Commentary

Howland aiming for rare back-to-back-to-back Final Fours

Originally Published: March 26, 2008
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- The newest member of the BCNTHWANC must have his water bottle placed in the exact same spot for every game. You can't miss it: front corner of the scorer's table, right next to the bench, the bottle's butt dropped inside a roll of duct tape for protection. There's even two people -- a team manager and a director of basketball ops -- in charge of the whole thing.

So, yeah, UCLA's Ben Howland is a bit of a control freak. Not that he cares what you think. And he probably isn't too interested in scoring a spot on the exclusive list of Best Coaches Never To Have Won A National Championship.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesIf UCLA can survive this weekend, Ben Howland will become just the third coach to reach back-to-back-to-back Final Fours.

But the simple basketball truth is that Howland, one of the ultimate grinders in the business, deserves to be mentioned with the coaching elite. His numbers demand it.

"He's definitely on that list," said Lorenzo Mata-Real, the senior center who has played for Howland longer than anyone else on the UCLA scholarship roster. "We'll try to do everything to get him off that list."

Howland isn't steak, he's meat loaf. He isn't going to do a Bruce Pearl, apply a coat of body paint to his bare chest and hang out in the student section. He isn't going to do a Rick Pitino and dress like he borrowed his white suits from Barry Gibb or Tom Wolfe. He's just a coach, not a personality.

On Wednesday, his UCLA team will arrive at the US Airways Center in Phoenix with 33 wins and the No. 1 West Regional seed in its pocket. Last year, it was 30 victories and a Final Four appearance. The year before that it was 32 wins and a Final Four title game appearance.

So, quick, name the other two coaches in major D-I hoops history who have had three consecutive 30-win seasons.

Waiting …

Only Memphis' John Calipari, the legendary Adolph Rupp of Kentucky and, ta-da, Howland have put up that kind of numbers. And if UCLA beats Western Kentucky in Thursday's regional semi and then beats the Xavier-West Virginia winner in the final, the Bruins would make their third straight Final Four.

There are no gimmes in March, so who knows what happens here Thursday and Saturday. But if there's a recurring theme to Howland's last three seasons at UCLA, it's this: The Bruins rarely get surprised.

Nobody, in my mind, is more dedicated to his craft. It's not simply the hours. It's his attitude. He knows he doesn't have all the answers.

--Chris Carlson

So if the Bruins do advance, the Howland legacy instantly grows more muscle tone. For example, since the NCAA tournament bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985, only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Michigan State's Tom Izzo have gone back-to-back-to-back. You have no idea how hard it is to get to one Final Four. Two in a row is beyond belief. Three in a row and the alums start a statue fund.

"Nobody, in my mind, is more dedicated to his craft," said University of California-San Diego coach Chris Carlson, who worked with or for Howland on four different staffs, the latest as UCLA's director of basketball operations. "It's not simply the hours. It's his attitude. He knows he doesn't have all the answers. … It's always, 'Yeah, we're good, we've achieved some things, but we need to get better.'"

Generally speaking, UCLA plays man-to-man defense until you drop, tries to build quick leads with transition baskets, and runs most of its offense through uber freshman center Kevin Love in the low and high post.

"If you're not someone who's committed to playing defense, you're not going to last long," Carlson said.

Anyway, the Bruins can recite the Howland doctrine like an English lit major can recite Yeats. They play like they'll have to walk back to Westwood if they lose. They're unrelenting, just like their coach.

"He's just as hard a worker as we are," Mata-Real said.

And yet, even with his successes, Howland doesn't instantly come to mind when you start compiling your BCNTHWANC candidates. Of active coaches, you probably think first of Kansas' Bill Self, Texas' Rick Barnes, West Virginia's Bob Huggins, Saint Louis' Rick Majerus, Memphis' Calipari, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan, UNLV's Lon Kruger and maybe College of Charleston's Bobby Cremins.

But the stealthy Howland has to be at the top or near the top of that list. If nothing else, he got Michael Jordan's attention.

Jordan recently gave Howland the ultimate endorsement by hiring him to join the staff of his annual and exclusive Senior Flight School fantasy camp in Las Vegas this summer. Only the A-list coaches get those invitations.

Howland wasn't necessarily A-list when UCLA hired him to replace Steve Lavin after the 2002-03 season. More like B-plus -- but with potential.

He grew up in southern California and spent 12 years as an assistant at UC Santa Barbara before getting his first head coaching job in 1994 at Northern Arizona. Five years later he took the Pittsburgh job. Four years after that he was in Westwood, by all accounts the only candidate who actually interviewed with UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero.

Ben Howland
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaBen Howland's rise to the top has been rapid once he got his first major job at Pitt in 1999.

Howland was an outsider but with SoCal roots and a jones for all things John Wooden and UCLA. He was the first choice, not the fourth, fifth, sixth … or whatever Jim Harrick was when UCLA hired him in 1988 (and later fired him in 1996). And he had a head coaching body of work, unlike Lavin at the time, whose seven seasons at UCLA featured some nice tournament runs, but also numerous critics who questioned his ascension from Harrick assistant to Harrick emergency replacement.

"Ben came in with a track record," said Carlson.

He also came in with an understanding of the UC system, thanks to those 12 years at Santa Barbara. It doesn't sound like much, but it is.

"This is really important and something that's never been talked about," Carlson said. "The UC system, they're highly academic and they're very bureaucratic. UCSB prepared him for that high level of bureaucracy."

So here he is, poised to go for the Final Four appearance three-fer. There's pressure, of course. There always is at UCLA.

It took Roy Williams, a charter member of the BCNTHWANC, five Final Four tries before he won his first national championship. Houston's Guy Lewis reached the Final Four in 1982, 1983 and 1984 and never won the thing. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim needed two tries (1987 and 1996) before he broke through in 2003.

Howland isn't there yet, but he's close. Close enough that he's grinding harder than usual.

Late last Saturday night, after UCLA had squeezed past Texas A&M to reach the Sweet 16, Howland agreed to one last round of media interviews outside the Bruins locker room. His voice was shot, but it still had an edge to it.

"We're just going to find a way to win any way we know how," said Howland.

Carlson was there that night in Anaheim. Told later that Howland still had his game face on nearly 45 minutes after the win, Carlson wasn't surprised.

"That's Ben," he said. "It's March."

Water bottle time.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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