Mississippi State has announced former UCLA coach Ben Howland as the 20th head coach of Bulldog basketball. He replaces Rick Ray, fired Saturday morning after three seasons and a 37-60 record with no post-season appearances.
Athletics director Scott Stricklin made the announcement on twitter just after 7:00, with a picture of himself and his new coach. Howland was wearing a Mississippi State cap and holding a chromed cowbell...something surely new even in his long experience.
“I’m just so humble and grateful to be the new basketball coach at Mississippi State university,” Howland said, in a statement provided by MSU Media Relations. “I’m elated and excited the opportunity build a consistent winner here at State. I know we have some of the greatest fans in the country and I look forward to making them proud of our team and our efforts. Hail State.”
“We have a coach who is a proven winner that’s taken three schools to the NCAA Tournament,” Stricklin said in the provided statement. “Ben is someone who is ready to invest in the people of Mississippi and Bulldogs everywhere, while bringing championship basketball back to the Hump. Mississippi State basketball can compete at the highest level, just as several of our other teams have done in recent years, and I’m excited to have coach Howland lead us back to that level.”
Howland, 57, has been watching the game for two years and this winter served as a college basketball analyst for FOXSports1. He had been living in Santa Barbara.
At UCLA, he was fired after his 2013 team won the Pac 12 championship. It was his fourth title at the school in an eight-year span, but that team was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round. The Bruins had missed the NCAAs two of the final three seasons, in no small part due to roster turmoil with eleven transfers in five years. Howland had four years remaining on his contract when UCLA let him go.
But the dismissal was as much a sign of how high Howland had set the standards during his tenure. In 2003 he took over a 10-19 team from Steve Lavin and within three years went 32-7. That began the remarkable run of three-straight final four appearances and regular NCAA selection, either at-large or as league champions. He was 233-107 in Westwood, and his 2006 team finished runner-up to national champs Florida.
Howland was born in Oregon but raised in southern California. He played junior college ball before transferring to Weber State, lettering in 1979 and ’80. His coaching career began as an assistant at Gonzaga (1981-82) and UC-Santa Barbara (1983-94). He broke into the head coaching ranks in 1994 at Northern Arizona and after five years was hired by Pittsburgh.
At Pitt his teams won Big East conference championships in 2002 and ’03; and the conference tournament in 2003. He was Naismith national Coach of the Year in 2002.
Ray’s third year ended the evening of March 11 with a first-round loss in the SEC Tournament, concluding a 13-19 season. This team did improve its league record with six wins, but won one less overall game than in 2014. The Bulldogs were just 13-41 in conference play for the three years.
Ray had succeeded Rick Stansbury whose 14 years produced the most victories, overall and SEC, of any coaching tenure. Those teams also reached the NCAA Tournament six times, and three times advanced to the round of 32. But after earning the automatic 2009 bid with a upset run to a second SEC Tournament title, the Bulldogs missed the NCAAs for three-straight years.
From 2006-15, Mississippi State has only been twice to the national championship tournament, in 2008 and ’09. Whereas in his 19 seasons as a head coach at three programs, Howland took ten teams to the NCAAs. At each stop he was named league coach of the year at least once.
Barring transfers by any of the current underclassmen varsity, Howland will inherit players accounting for 76% of the starts last season, 80% of all scoring, 81% of rebounds, 71% of assists, and all but one of the made three-pointers.
He also has three signed high school players from the November period. They are 5-11 guard Tookie Brown, 6-4 guard Quindary Weatherspoon, and 6-8 forward Joe Strugg. State had 11 scholarship players this past season and graduated two, 26-game starting forward Rocquez Johnson and backup point guard Trivante Bloodman. State has not said if the signees will have the option of release from their letters with the coaching change.