UCLA's Ben Howland on his past, his future and, yes, Bill Walton, too
UCLA enters Wednesday's game at Washington State ranked 23rd with a 12-4 record in the Pac-12 that has the Bruins tied atop the league standings. So things are going well for this team that starts three freshmen. But there's still a vibe of uncertainty surrounding the program because nobody has said for sure, because nobody can say for sure that Ben Howland will return for his 11th season.
LOS ANGELES -- "I know where I want you to meet me," Ben Howland said after UCLA Bruins 's win over Arizona Wildcats late Saturday. So I grabbed a pen and paper and asked for an address.
"Meet me at the corner of Wilshire and Ocean."
"What's the place called?"
"It's just the corner of Wilshire and Ocean," Howland answered.
"So just meet you there? Like on the corner of the street?"
"Yeah," Howland said. "Meet me at 1 o'clock tomorrow. We're gonna go for a walk."
And so, as instructed, I drove from my hotel in Marina Del Rey to Santa Monica on Sunday, paid $5 to park, tossed on some walking shoes and strolled to the corner. Minutes later, Howland arrived. And for the next 70 minutes we walked. Up the coast of the Pacific through Palisades Park, the ocean to our left, coffee shops to our right. And we talked. About the so-called hot seat, unreachable standards, and, yes, Bill Walton, too.
"There's more humidity today than there usually is out here," Howland said as we took our first steps on what turned into a three-mile walk. "But look how beautiful this is."
UCLA enters Wednesday's game at Washington State ranked 23rd with a 12-4 record in the Pac-12 that has the Bruins tied atop the league standings with Oregon Ducks . They're 18-5 with five top-50 wins since Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith transferred midseason and proved the theory of addition by subtraction is real. So things are going well for this team that starts three freshmen and four first-year Bruins. But there's still a vibe of uncertainty surrounding the program because nobody has said for sure, because nobody can say for sure, that Howland will definitely return for his 11th season in Westwood.
He wants to return for his 11th season in Westwood, though.
That much is clear.
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Howland already has plans to play on Kyle Anderson on the ball on offense, off the ball on defense, surround him with Jordan Adams , Norman Powell , David Wear , Travis Wear , Tony Parker and some recruits, and he figures that'll give him an experienced and talented team capable of competing for the Pac-12 again despite the loss of one-and-done star Shabazz Muhammad . I agree, that team (assuming all underclassmen besides Muhammad return, most notably Anderson) would be intriguing. But Howland has to first get to next season before he can coach that team next season, and nobody is certain a Pac-12 championship and trip to the Field of 68 will ensure as much, crazy as that might sound for a guy who has three Final Fours on a resume full of accomplishments.
"I've just kind of -- and this is the way you have to be in this job -- removed myself or divorced myself from worrying about that," Howland said as we walked past a makeshift yoga class. "I just try to control what I can control. I try to be honest. I try to take the high road. That's all I can do. I'm trying to control what I can control. I can't control Bill Walton."
Oddly, it is Walton who has added to the unrest at UCLA.
He's one of the school's all-time greats -- a three-time National Player of the Year and two-time national champion who led the Bruins to a combined record of 60-0 during his first two seasons with the iconic John Wooden. That was then. The now has Walton as a 60-year-old ESPN analyst on Pac-12 games who has routinely criticized Howland. Among other things, Walton has said he's not a fan of Howland, that Howland's "style" is a problem, and that if he were in charge at UCLA "things would be different."
Here's the good news for Howland: Walton is not in charge at UCLA.
But his voice still matters.
People still pay attention to what he says.
Howland's own family pays attention to what Walton says.
"It's been very difficult for my family," Howland said. "They love me. And it's not pleasant for anybody's family when your dad or your husband or your cousin or your son is under constant attack. But that's just part of this business."
I asked whether there's a personal issue with Walton we might not know about.
"Not at all," Howland said. "He's been to my house. He's had drinks at my house. … But I just think it's like anything else. It gets tough when you're at a place 10 years, and I've been here 10 years. So it's 'Win a national championship! We got two of them! We were 60-0!' That's Bill Walton's point of reference. ... So even when we're having a great year, it's just a good year by UCLA standards."
The most frustrating part for Howland is that the common knocks that surfaced against him when he missed the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2012 no longer apply even if ESPN's most famous Pac-12 analyst has failed to notice. Nobody can reasonably say Howland isn't winning enough now because, again, the Bruins are ranked and tied atop the Pac-12 standings. And nobody can reasonably say Howland isn't recruiting well enough anymore because last year's class ranked second nationally and this year's class features top-50 guard Zach Lavine. And nobody can reasonably say the style isn't fast enough anymore because -- you're not going to believe this -- there isn't a team currently ranked in the AP Top 25 that plays faster than the Bruins, according to KenPom.com.
"I've evolved and it's helped us," Howland said. "It's something I should've done earlier."
Stubborn, no more.
"I've learned from mistakes," Howland added. "I think we're headed in the right direction."
And yet Howland remains confident about but still unsure of the future because nobody from the UCLA administration has addressed his future. He entered this season on everybody's list of coaches on the hot seat, and do you ever really get off the hot seat once you're on it? Will a fourth Pac-12 title in eight years be good enough? Will a seventh trip to the NCAA tournament in nine years earn an extension? Or will Howland ultimately regret not paying more attention when Kentucky Wildcats called before hiring Billy Gillispie in 2007 and when Oklahoma State Cowboys State" data-canon="Oklahoma Sooners" data-type="SPORTS_OBJECT_TEAM" id="shortcode0"> called before hiring Travis Ford in 2008? Will he look back and wonder if he should've taken roughly $25 million in guaranteed contracts from athletic directors at DePaul Blue Demons and/or Nebraska Cornhuskers who were anxious to hire a proven winner?
"I've turned down so much guaranteed money," Howland said matter-of-factly. "If it were about the money, I would've already been gone multiple times. But it's not just about the money for me. My daughter works at UCLA. Both my children have degrees from UCLA. I love UCLA and the people at UCLA. Everybody is great. I love it here."
Still, I asked Howland if he ever really came close to leaving on his own.
For more money?
For more reasonable expectations?
For a new beginning?
"I really haven't," Howland answered as we walked past a young girl selling lemonade in front of a house on a cliff with an ocean view. "I just love UCLA, and look around. This is priceless and it's where I've always wanted to be. I'm from here. This is my home."
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