By MARILYN TINNIN
The MSU Bulldogs called March 24, 2015, a “historic day.” Some would call it a coup of epic proportions. The new head basketball coach at MSU would be Ben Howland, former head basketball coach at UCLA, a guy with a resume longer than your arm and accolades that run even longer. State fans were beside themselves—and rightly so.
Athletic Director Scott Stricklin says that although MSU was initially attracted to Ben Howland’s winning record, the more the committee learned about the man himself, the more there was to respect far beyond his coaching abilities.
He is, first of all, a family man. A father and a grandfather, he has been married for 35 years to Kim, whom he met while playing basketball at Utah’s Weber State. A point and shooting guard, Ben was named the team’s Most Valuable Defensive Player in 1979 and 1980, leading the Wildcats to two Big Sky championships and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances. Kim was part of the cheerleading squad, and she still cheers as hard as she ever did for Ben Howland. They are in this whole basketball-coaching thing together.
They have lived West Coast to East Coast and Southwest in between. In their recent move from California to Mississippi, the couple left behind two grown children: son Adam, who is a graduate of Pepperdine University and presently serves as the Assistant District Attorney in Santa Barbara; and their daughter, Meredith, who is a pediatric oncology nurse at UCLA hospital. Adam and his wife, Bridgette, are the parents of four-year-old Ben Howland II and three-month-old Eli. It takes no persuasion whatsoever to get “Big Grandpa” to pull out his phone and show a montage of family photos.
Being “Big Grandpa” to four-year-old Ben II, and three-month-old Eli, is a role the coach is passionate about!Despite leaving their close family behind, they have adapted to the Deep South as if they have always been here. Kim and Ben wasted no time plugging into their new hometown. They are members of Crosspoint Church, which presently meets in the Campus Sportsplex. Kim teaches the kindergarteners on Sunday evenings and Ben says, “We love our church,” adding that one thing he particularly enjoys is the fact that it attracts so many students.
Ben Howland is the second of four siblings—three boys and one girl—born to Robert and Mary Howland. His ecclesiastical roots are deep. His mother was the daughter of missionaries to China, where she was born and spent much of her childhood. His dad was a Presbyterian minister who just happened to be participating in his own ordination service on the very day Ben was being born at a nearby hospital in Lebanon, Oregon. If anyone ever deserved the label, “Cradle Christian,” I suppose Ben Howland does. He simply never knew anything else.
He was still a toddler when his dad accepted a job as the pastor for the students at the University of California at Santa Barbara, a place that will always feel like home to him. He began grade school there and made lifelong friends. His family lived in Goleta, and this was home until his dad took a church in Norwalk. It was about 120 miles south and meant a new school, new friends, and a whole new social structure to try to fit into.
That move was hard. He will never forget how hard it was for a 15-year-old, and therefore, in dealing with his own children decades later, he has always been sensitive to their individual struggles when it came to starting over in a new school with new friends and new expectations.
How thrilled he was when he graduated from high school and had the opportunity to play basketball at Santa Barbara City College where he reunited with many of his old grade school buddies.
His passion for basketball began when he was a third grader spending afternoons at the Goleta Boys Club. He simply fell in love with the sport. He loved everything about it—the pace, the skills, and the teamwork. His forever, best friend Tom Demarcus reminds him from time to time that he so remembers the day when they were twelve year olds that Ben told him, “I will be a Division I Basketball coach one day!” His ambition and drive never wavered. He knew early on exactly what he wanted to do.
And all these years later—he is just as committed. He is totally energized by the whole phenomena of recruiting, coaching, and competing.
Becoming a Coach
Kim and Ben married in 1981. Ben was a graduate assistant at Gonzaga University in Spokane. The very next year he became an assistant coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It was a fertile learning experience.
Northern Arizona University hired him as head coach in 1994. The young Howland family moved to Flagstaff where Ben’s team won conference championships two years in a row and was also awarded a first-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. Other prestigious schools noticed.
