Last Thursday night, during a UCLA-Washington game at a half-empty Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus, former Bruins great Bill Walton called out coach Ben Howland for -- among other things -- the style of basketball he coached.
The rant came during an ESPN national broadcast for which Walton served as color commentator, and it left viewers with the strange feeling of being entertained and uncomfortable at the same time. Walton, who played at UCLA from 1971-74, complained of not seeing joy in the faces of the players and compared the game to a visit to the dentist, all an affront to the defensive and structured style Howland has employed at UCLA since being hired in 2003 after leading a resurgence at Pitt.
In Los Angeles, home of the "showtime" Lakers and the greatest college basketball dynasty of all time, style sells -- which explains why Howland never has been fully embraced even though he took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Four appearances and reached an NCAA title game early in his tenure.
It's the complete opposite in Pittsburgh, where Howland mentored Jamie Dixon to be his successor. At Pitt, it is substance over style. Dixon coaches Pitt in a similar manner with an emphasis on defense and rebounding, but he does so in front of capacity crowds at Petersen Events Center where there is an 11,000-person waiting list for season tickets.
Dixon has been criticized for his postseason failures, but he probably enjoys more job security than anyone else in the country not named Mike Krzyzewski.
Howland, on the other hand, is on the hot seat even though he is coaching a team that is in third place in the Pac-12 and on track for an NCAA tournament appearance for the seventh time in his 11 years there.
"In Los Angeles, there is so much competition for the entertainment dollar," said Ernie Zeigler, a former assistant coach under Howland at Pitt and UCLA. "God bless Bill Walton, but the reality is, at UCLA they'd have to duplicate the Walton heyday when they won 88 games in a row and won all of those championships to have every home game sold out because of everything else that is going on out there.
"L.A. is glitz and glamour. It's the beaches. It's Rodeo Drive. There will always be a faction of people who want the showtime, the style. But at the end of the day, Ben has competed for a championship, been to Final Fours. He competes for conference championships every year and he produces NBA players, probably more NBA players than anyone except [Kentucky coach John Calipari]. If that's not a style of play people want to watch, then I don't know what they want to watch."
Zeigler, who was head coach at Central Michigan from 2006-12, moved back to Pittsburgh last year to watch his son, Trey, play for Pitt. He said there are big differences in how the cities view their college basketball teams.
"Here in Pittsburgh, Pitt basketball is the NBA product because there is no NBA team here," Zeigler said. "People view Pitt basketball the same way they view the Steelers, the Penguins or the Pirates. They look at it from a pro perspective much more than a college perspective. That's why you have such a long waiting list for season tickets. That's professional-like, to have 11,000 people on a waiting list. People here aren't concerned with style points -- just winning."
Jason Matthews also has been entrenched in the basketball scene in Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. He grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., and was mentored by Magic Johnson at a summer camp when he was in high school.
Matthews left southern California to play at Pitt in 1987 and finished his career as the sixth-leading scorer in school history. He said the differences between East Coast and West Coast basketball are evident at all levels.
"There is a different style of play at the high school, college and even professional level," Matthews said. "The Pac-12 is more up and down compared to the Big East. They're scoring more in the 70s while the Big East games are in the 60s. Ben Howland's style is more East Coast-style, and he's at an extreme disadvantage because L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world. Fans typically want to be entertained. They don't feel his style is entertaining for the price of admission.
"And let's face it, at UCLA, where they have 10 championships, they expect Final Fours every year. They expect a championship every four years or so. At Pitt -- and I don't say this is a negative way -- we're still trying to get to a Final Four."
Zeigler, who remains close with Howland, said Walton's rant was unsubstantiated. Stereotypes have been based on Howland's previous teams, not the one averaging 76 points per game this season, which ranks 28th in Division I.
Dixon has the same problem. Pitt's offensive efficiency ranking has been higher than its defensive efficiency ranking in recent years. Yet, when analysts talked about Pitt, they mentioned defense first.
"Walton has the capability to spew his viewpoints, but they're not playing like they were during the years they were going to Final Fours or when [Howland] coached at Pitt," Zeigler said. "Ben's style is more wide open now. It's not the grind-it-out style. They're trying to score earlier in the shot clock and do things like that. Unfortunately for Ben, he had a lot of success playing the other way and people seem to have their mind made up about him."
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1. First Published February 15, 2013 5:00 AM