March 20, 2007

Dealing With Ben Howland

Filed under: Basketball,Coaches,Fans,History — Chas @ 9:54 am

I don’t hold great animosity any longer to Ben Howland. I used to, but I don’t have the energy. I don’t hold great affection for him either. I’ll try to explain in my usual, concise way.

The Ralph Willard era was pathetic. Willard took too many chances on players with some talent but a lot more issues. Willard was horrible as a coach at Pitt. I don’t care what kind of job he has done or continues to do at Holy Cross, I won’t forget just how bad he was at Pitt. Pathetic in-game coach and even worse in reaching the players. I had the misfortune of attending the two biggest collapses by Pitt under Willard. A loss to Rutgers in February, 1996, 71-70. Pitt had been up by well over 20 points in that game and took the entire entire 2nd half to give the game away — 1000 paper cuts. The other, of course, was that epic collapse in December 1998. A 70-69 loss to UConn that Willard claimed caused the team to suffer a sustained hangover effect as they lost 5 of their next 7. I always have believed that Willard sealed his own fate then. Not by losing to UConn, but by saying the effects of the loss stayed with the team for over a month — essentially conceding he couldn’t get the team past blowing the game.

Howland came in as several of the bad seeds either failed out, left or were kicked out for criminal issues. There’s no getting around it or pretending Pitt may have had some of the seedier collections of players this side of a Jim Harrick team.

The resulting teams for the first couple of years were undermanned; but the team embraced a defense first style, the effort was obvious and the game plans sound. The turnaround wasn’t nearly as sudden as sometimes portrayed — except in attitude. Even the second year, the turnaround wasn’t huge. Pitt finished 7-9 in the Big East, a two game improvement. Then came a tremendous run in the Big East Tournament that got everyone’s attention — mainly because Pitt had never done it before. A team that went no more than 6 deep won 3 straight games (including an OT) to get to the Big East Championship. By that point the team was gassed and toasted by BC by the second half.

I remember that run vividly because I had to go to a nearby dive bar to watch. I had just moved in with my girlfriend and she didn’t have cable (and I still married her). So I spent 4 straight days in a little bar filled with cheap beer and smoke. Intently watching the game on a smeared TV screen in Euclid, Ohio I was able to get them to switch to. Drinking probably a little too quickly and much because of the nerves. It was great.

But now there was real hope, belief and some actual expectations. The next two years were very special.

In the 2002-03 season, it quickly became clear that Steve Lavin was not long for staying in charge of the Bruins. All talk centered on Ben Howland considering all that was happening at Pitt. Locally and nationally, few doubted that Howland would be pursued by UCLA. His Southern California roots, his father still back there, Jim Rome pushing him for the job any chance he could get. As my friends and I debated and discussed whether Howland would leave Pitt for UCLA, I posted (way back on my original blog) some of what worked pro/con in Howland leaving; and what goes into being an elite basketball program. By elite, I don’t mean a top team right now, I mean a team that has sustained success, storied tradition, history and fans with a sense of entitlement. UCLA fit that mold.

As you would expect from most coaches, Howland did the usual coachspeak, denial/non-denial cliches: I haven’t been contacted; I have a job; I don’t want to discuss it… Nothing unusual or unexpected. UCLA didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament and Lavin was gone quickly. That meant heavy speculation on Howland was underway early. There was wishful thinking that perhaps the Bruins would cast their eye on Mark Few at Gonzaga.

It didn’t happen. A few days after Pitt lost to Marquette and Wade in the Sweet 16, Ben Howland was introduced as the new head coach of UCLA. I was not surprised, and really was more concerned about who would take over the job at Pitt. There were plenty of compelling reasons for him to take the UCLA job — from prestige to family and all the stuff in between. Disappointing to lose a very good coach, to be sure.

Then some things came out to sour the feelings. (The stories about why Donatas Zavakas was pulled from the game and appeared to quit on the team — for what he said to Howland about the UCLA job, allegedly — I did not hear for a while. For some this is a reason to hate Howland — being distracted by the UCLA job and a player calling him out on it. For me, since I didn’t hear the story at the time it never really entered into my issues with him.)

It turned out Howland didn’t even want to tell his old players he was leaving. That fell to the Jamie Dixon. After that came out, Howland, belatedly, returned to meet with them. That left a bad taste. Then came reading the story of his introductory press conference.

The day after Pitt lost to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament, Howland had a friend contact Guerrero.