Although Ben’s career was taking off, their family was experiencing a few gut-wrenching, difficult events. Kim’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died while still in her fifties. Ben’s father passed away. Ben describes his father as a man of profound integrity who was strong in his beliefs, who respected all people, and who taught his son to do the same. His death left a gaping hole for Ben. Then, Kim’s 64-year-old dad was stricken with Huntington’s disease. There was a slow but progressive deterioration. The reality that it has a genetic component was cause for great concern for Kim and her two sisters. They each have a 50/50 chance of developing the same debilitating disease.
Kim’s decision was not to do the genetic testing to discover whether or not she will develop Huntington’s. She and Ben agreed that since there is no cure, why would they want to cast an ominous pall over their lives? They decided to live each day to the fullest and leave the things they can’t control to God’s providence.
In 1999, the Howlands moved across the country to the University of Pittsburgh, and Ben took the reins of their men’s basketball program. He continued to produce results taking the Pittsburgh Panthers to the Sweet Sixteen twice. Headlines like these followed him: “Ben Howland’s Team Never Quits.” Between his earlier success at Northern Arizona and a Pittsburgh team that seemed to be redeeming some of their former glory days, Ben Howland developed a reputation as one who could turn a program around in short order. His formula involved a lot more than basketball acumen. He is a relational guy and he knows how to motivate his players. He cares about them on and off the court. The results speak for themselves.
Pittsburgh, which had long been known as a town that only cared about their football team, was suddenly a place where the basketball arena was a sell-out.
Four years later UCLA called. The prime plum of collegiate basketball wanted Ben Howland as coach. And one man’s lifelong dream came true.
One of the Howlands most significant attachments to Pittsburgh had been their involvement at Memorial Park Presbyterian Church. Ben, Kim and their son Adam and daughter Meredith had been thoroughly nurtured in their faith. Although both Kim and Ben had been regular church goers their entire lives, it was not until Pittsburgh when Kim began attending a Bible study that she discovered what a personal relationship with the Lord really meant on a day by day, moment by moment basis. As she says, “I got into the Bible, and I haven’t put it down since!”
They made the kind of friends who remain “close” despite the miles that come between. Separations happen. It’s just part of the life of the college coach. Kim and Ben simply do not let those separations mean the end of their friendships. Keeping up with friends is a big priority for both of them.
And when they made that move to UCLA, Kim had plenty of close friends and prayer warriors back in Pennsylvania praying for her family. Good thing. A lesser man would not have survived the pressure at UCLA!
The Stuff of Legends
The Howlands arrived in the Los Angeles suburb of Westwood in 2003. Although the legendary Coach John Wooden had retired in 1975, he was still in the neighborhood, still attending all the Bruins’ games, and became a close friend and mentor to Ben. From his childhood when games were not broadcast live but rather aired late in the evenings after the fact, Ben had regularly stayed up way past his bedtime to watch UCLA and really study the coaching expertise of Wooden specifically.
Coach Wooden’s friendship just added another layer of blessing to what already seemed extraordinary. When Wooden passed away in 2010, Ben was invited to speak at his memorial service.
Despite the initial euphoria that came with coaching at UCLA, there was pressure from the get-go. Kim recalls Ben telling her before they even arrived in California that he had to do an exceptional job there because it could be quite brutal with fans if the team was not on top. She knew her husband and she knew he would do well.
“It seemed surreal to me,” she says, “when we started winning our League and then going to the Sweet Sixteen and the Final Four and the championship. I would walk around the city and could not believe this was our life.”
In those ten years at UCLA, Ben took his teams to seven NCAA tournaments, four conference championships, two tournament championships, and three Final Four appearances. The only UCLA coach who had done better was John Wooden—over 27 years—and the fan base wanted nothing less. As Ben says, “John Wooden is a once in a lifetime kind of coach.”
The press that final year in 2013 was filled with criticism and hints that Ben was going to be fired. Despite the fact that UCLA won their conference that year with three freshmen and had five players who would be returning the next season, he was fired.
How did Ben and Kim handle that? With a measure of class and grace that reveals not just their mettle, but also their character and their faith.
