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Smiling or scowling, UCLA Coach Ben Howland is a man of many faces

Howland has had success, but his prickly personality and Bruins' playing style draw criticism, and several players have left his program. He's a hard guy to figure out.

January 15, 2013|By David Wharton, Los Angeles Times
  • UCLA Coach Ben Howland directs his team from the bench against Stanford.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland directs his team from the bench against Stanford. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The UCLA basketball team is on a roll, showing hints of becoming special, so these days you get happy Ben Howland, the one who smiles and talks easily, even clapping his hands occasionally.

"It's good to be winning," he says.

The Bruins coach is a man of many faces. When his weekly meeting with reporters ends, time to get back to business, he could instantly become the grinder, the one who feels every second slipping past, every moment an opportunity to practice or watch film or jump on a plane to recruit.

That man doesn't smile as much; he might walk right past with only a nod. And if the Bruins start losing, he might turn surly, flashing his famous temper as he lashes out at players and subordinates.

Howland means different things to different people, a polarizing figure for much of his decade-long tenure at UCLA. Even as the Bruins reached three straight Final Fours, fans wondered if he was the right fit, and the scrutiny has intensified with his team slipping into mediocrity the last few years.

Last season marked a low point. The Bruins foundered as forward Reeves Nelson was dismissed for disciplinary reasons and unnamed sources in a Sports Illustrated article described a program beset by partying and fistfights in practice, suggesting the coach had lost control.

Now, when you ask Howland about the pressure to win — to save his job — you get a narrow grin.

"I mean, you could stress about it all the time, but I'm not going to let that happen," he says. "I've been doing this long enough now."

Howland is not easy to figure out.

——

It is no secret that players have clashed with the coach over the years. They have grumbled about the constraints of his offensive schemes. They have gone so far as call him verbally abusive.

But it seems that critics speak out only if allowed to do so anonymously. When asked to put their name to a quote, players and former assistants tend to offer praise.

That includes Kevin Love, who bristled at times during his one-and-done season in Westwood but now credits the experience with preparing him for the NBA.

"At the end of the day, I learned things from Coach Howland that I'll remember for the rest of my life," Love has said.

Friends describe the 55-year-old Howland as a man who leads almost a double life, intensely focused on basketball around his team and equally devoted to family — wife Kim, grown children Meredith and Adam — at home. They portray him as an introvert.

"When basketball is done, we go fly-fishing and he doesn't want to talk about it," said Dave Johnson, who played beside Howland at Weber State. "He does like his privacy."

This predilection runs counter to a very public job.

When Howland talks to the media or glad-hands at alumni events, "he probably expends a lot of energy, because I don't think it comes naturally," said Ross Land, who played for him at Northern Arizona in the late 1990s and remains in frequent contact.

"He has to work at it," Land said. "He knows he has to do it because he's at UCLA."

Ask players about his demeanor around the team and they give a two-part answer. Howland often asks about family and wants to help with difficulties that might arise off-court, they say.

This quality might have worked against him in recent seasons. Many believe Howland went too easy on a pair of troubled athletes — Nelson and Drew Gordon — who became distractions.

"On the outside he might seem like he's tough, but once you get to know him he's real kind-hearted and caring," said Tyler Honeycutt, a former Bruin who now plays for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. "If you have a problem, he'll call you into a meeting to talk about it."

That doesn't mean he's the type to buddy up and shoot the breeze. Current center Tony Parker said: "He wants the respect level of an elder, not a peer."

Parker and others say they are more likely to joke around with younger staff members such as Korey McCray or Tyus Edney.

Tyler Lamb, who recently left UCLA, explained: "That's why you have assistant coaches who relate well to the players. I feel like this system is designed to work that way."

——

Anyone who has been around the Bruins for any length of time is familiar with the scenario: The coach walks into an arena or a conference room and immediately complains about feeling too hot or too cold.

A frown crosses Howland's face as he says, "This stuff about the room temperature — I've never once told anybody the temperature had to be this or that."

Players smile and shake their heads, recalling how often Howland reminds them to put on their sweatshirts before they step outside Pauley Pavilion after practice.

"I'd just say he knows what he wants," Lamb said. "When he wants something done, he wants it done right."

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