Thursday, April 3, 2003

Howland goes home to coach UCLA

By Beth Harris
The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - Coming home to Southern California meant more to Ben Howland than any extra money Pittsburgh could offer him to stay. Howland, who led Pitt from Big East doormat to national championship contender in four years, was hired as UCLA's basketball coach Wednesday night.

"I want to make it clear how hard it was for me to leave the University of Pittsburgh," Howland said. "I can't imagine myself leaving Pittsburgh for anywhere except UCLA."

The 45-year-old Howland was to be introduced at a campus news conference Thursday. He succeeds Steve Lavin, fired March 17 after the Bruins went 10-19 for their first losing season in 55 years.

Howland said the day Lavin was fired he had no plans to leave Pitt, but everything changed once the Panthers were eliminated by Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

He met with UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and associate athletic director Betsy Stephenson on Sunday in Santa Barbara. His parents live in the city 100 miles north of Los Angeles, and Howland was an assistant at UC Santa Barbara for 11 seasons.

He was a UCLA fan while playing basketball at Cerritos High.

"Having grown up in Southern California as a Bruin fan, watching the televised replays of the games was special for me," he said. "To now be the head coach of this program is something I dreamed about but never thought possible. I have an appreciation for what these four letters mean in the world of college basketball."

Howland just completed the first year of a seven-year, $5.9 million contract at Pitt that included incentives and a buyout of about $750,000. Pitt officials expressed a willingness to improve his contract, but it wasn't enough to keep him.

Guerrero seemed to target Howland from the start of his two-week search. From all indications, he was the only man interviewed for the job. Guerrero, in his first year at UCLA, knows Howland from when he interviewed the coach for a job at UC Irvine.

"Ben understands that championships are built on defense, intensity, teamwork and fundamentals and those elements are the foundation of his philosophy," Guerrero said.

"His teams come to play every night and they do an outstanding job on both ends of the floor. We are excited about bringing Ben back to the West Coast and we are excited about the future of Bruin basketball."

Howland has a 168-99 record in nine years as a head coach - five at Northern Arizona and four at Pitt.

He took the Pitt job before the 1999-00 season, succeeding Ralph Willard. When Howland arrived, the Panthers had managed only one winning season in the previous six and hadn't played in the NCAA tournament since 1993.

Pitt was 13-15 in Howland's first season, but went 19-14, 29-6 and 28-5 in his final three.

The Panthers reached the final 16 of the NCAA tournament the last two years and Howland won a school-record four tournament games. Pitt sold out the new 12,500-seat Petersen Events Center for every game this season and the Panthers were 16-0 at home.

Howland becomes the eighth coach at UCLA since John Wooden retired in 1975 after leading the Bruins to 10 NCAA championships in a 12-year span.

UCLA has won only one title since Wooden retired - under Jim Harrick in 1995.

Harrick was fired in November 1996 and succeeded by Lavin, who went 145-78 in seven seasons and took the Bruins to the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament five times in six years, a feat matched only by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

But this season was a disaster, and it was clear early on that Lavin's days were numbered.

Before this season, the Bruins were dominant at Pauley Pavilion, compiling a 523-65 record. But they lost 10 home games - the most in a season - while winning only five. The average attendance of 8,348 in the 12,819-seat arena was the lowest since 1993.

Howland leaves Pitt's new arena for 38-year-old Pauley, which has little luster other than the 11 national championship banners hanging from its rafters. Lagging attendance will be another obstacle he faces in rebuilding a once-proud program.

"We should be competing for the Pacific-10 title and a high seed in the NCAA tournament year in and year out, and I look forward to that challenge," Howland said.

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