In the days leading up to the inevitable, Kim says she took her cues from her husband. “He is just a calm person. He doesn’t come home grouchy or mad. He is the introspective type, and he would be quiet. I would wait until he was ready to talk about it because I knew he was thinking about it. The job could feel bumpy, but our relationship never was.”
Ben holds the distinction of being the first coach to win his conference the very same year he was fired. They had talked through it often enough to have a plan. As Kim says, “We knew we were going to be okay, but it did sting and it did hurt. I love him very much and I know how hard he works. But he would tell me this is just the kind of stuff that happens in this business.”
He set the tone for the whole family. Nobody was bitter.
Ben says, “We had a great ten years at UCLA. We have memories we are going to be proud of forever.”
When Ben held a news conference less than 24 hours after he was fired, he revealed no animosity, no anger, and no excuses. He expressed only gratitude toward his staff, his team, and his family, great affection for UCLA, and no condemnation of the fans, the media, or any critic.
An article by ESPN’s Peter Yoon from March 25, 2013, describes a gracious and courageous exit. Yoon wrote, “He didn’t have to hold a news conference so soon after he was let go and Howland, who had the longest tenure as UCLA coach since John Wooden, could have used the occasion to rail against the unfairness of getting fired despite taking the team to three Final Fours and winning the Pac-12 this season. Instead, he kept it classy even when pressed on such issues.”
And Then What?
Ben and Kim took a timeout at the place they had bought a few years earlier in Santa Barbara. Ben had said in his goodbye speech that he looked forward to the next chapter of life. In that same ESPN article, he had said, “I’m hopeful that I’ll have an opportunity to get another good job. This was my dream job because I grew up watching UCLA basketball, but there are a lot of fine institutions and situations that I think have a lot to offer as coach.”
Such a statement from the fired coach of the premier basketball program in the country speaks volumes about character, humility and a certain sense of self-worth that is not tied to one’s press clippings.
Kim and Ben really weren’t sure what would come next, but the two years away from coaching only confirmed what they were already pretty sure about. Ben Howland was born to coach basketball. He was 56 years old and was not ready for the rocking chair! Although he did some work as a studio commentator on a Fox Sports affiliate and as a game analyst for NBC Sports Network, he knew he would get back into coaching when the right fit came along.
In the interim, the family time was something he so enjoyed. Ben also had more time to pursue his love of fly-fishing in Montana. Living close to their children and grandchildren, they relished this unusual season of life as a blessing, confident that it was simply a time out and a moment to cherish.
The next chapter came in 2015 when Mississippi State University called. Ben accepted.
As one sports commentator reported, “His passion for basketball 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, Mississippi.”
Ben Howland does not think of the “high stress” description as a negative. His modus operandi now is to “embrace the pressure,” an attitude he has learned over the years. He likes the challenge, but he absolutely loves the relationships that come with the territory referring to players and staff as the “funnest” part of the job.
As a much younger coach, he would worry about what would happen if his teams didn’t win and he was fired. He found out in 2013, and you could say he faced that fear and found a deeper level of trust in God. His thought process, too, had changed through the years. There came a time when he began to intentionally aim for balance, not letting the work side of life eclipse all the other important components of a blessed and full life.
He says, “I’m one of the few people out there in the world who loves what they do, and I am excited to be at work. If I had any advice for other men it would be this: to find work you love to do; find the balance in life between family, work, and free time; and marry the right person.”
His first season at MSU involved laying the groundwork for what is to come. Scott Stricklin likes what he has seen so far. He says, “I told him in our sit-down at the end of the season that I respected the way he handles himself on the court. He never seems to get too worked up over any situation. He doesn’t rail at his players or the officials. His courtside demeanor shows a lot of maturity, grace, and tact.”
MSU made its only Final Four appearance in 1996, but just watch. They will get there again soon. Ben Howland knows how to build a program. He also knows how to build a team. And he has that “it factor”—a mix of charm, coaching expertise, and down-to-earth-ness. Nobody can walk away from a conversation with him without thinking, “I like that guy.”