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BILL DWYRE

Despite this season's woes, Ben Howland's star shines bright

UCLA men’s basketball coach has earned the trust and great expectations of sports fans in Los Angeles.

January 10, 2010|Bill Dwyre

From Palo Alto — It is a strange time for a torch-passing. That is probably the last thing in the world Ben Howland is thinking about right now.

But he is the UCLA men's basketball coach, and in Los Angeles, he owns one-half of the huge college sports marquee. UCLA basketball has the legacy of excellence and John Wooden, which are one and the same.

The other half has, apparently, headed north, to Seattle.

In retrospect, it appears that we merely got to borrow Pete Carroll from the pros for the better part of a decade. Now, he will go where he said he wouldn't, leaving behind questions and residue, plus skepticism on our part about why we ever allowed ourselves to believe that Fighting On would be enough for him.

USC football will certainly not fall off the map. Nobody is writing here that, without Carroll, Los Angeles will become UCLA's town. But no matter who unpacks a new set of boxes and clipboards at Heritage Hall, there will be growing pains and the inevitable stops and starts.

When that happens, the spotlight will wander.

Los Angeles is an entertainment marketplace that eats its young. It worships what it worships until it doesn't. And when it stops, it stops fast. The Lakers could be one knee injury away from empty seats, the Dodgers one messy, financially draining divorce.

We are Hollywood. Our attention span is much like the movies we put out -- in the theaters for a couple of weeks, and gone. We are a city much like that women's basketball advertising campaign. We are always looking for We Got Next.

Right now, that is Howland, and UCLA basketball. Even though, right now, UCLA basketball is a shell of its former self. Its commitment to excellence has been shredded by departing stars with commitments to making big bucks in the NBA.

Saturday, when Howland's Bruins stumbled around for 23 turnovers, worth 25 points to Stanford in a 70-59 win in Maples Pavilion, Howland could only deal with reality afterward.

Asked what goals he has set for a team that slipped back to two games under .500 at 7-9, Howland said, "A winning record."

This is a man who coaches at a school that has won 11 NCAA titles, and who has taken his Bruins to three Final Fours in his first six seasons at the helm. Not long ago, he would have answered that question with a litany of national-ranking goals, Pacific 10 Conference titles and high regional seedings for the NCAA tournament success.

"Our only real chance to get into the NCAA," Howland said, "is to win the Pac-10 tournament. And to do that, we need to finish in the top six in our conference for a good seed in our tournament."

Not long ago -- last season as a matter of fact -- the Pac-10 tournament was mostly for exercise. The nationally ranked Bruins were in, no matter what.

Still, Howland's star is likely to rise even more in a city that loves its traditions almost as much as its glitz.

No matter how much he is forced to cross his arms over his chest and walk the other way along the sidelines in disgust this season, he has long ago proven that he can fix it, build it and make it great. He has earned our trust and our great expectations, just as Carroll had. The new guy at Heritage Hall? Who knows.

Howland is not a glitzy guy. He doesn't talk as fast, or as much, as Carroll. But he has a feel of permanence about him, of competence and consistency. As attention-deficit challenged as it is, Los Angeles also celebrates those who remain long enough to become part of its fabric.

We love Vin Scully. Same with Wooden. Magic Johnson never left us. Nor did Kareem. We can laugh about Tommy Lasorda and his Dodger Blue heaven baloney, but we love that he is still here, dishing it out. We understand, and acknowledge, what part of the Angels' image-growing is square on the shoulders of Mike Scioscia.

Others have left us, but will never be gone. Chick Hearn's verbal magic and Jim Murray's written wonders will be celebrated in Los Angeles as long as there is one sports fan with a memory.

Howland has years to go and mountains to climb before he reaches that status. But he has the right stuff. He is 52, already has 300 wins, and got to within one game of a national title in 2006.

He is tough, disciplined, demanding. No Gentle Ben here.

He doesn't just talk the game, he implants it in young minds.

"We have been working on the turnovers," he said. "Every time we have one in practice, we stop and run."

There is also a silver lining. For the first time in three years, Howland will not face the likelihood of players leaving early for the NBA. If you can find an immediate NBA future in any of these young Bruins, you are either clairvoyant or dead wrong.

Howland can coach. He can build. The present is thorny, the future rosy. It is an unmistakable opportunity for UCLA athletics to recapture an additional share of the L.A. college sports spotlight.

One thing we can count on. When it shines, Howland will be there.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com.

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