howland, there's no calm, only a storm

Bruins' coach keeps his ultra-intense game face on from opening tip to final horn, no matter how one-sided the game might be. It's one secret to his team's success.

February 08, 2009|KURT STREETER

You want Ben Howland to lighten up, want him to smile just a little and crack wise or maybe sometimes sit courtside during games like Phil Jackson -- calm as a stone, peaceful, hardly reacting to anything at all.

But we have to face facts. Howland isn't built that way. Angst should be his middle name. The big worry is that if he were to lose the sideline shouts and grimaces and unrelenting nature, he'd also completely lose his edge.

And where would UCLA basketball be then? Not where it is now. Suddenly, the 15th-ranked Bruins are 19-4 and among the hottest teams in the nation. They've ripped off four straight wins, each game taken by a whopper margin, the latest coming Saturday when they dismantled Notre Dame, 89-63.

This was a game in which everything went right for UCLA. The offense flowed. The defense remained stout. At halftime, "Coach said to play like it was zero-zero," Jrue Holiday said.

Zero-zero? The score was UCLA 46, Notre Dame 30 -- and truth be told not even nearly that close.

You'd think that maybe in a game like this, the famously controlling, ever-obsessive Howland would take a deep breath, relax, decide to spend the second half sitting, maybe even allow himself something approximating a real smile.

In fact, the Bruins' coach was so worked up during Saturday's entire blowout -- an extremely boring game if you like competitive matchups -- that the action he provided on the sideline was as good as anything happening on court. Probably better.

Looking like a dour, black-suited undertaker, Howland prowled, scowled, scolded and basically coached his derriere off, with not a moment's slip, even when Notre Dame was down by what seemed like 56 points. It's Ben Howland's way -- and again, it's working.

"You can feel the passion, feel the energy," Holiday said of his coach. "When he tells you something that you did wrong, with that mad look on his face . . ." He grimaced, as if having a flashback.

Maybe Holiday was thinking of the start of the second half. By then, the game was essentially over. But when Darren Collison clanged a jumper, I focused my binoculars immediately on his coach. Howland bent over slightly, stamped a foot, locked his jaws and tugged his coat, a nervous tic. His face had the look of someone suffering through flu on a very hot day. He let out a bellow: "Damn!"

Soon, Alfred Aboya, having one of the best games in his four seasons, made a turnaround jumper.

Howland's reaction? The coach immediately turned to his team and began shouting defensive instructions in a voice so loud it caromed around Pauley Pavilion for what seemed like a minute. There Howland was: his feet slightly splayed, his back ramrod straight, his neck stiff and his facial muscles tight, as if bracing for a terrible collision.

"Come on, come on!" he yelled to his defense, waving his arms, pointing this player and that player to the spots on the court he wanted them to be. "Come on! Move!"

The game wore on. Howland called a timeout when he was angry at a defensive lapse. "They're wide open!" he shouted, looking deeply offended.

When Notre Dame had the ball in front of the UCLA bench, he sometimes pranced around on the balls of his feet, shuffling sideways, slightly crouched. It looked as if he wanted to spring onto the court and start playing, suit and all.

The score didn't matter. He kept at it. Sometimes, he'd venture out on the court -- one step past the sideline, two steps, three, four. I never saw the officials bark at him. Probably, they were afraid.

Then there was the time Notre Dame's point guard had the ball, right in front of the UCLA bench. The poor guy found himself sandwiched between Howland -- his back was just inches from the coach's gut -- and a UCLA defender. Howland shouted at his player to lay the defensive wood. Howland had his arms up. He looked, well, sort of nutty . . . but it worked.

Finally, maybe out of sheer intimidation because Howland looked as if wanted to make a tackle, the guard launched a shot. Clank. Carom. Rebound.

Now there was maybe, maybe a quarter of a clenched grin on the UCLA coach's face, and he clapped hard and pointed at his players. "Good job!" he said. "Nice, nice . . . nice!" (It should be noted that for all of his bellicose heat, Howland also finds a way to give his players positive vibes, particularly if they do a face plant on the hardwood while chasing a loose ball.) Still, after the back-slaps, he reverted to his usual semi-disenchantment and perplexity.

When this game finally, mercifully ended, I tracked down Howland in a hallway.

His eyes gleamed and, get this, he smiled a deep smile. "I guess I get pretty intense out there, I'm drenched with sweat. . . . I just want them to get everything out of every possession. One of the things that is really dear to me was last year, when Darren Collision said, 'Hey, Coach is so intense it's like he's out there with us on the floor.' I just love that they feel that way. To me that's what it is all about."

Of course, at a deeper level, what it is all about is winning. And winning is something the Bruins are starting to do in a remarkable way. All you have to do is pay close attention to Ben Howland courtside to see why.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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