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Mark Whicker: Howland eager to get back on coaching block, but why?

Mark Whicker Orange County Register

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Ben Howland has every intention of coaching a college basketball team either next season or the season after that.

One wonders why.

From the deck of his house he can sit and gaze upon four scenic Channel Islands on a good day.

He could see only one Wednesday, not to say Wednesday or any other day is a bad day here.

He and his wife, Kim, can whale-watch, too, through the telescope, without getting on the boat.

His son and daughter are happily and gainfully employed on the west side of L.A., and he has a 23-month-old grandson. He lives amid the friendships the Howlands cultivated when he was Jerry Pimm’s assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara, when Brian Shaw and Carrick DeHart filled the Thunderdome.

Better yet, UCLA will continue to pay Howland for not coaching its basketball team for the next three seasons.

“First time in 32 years,” Howland said, thinking about his sabbatical.

His 10 years at UCLA ended last March 24, fewer than 48 hours after the Bruins’ shabby second-round NCAA loss to Minnesota. “I tried to make the most of it,” he said. “I really took a step back.”

By doing what?

“I probably watched more college basketball this year than I’ve ever watched. The games start at 4 o’clock and they go to midnight. That’s all I do.”

Well, that’s not altogether true.

Howland’s annual fly-fishing vacation lasted 12 days, not three. He went to Montana and Wyoming and hauled in trout on a river so productive that he won’t tell you where it is or what it’s named. Afterward, he drove home from Dillon, Mont., in one day.

He was hoping to see more of Europe, but Nov. 22 he was on his bike and slammed the brakes to avoid a pedestrian. He broke his humerus in doing so.

For six weeks he had to sleep in a chair, out on the deck. On Wednesday he made his usual trip to the therapist, and had an ice bag big enough for a major league right-hander.

He visited Tim Floyd at UTEP and Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh, where he once coached. He hung out with ex-USC coach Kevin O’Neill, now a TV pundit.

He sometimes dropped in on Bob Williams’ practices at UC Santa Barbara, and saw a few Big West games there, too. And he was a TV studio analyst during the Pac-12 tournament.

But Howland wasn’t seen at UCLA, which is 26-8 in Steve Alford’s first season and is set to play Tulsa in a first-round game Friday in San Diego.

Howland’s final team went 25-10 and won the Pac-12 regular-season title. He didn’t win the Pac-12 tournament, but Jordan Adams broke his foot during that tournament.

“It was tough watching them play,” Howland said, “because I’m no longer the coach, but I still have the attachment to the kids. I was really proud of the way they performed.

“They played their best in the conference tournament. It was indicative how good they are and how good they can be. And they’re great kids.”

He looked at the ocean and smiled.

“He (Alford) walked into a nice situation, in terms of the cupboard not being bare,” Howland said.

Ten of Howland’s Bruins are in the NBA today, and Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook were 2012 Olympians. Others, like Josh Shipp and Michael Roll, are making impressive bucks playing in Europe. Beginning in 2006 the Bruins went to three consecutive Final Fours, and Howland won four Pac-12s.

And his winning percentage in that decade was .685. Which, incredibly, ranks sixth among the eight coaches who have followed John Wooden.

As Alford will discover, even a spiffed-up Pauley Pavilion is a tough room.

“There’s no question I made some recruiting errors,” Howland said. “That gets magnified when you’re losing. But it’s not an exact science either. We lost some players to the pros earlier than we thought. Did I know Russell Westbrook would be a Naismith Hall of Famer? No, but he’s going to be.

“One thing I take great pride in is that if you go back and ask NBA scouts which players were best prepared to play in the NBA, I think our name would be mentioned.”

The Howlands always called this their retirement house. It is more ready than they are. He can tell you which jobs are open and which are likely to be. He is more plugged-in than unplugged.

“I want to make sure I’m coaching at a place where there’s a chance to be successful,” Howland said. “Whether it’s next year or the year after, I know it has to be pretty soon.

“But I’m 56 and I think I’ve got 10 good years left. I will be coaching again.”

If he must.

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