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Photographs by
Ric Evans

Three years ago, the University of Pittsburgh went searching for a men’s basketball coach. At the time, not even the most loyal Panthers fans considered Pitt’s program to be among the nation’s elite. That’s what makes Ben Howland’s run as head coach all the more remarkable.

Fast Break

Bill Modoono

 [Ric Evans photo]

It wasn’t exactly Ben Howland’s first real job, but it was close enough. Yes, he had spent the previous 10 months playing professional basketball in Uruguay. But all he learned from that experience was how lucky he was to have grown up in California. And how unlikely he was to have a substantial career playing basketball, even if he did have a deadly long-range jump shot and could play defense with an intensity that some might call rabid.

No, as he saw it, it was time to move on. Time to start looking for that job he had wanted since he was about 10 years old, the job he told his friends about since junior high. Time to be a basketball coach, not because teaching was his destiny—though some might see it that way—but rather because basketball was his love. Time to go to Spokane, Washington, and serve as a graduate assistant at Gonzaga University for his old childhood friend and former junior college coach, Jay Hillock.

Hillock knew all about Howland and what drove him because the two got to know each other in the only place you can really get to know Ben Howland: on a basketball court. In this instance, it was at the Goleta Boys Club in suburban Santa Barbara, California. Ben was 11. What Hillock learned about Howland then, he would always remember. “He was a pretty good player,” Hillock says, “when you factor in his limitations.”

Factor in most basketball players’ limitations, and what you wind up with is a pretty bad player. But it has never worked that way for Howland. Hillock, his old friend, understood. He coached Howland at Santa Barbara City Junior College, and when he became a Division I head coach for the first time, he called on his friend once more. He had a job for him. The job for him.

As a new coach, Hillock was eager to make a strong impression on his players, including John Stockton, a young man who would go on to forge what will likely prove to be a Hall of Fame career in the National Basketball Association.

But in that first practice session back in 1981, Stockton was mostly an irritant. One of the quickest players the game has ever seen, he was the kind of guy who could disrupt a practice session with his incessant hustle. That first practice, “he had about a hundred steals,” Hillock recalls.

Hillock understood quickly that he would never be able to implement his system or get his players to work as a team if Stockton could not be neutralized, to some degree, in practice. Fortunately, he had the man for the job. He assigned Howland the role of second-team point guard, the man who would have to go one-on-one with Stockton every day in practice.

“Ben just beat up and abused Stockton that whole year,” says Hillock, still smiling at the memory. “And John Stockton just happens to be one of the faster men on the planet.”

So it was that Howland handled his first tough job in basketball. Little did he know he would get no other kind.

“You know, the only time Santa Barbara was really any good was when Ben was recruiting players for them,” says Hillock, referring to Howland’s second job in basketball—assistant coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1982 to1994. “When you look at it, he’s built three programs that were never very good before he got there.”

Three programs, three different jobs, each more difficult than the one before. When he left Santa Barbara to become head coach at Northern Arizona in 1994, he was taking over a basketball program that was ranked 280th out of 290 Division I-A schools. Even Howland admits it was “one of the worst jobs in the country.”

By the time he left in 1999, however, the Lumberjacks averaged 21 wins a season, led the country in three-point shooting percentage, and appeared in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.

What that got him was another tough job. Maybe the toughest. Certainly it looked like that at the time.

What it looks like now—especially if you view it from the window of his office in the Petersen Events Center—is something else entirely. From the floor-length windows you can look directly onto the basketball court below, and you can’t help but marvel at how this all came together so quickly and so perfectly. How a facility that had been promised back when Pitt basketball was at what seemed its lowest ebb came to be completed last year, just as Pitt was enjoying the greatest season in its history. How the excitement generated by the team’s two NCAA victories at nearby Mellon Arena (an improbable happenstance in itself) would translate into a flurry of season-ticket sales that would sell out an arena nearly twice the size of Fitzgerald Field House. How a team that won 29 games and advanced to the NCAA’s Sweet 16 would have all of its starters return for what should be a memorable first season at the Petersen. And how this unknown 45-year-old coach from California orchestrated it all.

They know him now. You have to know someone who gets recognized as coach of the year by not one but five organizations—ESPN The Magazine, The Sporting News, the US Basketball Writers Association, the Associated Press, and the Atlanta Tipoff Club (which named him co-winner of the Naismith College Basketball Coach of the Year).

That is high praise, indeed, for any coach, but the unanimity of opinion says as much about what people thought he could accomplish at Pitt as what he actually did. Pitt has not lacked talented coaches in its 20 seasons in the Big East. What it has lacked is an identity as a place where winning basketball could be played consistently.

The Petersen Center always was designed to change that, but there were numerous obstacles slowing its progress, not the least of which was Pitt Stadium. The coaches who preceded Howland could be excused if they considered the Petersen Center a mirage. Everyone could see its outline on the horizon, but no one could quite figure out how to get to it. Yes, it was coming, but when, exactly? And what good would a 12,500-seat arena be if Pitt were still playing the mediocre brand of basketball the Panthers favored through most of the 1990s?

“The biggest thing was, I had faith in the people who hired me,” says Howland. “They showed me the plans for this place on my visit here. No one believed they could get it done, but I did.”

For sure, Pitt Athletic Director Steve Pederson believed in Howland. He liked the way Howland’s teams played at Northern Arizona. Tough on defense. Solid in fundamentals. Disciplined. Unselfish. “Those were the traits I wanted in our program,” says Pederson.

What he didn’t want was a continuation of the embarrassment that Pitt basketball had become. Players not connecting on the court. Players getting in trouble off the court. “I told him I wanted that cleaned up and the program back on track,” says Pederson.

