Three things bring Ben Howland the most joy in life: Family, fly fishing and coaching basketball.
His passion for the final item on that list is so great that he eagerly traded a relaxing lifestyle and daily walks on the beach in his hometown of Santa Barbara for a high-stress rebuilding job in Starkville, Miss.
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Howland has reached an agreement to become Mississippi State's next coach, ESPN.com first reported on Monday. The hire comes only two days after Mississippi State abruptly fired coach Rick Ray after a third straight losing season, suggesting that the Bulldogs already had a very good idea that Howland would take the job if it became available.
The hire of Howland is a major upgrade based on his track record of rebuilding successfully in very different ways at Northern Arizona, Pittsburgh and UCLA.
He won two league titles at Northern Arizona by identifying below-the-radar prospects and plugging them into a system that emphasized outside shooting. He reached a pair of Sweet 16s at Pittsburgh by mining the New York City area for tough, hard-nosed players who fit into the Panthers' rugged style of play. He reached three Final Fours at UCLA by landing many of the Los Angeles area's best players and getting them to buy into a system that emphasized structured offense and physical man-to-man defense.
That history of success with different styles and in different regions should make Mississippi State feel good about the risk it is taking hiring a coach with no ties to the Deep South. There's also the potential that Howland could hire former UCLA assistant Korey McCray, whose Atlanta AAU background helped the Bruins land Georgia products Tony Parker and Jordan Adams in 2012.
One thing Mississippi State will never have to worry about is Howland's work ethic or attentional to detail. He was maniacal in those areas to a fault in his past jobs.
At Northern Arizona, players recall him checking their fingernails before practices and suggesting they dress in layers on the road to avoid catching a cold. At UCLA, Howland handed out down-to-the-minute itineraries before road trips and draped blankets over the clocks at Pauley Pavilion so players didn't know what time it was during practice.
If someone was a few minutes late to catch the team bus, Howland would leave him behind. If someone didn't dive after a loose ball to his satisfaction, Howland would roll a ball from underneath the basket and have two players scramble after it and wrestle for possession.
The problem with that obsessive attention to detail is that it tends to wear on players and staffers after a few years.
Kevin Love once told me during his lone season at UCLA, "It might drive you a little crazy sometimes, but at the end of the day the guy's going to help you win." Other players who followed Love weren't as willing to put up with it.
Between 2008 and 2012, 17 players left UCLA with eligibility remaining, some to enter the NBA draft early but the majority to transfer to other schools. Especially damaging were the departures of all-conference talents Chace Stanback (UNLV), Drew Gordon (New Mexico), Mike Moser (UNLV) and Joshua Smith (Georgetown).
Constant roster turnover, fractured relationships with Los Angeles area high school and AAU coaches and a string of mediocre recruiting classes led Howland's firing at UCLA. It's often cited that he won the Pac-12 regular season title the year he was fired, but the Bruins also missed the NCAA tournament twice in his final five years and failed to make it out of the opening weekend the other three times.
While the second half of Howland's UCLA tenure calls into question whether he is the right man to sustain success, the entirety of his body of work leaves no doubt that he is the ideal hire for a rebuilding job.
He's a hard worker and outstanding tactical coach who has proven he can win with all sorts of players in all parts of the country. There's no reason to believe he won't do the same for Mississippi State.
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