“I knew right away what I wanted to do, which was to pursue this opportunity,” the coach said.

That was the killer for me. All the coachspeak about not looking, and happy where he was just went out the window. He had just stated that as soon as Pitt had lost. The pain hadn’t even receded for the fans, the team, and he was having intermediaries tell UCLA he wanted the job. Howland couldn’t even wait for UCLA to contact him like everyone knew they would. The corpse was still warm. It was open and admitted pursuit and made me along with most fans wonder how much he really cared or tried as a coach in the Marquette loss.

As a Pitt fan, how does that not come off as incredibly cold, callous and just wrong by Howland? How does that not create some very hard feelings in what otherwise may have been an amicable departure?

Yes, Howland did a lot of good at Pitt. He helped — along with the new building and an aggressive AD — change the culture around Pitt basketball. That doesn’t change that he created some hard feelings with the way he left.

There’s was also — and while this is not at all Howland’s fault, it contributed to fan frustration and animosity to Howland’s departure — the piss poor way that Pitt handled trying to decide on a new coach. Pitt was acting at the time with only an interim AD — no excuse for that since it had been 4 months since the former had left (and he gave notice). So you had the school chancellor and an interim AD doing the search. They only interviewed two candidates: Wake Forest’s Skip Prosser and Jamie Dixon.

Prosser was the guy they wanted. It was to the point where they were down in New Orleans for the Final Four and didn’t even contact any other possibilities to at least informally talk about the job. Prosser ultimately turned down the job and chose to stay at Wake Forest. A good deal of which had to do with still not finding a full time AD. After very publicly flubbing the pursuit of Prosser, the school hired Dixon. Now, obviously this has turned out to be a good hire, but the issue wasn’t the hiring. It was the process — or rather the complete lack of planning and thoroughness in searching for candidates. It just has seemed much more luck then skill.

It was one thing to pursue one particular coach hard and strong, but to not get him, and then fall back on an assistant, who at the time was an unknown and the interview seemed like a courtesy to him and the players that wanted him. It wasn’t like Dixon was the “hot assistant” at the time. The highest profile job he had been considered was at Wright State. This was and is no knock on Coach Dixon. It was the reality of the situation.

Well it came off as minor league and a decision that if they couldn’t get the guy they really wanted, the school would take a clear 2nd choice on the cheap. That contributed to fan frustration and more annoyance at Howland leaving.

Is it all logical? Is it fair? No. It also doesn’t matter. Being a fan has very little to do with logic. There’s just too much emotion involved. A coach leaving a team is like a divorce. It doesn’t matter how many good times were had. It doesn’t matter if on side professes to still care after they were the one to leave. The fact is they left and it is the last memory. There’s going to be bitterness.

Well said Chas-I know you have a life but I miss your writing on this blog.

Like any separation, there will be some feelings of hurt/confusion, but the point remains the same for alot of us:

Leave a job for more money-I know I would do it today no problem.

Leave a job for your childhood dream-would do that too.

But I wouldn’t leave a job abadoning ship style, when the job has been very good and fair to me. I would give proper notice-similar to what Johhny Majors did a month before winning our NC. Everyone knew he was leaving and they still got the job done. He was then able to pursue his dream job and alma mater (where he finished second in the heisman voting as a player).

Make certain of this bruin-ites, we want this game for more than an elite 8 appearance.

Comment by scoocher 03.20.07 @ 10:18 am

I have a good feeling about this game on Thurs. We match up really well against UCLA and that VCU win really showed me how tough our guys are. Lets Go Pitt!

Comment by dan 03.20.07 @ 10:40 am

holy crap! that was an almost perfect recap of the most agonizing period of Pitt basketball in the last 15 years. I had completely blocked the Ralph Willard coaching debacle from my memory, but you are correct in your assessment. Awesome post…and I couldn’t agree more about not holding any affection for Howland.

Comment by bigslacker 03.20.07 @ 10:43 am

Nice recap. I don’t think anyone believes Howland is a bad guy or didn’t appreciate his time at Pitt, he just royally screwed up his departure. He was dishonest and impatient when he left and that is what people remember. Warren Buffett says it takes 15 years to build a good repuation and 15 seconds to ruin it. That is what happened with Howland.

Comment by Omar 03.20.07 @ 10:58 am

I have to admit, that Pitt did just about everything wrong during the BB coach search, yet ended up with probably the best possible replacement for Howland. What is that saying about God watching over little children, drunks, and fools?

