Ben Howland spent Tuesday making the rounds—lots of ‘em—of school and city alike in his first full day as Mississippi State basketball coach. The 20th man to take responsibility as Bulldog basketball boss won’t be able to win his first game until November.
He was able to win Tuesday’s introduction, decisively. “This will be my fourth Division I head coaching job,” Howland told the Humphrey Coliseum crowd. “I promise it will be my best job.”
As Howland took three UCLA teams to final fours, and ten of the 19 total teams he’s head-coached played in NCAA Tournaments, that is quite a promise. It is also exactly what a Mississippi State program six years removed from its last national tourney trip wanted to hear from the 57-year-old Howland.
“I believe we have the man to do his part,” athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
“For Mississippi State to be successful in any sport it’s important we do so with coaches and student-athletes who represent what makes our school special. People who are tough, competitive, hard-working. Ben and his teams he’s coached in the past embody those characteristics”
What Howland embodies of most obvious interest is winning. He brings a 401-206 career record after stops at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh, and UCLA. At each stop he was named conference Coach of the Year. And of course there is Howland’s track record of post-season play, highlighted in 2006-07-08 with three consecutive final four berths and a national runner-up finish to Florida in ’06.
Howland has spent two seasons off the sideline since leaving UCLA, but not southern California. From his Santa Barbara home Howland said today he would attend practices by friends’ teams to stay involved. He also spent the past winter as an analyst with FOXSports1.
Now he is back in the game, just in an entirely different region of the country. As for jokes about moving from southern California to Starkville? “I look forward to being in a place where college sports are the main attraction.”
Howland may never have been to Starkville before. His knowledge of Bulldog teams is mostly second-hand, except for two games. Both, lost. The 2001 State team beat Howland’s Pitt squad in their lair in the second round of the NIT. And in 2010 the Bulldogs spoiled UCLA’s home event, the Wooden Classic, with a victory in L.A.
Having finally entered Humphrey Coliseum, as the home team’s new coach, it didn’t take Howland long to start striking the right notes with fans who’ve endured a string of frustrating seasons. “I can’t wait to coach here in the Hump,” he said.
“I love this arena, and you don’t have to go back long that this was one of if not the toughest places to come in and win.”
Re-filling the Hump is one end-goal for Howland. More immediately, he is taking stock of the inherited personnel. Howland met with State players Monday evening upon arrival in town from Atlanta where Stricklin met him to finalize things. The team meeting wasn’t much about basketball as about getting ready to play basketball.
Or rather, work basketball. “It starts with the dedication to be great,” Howland said. Dedication to him begins with the physical aspects. “That’s something I learned from Coach John Wooden. It’s really important your players get great nutrition and understand how important it is to be rested.” Which implies rested and ready, too.
“All of this leads us to the ability to perform at the highest level. I expect we will be a team that is tough.”
Bulldogs better be tough, given how their new coach plans for them to play. “Defense will always be a priority. I’m a strong believer championships are won on the defensive end. It starts with having constant defensive presence. Defense wins on the road and you have to win on the road to be champions.”
Scoring is required too, of course. “Offensively, we’ll start every possession pushing the ball,” promised Howland. “Something I did my last year at UCLA (when the Bruins won the Pac 12 title) was making a huge emphasis on pushing the ball on all makes and misses. Especially on makes now.”
Every honest player in the land wants to hear his coach say that as up-tempo offense is always more fun. For that matter those familiar with Mississippi State’s roster know what the coach will learn soon enough, that the Bulldogs are already an athletic bunch who can run a court.
It is execution once reaching the offensive end where Bulldogs have broken down for three years now. Howland isn’t run-and-gun by any means, either. “Once we get in a half-court set I expect our team to execute, number-one, and take good shots. And play unselfishly. That’s one of the things for me as a coach, I praise unselfishness above all. The best teams I’ve coached are when the players are playing for one another.”
Until he begins breaking down game video Howland can’t really know what talents he inherits. The current Dogs did give him some positive points Monday. “I was so impressed with their attentiveness, their eye contact. They’ve been raised the right way.” Tuesday afternoon the team was front-row for the show.
They and fans alike were listening even more closely when Howland got to the topic of obvious interest. “I also am very excited to get started on one of the most important aspects of any program, and that’s recruiting. We’re putting together what I think is going to be one of the best basketball staffs in the country. I know our staff is going to be excited to recruit to one of the best institutions in the best conference in America, the Southeastern Conference.”
Setting aside the hyperbole about SEC basketball—though Howland talked at-length about the league’s accepted preeminence nationally in football, which none argue—his instant focus on recruiting is honest. “Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program. And no question that is going to be a huge priority getting started right now.”
By right now, Howland means right now. “I’ve already spoken to some,” he said. “I had to take a recruiting test this morning, if I look a little peaked it’s because I stayed up until 2:30 this morning making sure I wasn’t going to miss any questions. I want you to know I made a perfect score!”
Which matters because the spring signing period opens April 15. “Time is of the essence,” Howland said. “Because I will be hitting the road pretty soon.”
Howland could not say who he’d spoken with or would visit. A question not asked Tuesday either was whether he plans to sign new players for his first year. If all ten scholarship Bulldogs and the three November signees stay on the 2015-16 roster there are no openings. However those familiar with the program believe grants will become open, somehow.
Howland made the obligatory statement that recruiting begins in Mississippi. It will extend much, much farther from home. Howland reminded he has courted prospects from most Southern states before, especially at Pittsburgh. As for talent, he raised the antique images of Willis Reed, Karl Malone, Robert Parrish as regional greats who played for smaller programs in their day.
Of more modern memory Howland talked of seeing the 1996 Bulldogs of Coach Richard Williams, who was in attendance, in the Final Four and what that club accomplished despite not having a lot of high-profile national signees. He also knows of all the Mississippi kids who have gone straight to the NBA in recent years without stopping over in college. Nowadays, they must go to school and are fair recruiting game again.
“It’s a great hotbed for talent, and I’m excited to get to know the high school coaches of Mississippi and the surrounding area along with all the AAU coaches and leaders of those programs. I want to build relationships with the coaching community that will help build Mississippi State basketball to a program you can be incurably proud of.”
Stricklin has no concerns on that count. “I’ve long been an admirer of him and his teams and the way they play,” said the A.D., who claimed Howland as his “first target.” Stricklin said Howland has a four-year contract—the limit under state rules—and will receive $2.05 million per year.
“We can complete with him going about his job in a first-class manner, with dignity,” Stricklin said. “But to cut down nets every person who cares about our program, players, coaches and staff, students, faculty, and fans, every single person must be on the same page to do their part.”
On Howland’s part? “I think this is a special place,” he said. “There’s so much opportunity here.”