DAYTON, Ohio — Trivia time. See the 60-ish guy sitting down and taking a minute in a Dayton Arena locker room after a tough road victory? He should look familiar, because once, he was at center stage. Name that coach.
He’s one of four dozen men to lead three different schools into the NCAA tournament.
He’s one of only three active coaches to take a team to three consecutive Final Fours.
He’s the only coach out there who, as a graduate assistant, once had the job every day of guarding future Hall of Famer John Stockton in practice.
Time’s up. Say hello again to Ben Howland. “I’m 61, I’m blessed to be coaching still at a high level,” he said, after his Mississippi State team grinded out a win over Dayton — the kind of victory it will so badly need to break a decade-long NCAA tournament dry spell.
Howland is the man who built NCAA tournament teams at Northern Arizona, and then Pittsburgh and then UCLA — a run which included back-to-back-to-back Final Fours with the Bruins in 2006-08. Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo are the only other active threepeaters.
But Howland never could get his one shining moment, and later, he and UCLA went through a divorce. Now he’s trying to find the March road again at Mississippi State, where the attention is not so omnipresent, and neither is the tradition. It’s been a journey, and still is.
“I was praying about that today,” he said. “I shared a prayer with our team. I hadn’t done this one before.” He pulls a paper from his briefcase and begins to read . . . well, we’ll get back to that.
First, we should see what Howland has been up to. Mississippi State returned its top six scorers from a team that made a deep NIT run last spring, so it's natural for the Bulldogs to want more. Mississippi State hasn't been in the NCAA Tournament since 2009. Howland, once a regular attendee, hasn’t been there since his last UCLA season in 2013.
“I’m driven,” he says. “We want to get back there so bad. This is our best team since I’ve been here. We had a chance last year but we just didn’t have a difficult enough non-conference schedule.”
Getting there via an SEC championship will be asking a lot, with Kentucky and Tennessee in the way. An at-large bid is the more likely ticket, so the Bulldogs need good wins — which is why a 72-67 loss to Arizona State in Las Vegas hurt, and why this escape at Dayton was so exhilarating. That made Mississippi State 6-1, which is on the right flight path for March, anyway.
“That’s what this whole year is about,” Howland says. “That’s why the Arizona State loss was so critical. We lost a game we played poorly in. That was stupid to go that far; it was a 10-hour trip to get there. I don’t know what I was thinking.”
At this point, nothing much fazes Howland, not even a dangerous Friday night in Dayton, where the student section is in blue faces and red hair. He is trying to do what he did as a young man at Northern Arizona, and later Pitt and UCLA. Construct.
“It’s incredibly rewarding to build something from the ground up. That’s been pretty much everywhere I’ve been. But it’s also incredibly difficult. Nowhere was it more difficult than Northern Arizona."
The Mississippi State road gets only curvier. Clemson and Cincinnati are on the schedule in December, then the SEC with its hazardous nights in Lexington, Knoxville, Auburn. But before all that, there’s a moment to reflect on the past.
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He started out as a grad assistant at Gonzaga, back before Gonzaga was cool. They couldn’t find anyone to guard Stockton in practice but Howland lived and breathed defense as a player at Weber State — when he wasn't meeting the cheerleader who would end up his wife — so he got the task. “That was one of my great memories in life,” he says. And if there were days he couldn’t stop Stockton, well, neither could the NBA.
Then came the head coaching tour. The grand vistas of Northern Arizona, the teeming river city of Pitt, the frenzied aura of UCLA. And now Mississippi State, where the basketball so often gets lost beneath the football.
“I just feel like it’s an incredible blessing and an honor to have been coaching all this time and not have a real job; to do something you love to do and am passionate about,” he says. “That’s what I try to impress upon my team in terms of their future. You’ve got to find something that you love, that you’re passionate about, that you care about. For me it’s about helping players grow and being with staff and the camaraderie that you have. You don’t get that in a lot of other environments.”
Those UCLA Final Fours ended in silence, with two losses to Florida and another to Memphis. But gee, a man gets to three Final Fours in a row, shouldn’t that guarantee fame and longevity? Krzyzewski and Izzo did it and remain legends at their schools. But it ended a little messy for Howland at UCLA, and Mississippi State is a work in progress, away from the bluebloods and bright lights.
This is his fourth year. His resume says, watch out. He was 79-19 in his fourth seasons at the other three stops. Northern Arizona reached the tournament, Pitt the Sweet 16, UCLA the Final Four. No wonder Mississippi State has visions of March, and so does he.
“I thought it was tough for us this year early on because there was so much expectation for this team; being ranked, everybody telling you how great you are. So you fight that, which is new for us this year. We’ve got to be wary of that.
“I’m excited about trying to reach that goal. It would mean a hell of a lot, bottom line. I love these kids, I want them to have that experience.”
It’ll take persistence, perspective and a little luck. Hence, the prayer Ben Howland holds in his hands and reads aloud on this Friday night in Dayton, Ohio.
Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible and achieves the impossible.
“That’s special to me.”