I remember that several times during that season where Howland was saying it was not going to leave, he was talking up the attributes of Jamie Dixon. I suspected that it meant he was actually going to leave and he was promoting Dixon as his replacement. Howland lobbied hard for Jamie to be considered as his replacement after he announced that he was definately leaving. I was also unhappy with the way that Ben left, but he not only left us with a better program, he left us with a coach who actually believes in Pittsburgh’s future. When its all said and done, I think that UCLA and Pitt both ended up with the best coach for their respective teams.

Comment by KeithS 03.20.07 @ 11:06 am

“The stories about why Donatas Zavakas was pulled from the game”
is there a link for this? i could use a refresher.

Comment by Joey T 03.20.07 @ 11:09 am

Chas, Your comments about Zavakas and Howland are intriguing. Zavackas taking off his shoes at the end of that game always perplexed me. He seemed like a hard-nosed player who would never quit.
Is there any information out there that would confirm this confrontation? Has either party ever commented on the incident publicly?
This is the only story I could find on the issue:

link to

It doesn’t really provide any insight into the issue. Not doubting you. Just looking for evidence.

Comment by Dave in Orlando 03.20.07 @ 11:25 am

Chas right on target.

Comment by Tony In Harrisburg 03.20.07 @ 11:37 am

We as fans invest so much into our sports teams that we forget that it is just a business to the coaches. I have no animosity towards Howland and find him to be very entertaining when being interviewed.

When I graduated Pitt, we were hearing about this kid from Connecticut named Charles Smith and wondered why he would even want to come to Pitt. After he came and the success they had, I truly believed the program had changed forever. That never manifested itself.

The job that Howland did certainly seemed to lay the foundation for a very solid program under Dixon. I truly do not care if we ever get a top 50 recruit as long as year after year we have a team that has a decent to good chance to win the Big East and get to the tournament. This relatively stable string of success is wonderful.

I don’t know if anyone caught the “Road Trip with Pitt” on FSN last night, but the one thing I took away from that was Dixon’s intensity. Practically every shot of him was one in which he appeared to be studying game “film”. I liked the guy before and came away even more impressed after watching that.

Comment by panther84 03.20.07 @ 11:52 am

The stories regarding Zavakas are just that — stories. Unconfirmed and unverified. If there had been a link, of course I would put it in there. I have seen message board stuff on this periodically, and it has slowly become accepted as fact by some. I never heard the stories until well after the fact. I’m not even sure I believe them. The fact is neither has ever publicly said what happened at that point. Until then, there will just be stories.

The only reason I added the parenthetical about it was to state that the alleged story had nothing to do with my feelings regarding Howland.

Comment by Chas 03.20.07 @ 11:53 am




I caught “Road Trip with Pitt” also. Very cool. The players looked like they were having a good time with it and it showed better chamistry than some “insiders” have descirbed on message boards.

Comment by Joey T 03.20.07 @ 11:58 am

Omar, that 15 years/ 15 seconds comment couldnt be more true. People will always remember you for the times you screwed up and rarely remember the good. I am just hopeful we come ready for UCLA with a good game plan and ready to play with a chip on our shoulder.

Comment by Rex 03.20.07 @ 12:29 pm

I forget what movie it was said in but it’s a very good line “Everything ends badly otherwise it wouldn’t end.”

Also what has Willard done with his hair at HC…it’s like ghost white…that look is awful…

cousin j

Comment by cousin j 03.20.07 @ 12:48 pm

great recap…..

howlands departure left much to be desired…but step into his shoes for a minute…he’s getting his dream job and oppurtunity of a lifetime..he got a little over-excited and stepped on some toes out the door….none of us can say that, if the situation was in our corner, we wouldnt do the same thing………

you work at A corp, and B corp comes calling and says they want you, and B corp has been your dream job since you started working… would give A corp your 2 weeks, but you wouldnt give 2 shits about what happened during your last 2, you would just be ready to join B corp…essentially thats what happened…..

with that said..lets hope the boys conjure up some inner-hatred towards him, so they play some inspired ball…….we can definitely get this win….

Comment by Schoe 03.20.07 @ 1:05 pm


Difference is you still have a job to finish. Corporations are different in that you transition out of your last job (and also amazed with the dope they are intending to replace you with 😉 ), and then have some sort of orientation/training greeting period with the new job.

