Anderson: Howland still calls Pitt family

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LOS ANGELES -- There's a great tone of pride in Ben Howland's voice as he shows off large, framed photos from his days at Pitt that are hung here and there on the walls of his handsome, spacious office at UCLA.

Here's one from the Big East tournament his last season with the Panthers. Here's another from the tournament, a shot of the stands with his extended family -- wife, son, daughter and Pitt luminaries, including chancellor Mark Nordenberg.

"I played a small part in helping Pitt grow," Howland says modestly shortly after coaching the Bruins to a blowout win against Cal Poly Pomona in their exhibition opener last week at Pauley Pavilion.

Howland mentions that he has to watch the tape from that game, but he's in no hurry to stop talking about Pitt.

In a way, it's as if Howland is juggling two top-10 programs.

Of course, he is devoting the time and attention that's needed to UCLA, where, in his third season since he left Pitt, he got the Bruins to the championship game of the NCAA tournament last spring.

And it's not as if he believes coach Jamie Dixon, his longtime right hand, needs help keeping the Panthers among the elite.

But Howland's thoughts are never too far from Pitt.

"I'm like a proud big brother-slash-dad almost with Jamie because we were together eight years," Howland says. "And I'm so happy and not surprised in the least that he's done a great job."

Then, he really gets rolling.

"You have no idea how proud I am of the program there," Howland says. "Jamie and I talk all the time. Tony Salesi, the trainer, is one of my best friends.

"I left tickets for [former Pitt players] Jaron Brown and Ontario Lett at Indianapolis, Tony Salesi and his whole family. I probably gave 20 tickets to all my Pitt friends for the Final Four. That's family for me."

He still says that only the family from his formative days could have swayed him to leave the Panthers after the 2002-03 season, following two consecutive trips to the Sweet 16.

"I really would have never left there -- and still think about that some -- except this is my dream job as a kid growing up, and it meant being close to my mom and dad. I wasn't going to pass up this opportunity. If it had been any other school ... Washington made overtures, UNLV. I wasn't coming back west just to come west. It had to be this, or I would have never left. I had it too good. I had the greatest boss going in Mark Nordenberg and the great fans.

"The year I left Pitt, what would have been my fifth year, I left a pretty good team behind. They won 31 games [in Dixon's first season], and that was hard to leave that behind. I was looking at the long-term -- where do I want to be with my life and my family? -- so it was a difficult decision. It wasn't an easy one because of what I was leaving behind, so many friends, my daughter, who's in nursing school at Pitt.

"Believe me, the only one who wanted to make this move was me. My wife was really mad at me, and my kids were both mad at me. But they're happier now."

It's funny that in the preseason coaches poll, Pitt and UCLA are tied at No. 5. (They are fourth and sixth, respectively, in the Associated Press rankings.)

Howland says Pitt is more deserving.

"They have more experience up front with Levon [Kendall], some fifth-year and fourth-year players," he says.

Howland, 49, is at a new place in his career. He built up Northern Arizona, then left for Pitt. He built up the Panthers, then left for UCLA. He did a remarkably quick rebuilding job with the Bruins.

Now, for the first time, it's more about sustaining.

Howland has two starters returning, junior guard Arron Afflalo and sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

"This program has more visibility as a basketball program than a lot of others, so there's always more pressure if you don't succeed," Howland says, as if the clock already is ticking.

If things go well, perhaps one day Howland will be the one sitting in a corner, second row of the stands, behind the UCLA bench, like 96-year-old John Wooden, the legendary coach, was for the exhibition opener.

"I hope to live to be 86, OK?" Howland says, his eyes widening.

"Isn't that great to see him there? He's the best. For me, I just hope I can coach another 10 years. I'd be 60. That would be good."

Howland will be flying into Pittsburgh in February, but that's because it's the closest airport to UCLA's game at West Virginia. He would never schedule Pitt.

"I don't want to play my friends," he says.

"If we play Pitt, it will only be because we're in the NCAA tournament together or an NIT game."

That's not so farfetched.


Shelly Anderson can be reached at shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721.


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