It took a return trip to Pittsburgh and a moment beside old friend Jamie Dixon at center court of Petersen Events Center for Ben Howland to remember what he has been missing.
Thursday afternoon, nearly eight months after he was unceremoniously ousted after 10 years as UCLA head coach, Howland paid a visit to Dixon, his longtime assistant at Northern Arizona (1994-98) and Pitt (1999-2003). Amid the familiar sounds of dribbles and laughter and whistles, Howland was back home.
"That was the first time that it really hit me," said Howland, a veteran coach on a hiatus for the first time in 32 years. "I've never had time off at this time of year. [This visit] is special for me with Jamie, obviously, because of our close relationship."
"I bring in coaches every year to watch us practice," Dixon said. "And it's even more valuable to have a guy with as many wins as he has here. We talk all the time, so it wasn't all that different, but I guess to everyone else it seems like a new deal."
Howland sat courtside Friday night for the Oakland Zoo Blue/Gold Scrimmage, a 74-67 victory for the Gold team, as a sideshow reminder of the radical transformation the program -- and the entire Pitt community -- has undergone in the past decade since Dixon took over for Howland.
Howland applauded chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson for the development projects around campus that have culminated in Pitt's current standing as the newest member of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which Howland called "arguably the best basketball conference in the country."
After taking in practice and the scrimmage, Howland was impressed with the Panthers' perimeter play and speed at the dawn of the 2013 season, Pitt's first in the ACC.
"I was telling Jamie that I can't get over what a fine shooting team this is," Howland said. "When they have open shots, they're knocking them down. ... It's exciting. They've got a lot of pieces, and it's going to be a fun team to watch evolve throughout the year."
He singled out redshirt junior guard Cameron Wright as a player to watch. After dumping in 27 points and a buzzer-beating 3-point winner in the team's first scrimmage two weeks ago, Wright scored 25 points Friday to lead the Gold to victory.
"He's just a better player," Dixon said. "He's in better shape. He's shooting the ball with more arc. He's healthy. He's just playing really well."
Dixon and Howland have earned more than 200 wins since parting ways 10 years ago, with the Panthers (262-86) tipping the scales on the Bruins (230-105), though UCLA made the Final Four three times.
"Jamie has done such a phenomenal job over this last decade," Howland said. "When you look at all the programs in the country over the last decade, Pitt is in the conversation as one of the top programs year in and year out. It's been unbelievable. He's done a tremendous job."
The coaches were pitted against each other only once, a 64-55 UCLA victory in the 2007 NCAA tournament.
"It was like coaching against your best friend, your brother," Howland said. "It was not a fun game."
His own future still uncertain, Howland hopes to have secured a college head-coaching job by springtime. "I'm hoping someone will hire me," he said. "Whoever that is, I have no idea."
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt. First Published October 18, 2013 8:30 PM