Howland left in the middle of the tournament with the apex of his and university’s efforts in the program in the balance. Coaches live and die for this time of year and he leaves in a rush to do what? His new employer is irrevelant and not in the tournament (and if they were he wouldn’t be allowed to coach them anyway!)

I would not want to hire someone if they left someone else overnight-’cause what prevents them from doing it to you?

Again, I have no problem he no longer wanted us, I just have a problem of how he left.

Anyway, really looking forward to this game.

Comment by scoocher 03.20.07 @ 2:02 pm

How ’bout that PITT football team?

Comment by Reed 03.20.07 @ 2:35 pm

I’m looking forward to the game but I suspect that I won’t be getting much sleep Thursday night. I’ll either be elated or crushed; either way, the adreneline will be flowing. Still, as long as there’s be beer nearby, I’ll manage.

Comment by Shawn 03.20.07 @ 4:33 pm

I found this piece as a link from the Bruins Nation (UCLA sports) blog. Naturally, I don’t know much about Howland’s departure from Pitt, but from your account it sounds like some of the bitterness depends on the spin you put on the story. I was particularly intrigued by the following line, “It was open and admitted pursuit and made me along with most fans wonder how much he really cared or tried as a coach in the Marquette loss.”

Obviously, given this “admitted pursuit,” Howland was terribly excited by the UCLA job. I think the fact that he tried not to let his excitement or intentions show in the weeks that led up to his announcement speaks to his dedication to the Pitt team, its players and their performance in the tournament. It just sounds to me like he wanted his players focused on the game. As far as how he handled the move after the Marquette game was over…that sounds like a different story.

Comment by Joe 03.20.07 @ 6:15 pm

It’s wrong to say Lavin would have kept his job if UCLA made the tournament. We all hated Lavin and once Bob Toledo (our previous football coach) was fired, after doing a much better job, Lavin was a lame duck. Unlike Pitt, UCLA is a basketball power, and as we had faded into being nearly irrelevant for the simple reason of having a bad coach Lavin was going to be fired. Now that we have Howland we are at the top like we should be. Thursday will be a good game and hopefully UCLA and Pitt will be at the pinnacle of college basketball for years to come.

Comment by SuperBruinMan 03.20.07 @ 9:05 pm

Yo SuperBruinWoman, beat it dude.

Comment by scoocher 03.20.07 @ 11:21 pm

“Unlike Pitt, UCLA is a basketball power…now that we have Howland we are at the top like we should be.”

You are a fool if you believe your own dribble. Although you may have been handed everything in life, you aren’t entitled to shit. Go fuck yourself.

Comment by Stuart 03.21.07 @ 12:16 am

I’m a second generation Bruin, so (obviously) I’m looking at things from another angle, but I just wanted to say how fantastic this entire writeup is. We wanted Ben, we got Ben, life has been good for us…That’s the extent of my knowledge regarding Coach Howland and Pitt.

Coach Howland left your great school for his hometown, his dream job, and the most storied college basketball program in America. I don’t think any one of us can begrudge a fellow for that. I’m really glad that you guys haven’t become overly bitter about the situation. Many of us still talk about losing Dick Vermeil to the Eagles, 30 years after it happened. Losing a great coach hurts.

And just to let you know, because of Coach Howland, most of us have become Pitt fans, and really respect the job Coach Dixon has done out there. And we’ve often talked about Maggie Dixon and how much our sympathies go out to the Dixon family.

Hopefully, win or lose, both fan bases will embrace each other and root for the Panthers and Bruins after this Sweet 16 game.

Oh, and you stay classy, scoocher/Stuart. Thankfully, most fans aren’t like you.

Comment by Sweetbreads 03.21.07 @ 3:01 am

Yeah Howland left like a puss but that’s how all coaches do it these days. It’s just standard procedure. Deny and fly. Ben Howland did a nice job while he was at Pitt. Now he’s at a different school — so what? I could understand being ticked off if he was an alumnus or our coach for 30 years or something, but he was just a guy who was here for 4 years and moved on. (He probably won’t be at UCLA long either — they’ll fire him for only winning 75% of his games :P. There are already UCLA fans who don’t like him.)

Comment by bill 03.21.07 @ 4:34 am

75%? thats a 22-8 regular season.
we can tolerate that maybe once every 3 years, that is if he has a strong showing in the tourney.

22-8? that is not good enough at UCLA.

Comment by LuiDAbruin 03.21.07 @ 1:51 pm

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