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Ex-UCLA coach Ben Howland lost his job, not his passion for basketball

Ben Howland has been fishing and relaxing with family, but he keeps an eye on UCLA, likes the job Steve Alford is doing and expects to coach again.

December 21, 2013|Bill Dwyre
  • Former UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland has spent some of his off time fishing.
Former UCLA basketball coach Ben Howland has spent some of his off time fishing. (Courtesy of Ben Howland )

There is life after basketball, and Ben Howland has found it.

There were the two weeks of fly-fishing in Montana and Wyoming this summer, with some spectacular success, unless you were a rainbow, cutthroat, brook or brown.

"Oh, man," Howland says. "I never had time for that before. I'll send you some pictures."

And he does.

There has been the kind of family time that a UCLA basketball coach just doesn't get. This year's Christmas card shows family among the swaying palm trees of Maui, with grandson Little Ben stealing the photo.

Then there have been nice bike rides in the paradise known as Santa Barbara, where he now lives. Unfortunately, even paradise has its cloudy moments.

"My right arm is in a cast," Howland says. "I was riding my bike about three weeks ago and a lady stepped out in front of me, never even saw me, and I went down on my right shoulder. Broke my arm. Never broke a bone before in my life."

Were he coaching, that would have complicated things. The biggest fallout may be more use of the TV remote with his left hand.

"I see a lot of games," Howland says. "I came across the '98 NCAA semis the other night, when Utah beat North Carolina. Watched it until 1 in the morning. Man, those Utah guys were good, and long, and well-coached. I had forgotten how good that team was."

The Runnin' Utes lost in the final that year to Kentucky.

Do not presume Howland is settling into retirement. Imagine, instead, that he is a professor on sabbatical, working on his doctoral thesis.

"I've been trying to learn as much as I can," he says. "I'm watching a lot of basketball. It has been good to step back."

The stepping back was not by choice, of course. UCLA let him go last March, after 10 years on the job, and after a Pac-12 campaign in which the Bruins won the regular-season title. An overall record at UCLA of 230-105 and trips to the Final Four in 2006 through 2008 did not save him.

He had wanted Westwood to be his last stop, but he is 56, and retirement is not a consideration, even with a Bruins buyout that, were he to stay out of coaching, could be worth as much as $3.2 million.

"I've still got lots to offer," he says. "The break has been good, family time is good. But when you have coached as long as I have, it can get a little strange too. Like Thanksgiving this year. I was home. We always practiced on Thanksgiving.

"You get itchy. I watch a lot of games, and analyze a lot."

The phone conversation took place only a few minutes after UCLA had lost in a nationally televised game to Duke on Thursday in Madison Square Garden, 80-63.

If you think, because UCLA fired him, that he takes delight in such results, think again.

"No way that was a 17-point loss," he says, adding that his successor, Steve Alford, is doing a good job; that Alford is fielding the exact same starting five Howland would have, and that he is impressed with Alford's son, reserve point guard Bryce.

"I root for them," he says, "and will continue to, unless another team in the Pac-12 comes along."

Howland says he will probably wait until this spring, when teams and programs "start to sort themselves out" around tournament time.

During the UCLA-Duke telecast, commentator Dick Vitale went out of his way to mention Howland and say that he would be a good fit for lots of teams.

"I heard that," Howland says. "That was nice of him."

Before this, Howland had coached nonstop in Division I from 1994 at Northern Arizona, then on to Pittsburgh in '99 and great success in the East, followed by his 10 years at UCLA.

He has made a couple of trips recently, to see his friend Tim Floyd at Texas El Paso and Jamie Dixon, his former assistant and now the head man at Pitt. Those trips got the juices flowing even more.

"It's fun to be back at practice," he says, "and to watch guys you like and guys who know what they are doing."

So, the sabbatical and figurative thesis-writing continues. And it is hard to imagine that, sometime in the next several months, a program in need won't quickly realize that there is a candidate out there who has an overall record in Division I of 399-208, who has been coach of the year in each of the conferences he has coached and was national coach of the year in 2002.

Besides, getting Howland back courtside is a matter of utmost importance to lots of trout in Montana and Wyoming.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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