Pederson had no illusions about how difficult the job was, so one of the things that impressed him most about Howland was how well he handled those other difficult jobs. “He had already done this once,” says Pederson. “There’s something to be said for being through this before and succeeding.”

During his first two seasons at Pitt, Howland had to dismiss players for disciplinary reasons, including one who would have been his starting center. He lost a lot of games owing to a lack of depth and won some games with unlikely heroes. In the process, he started shaping the team he wanted. The Panthers responded by finishing the 2000-01 season with three victories in the Big East tournament and another in the NIT tournament. “The Run,” it was called for marketing purposes, but only Howland understood its true meaning. “People laughed at the ad campaign, ‘Remember the Run.’ But our kids did remember, and they kept on going.”

They kept on going to the greatest season in Pitt history. A record of 29-6. The Big East West Division title. Advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Being ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 1987-88. And yet when the season started, a lot of people were wondering how Howland would ever replace departing senior stars Ricky Greer and Isaac Hawkins. Howland didn’t wonder. He knew what he had—a team of his own.

Trying to get Howland to accept some credit for what has happened at Pitt is as difficult as trying to take the ball away from Brandin Knight. Howland will deflect credit to his assistant coaches, his strength coach, the fans, the support of the administration. And all of that pales, in his mind, in comparison to the accumulation of talented players. Players who know what he expects of them. Once he finally had a team like that in place here, he won, same as always.

“Our kids play for each other, first and foremost,” he says. “They are all coachable and unselfish.”

So is Howland. One example of his team concept came at the end of the 2000-01 season, and it had nothing to do with basketball. He spent a part of his Easter weekend in the parking lot of a Pittsburgh Giant Eagle supermarket, volunteering for the Greater Pittsburgh Measles Immunization Task Force. Through the task force’s Booster Booster campaign, Howland did his part in helping bring city school children into compliance with the measles booster shot mandated by the Commonwealth. He assured the youngsters that the booster is “the best shot a kid can take.”

This kind of attitude can be seen in Panthers senior Brandin Knight. Knight is being asked to adjust his role slightly to make room for newcomer Carl Krauser. Krauser, like Knight, is best at point guard. But rather than see each other as a threat, Knight and Krauser have become good friends, and Knight is insisting to the coaching staff that for the good of the team, Krauser has to play a lot at point guard.

“You’ve got to get good kids,” says Howland, citing what is probably his first tenet of coaching. “No kid’s perfect, no kid’s not going to make mistakes. But if you have really good kids and you put them around other good kids, the peer group determines a lot. We’ve got real good kids now.”

When Howland was debating whether to take the Pitt job, he asked his friend Rick Majerus, the head coach at the University of Utah, for his opinion. Majerus told him Pitt was “a sleeping giant” in basketball; a good program that could only get better, especially with the addition of a new facility. Of course, he also knew that in Howland, Pitt would have the perfect man to awaken the giant. “There may be smarter coaches out there,” says Majerus. “But he won’t be outworked.”

That has been a winning Howland formula throughout his career, and success does not figure to alter it in the slightest. “He’s very dedicated and driven,” says Pitt Associate Head Basketball Coach Jamie Dixon, who served with Howland as an assistant on UCSB’s staff and has been with Howland as an assistant at both Northern Arizona and Pitt. “Those are probably the biggest things. He doesn’t have a lot of other interests. He doesn’t golf. He does a little fishing. That’s about it.”

In many ways, Howland resembles Majerus, a coach he considers his mentor, though the closest he came to working for him was when Majerus rejected him as a candidate for an assistant coaching job at Utah. “I wished I had hired Ben,” Majerus says now. Instead, the two men became close friends and confidants. Each summer, Howland invites Majerus to his parents’ home in Santa Barbara for a family cookout. “He’s like the younger brother I never had,” says Majerus.

Majerus’ monkish obsession with basketball is defined by the fact that he lives year-round in a hotel room in Salt Lake City. Howland, by contrast, is a family man and the father of two children, but otherwise he shares Majerus’ single-minded fixation with the game.

Howland’s mother, Mary, was a professor of English at a junior college for 20 years, and his father, Bob, was a Presbyterian minister. You could say that basketball coaching combines elements of both professions, which would make Howland’s career path seem almost predestined. You could say that, but Howland would not.

“In some ways, my whole family was involved in teaching,” he says. “But, as far as my becoming a coach, it was more me loving the game and wanting to be involved in it.”

But he did feel his parents’ influence. His father likes to say Howland gets his intelligence from his mother, a graduate of Rutgers, and his aggressiveness from him. If you watch Howland during games, you can see that mix. During time-outs, for instance, he listens quietly to the opinions of his assistants and tries to incorporate their views into what he eventually says to the team. Howland always defers to the assistant coach who has scouted the opponent and knows the opposition best.

But once play resumes, you realize that just below his calm surface is an intensity that cannot be contained. Howland understands his quiet demeanor and modest ways may sometime cause others to underestimate him. When he first got to Pittsburgh, a man he met at church told him that he seemed much too quiet and gentle to have the fire necessary to be a successful basketball coach. “Come see me at practice,” Howland told the man.

“He’s definitely a yeller,” says Chad Johnson, the only senior on Howland’s team last year. “He definitely gets his point across. But he doesn’t yell without a purpose. You have to respect that about him.”

“He’s a dedicated coach,” says Majerus. “He always tries to keep connected to his players. He’s a demanding coach and that’s good. What’s best is he respects the profession. He understands it’s a privilege to be a coach.”

If it’s any indication of the man, those who know him best claim not to be surprised by what he’s accomplished at Pitt. “I gave him four years to turn it around,” says his father. “He did it in three. He’s just a darned good coach.”

Bill Modoono is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and former sportswriter for the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

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