March 4, 2007
By PETE THAMEL
The night before the biggest basketball game of his Weber State career, Ben Howland called his close friend Jay Hillock, a former junior-college assistant coach. Howland had a reputation for nervous excitability -- he typically vomited 10 minutes before every game -- so Hillock wasn't surprised when the phone rang at 2 a.m., just hours before Weber was to play a powerhouse University of Arkansas team in the second round of the 1979 N.C.A.A. tournament.
"I'm going to give Sidney Moncrief the biggest charley horse of his life at the get-go!" Howland screamed, referring to the Arkansas star, and promptly hung up.
Almost 30 years later, Howland, now 49, is still wound tight. He's an ever-revving engine of obsessive energy, a principal reason that he has emerged as one of the country's most successful and respected basketball coaches. (He no longer throws up before games, fortunately.) Howland played professionally in Uruguay, then toiled for 12 years as an assistant coach at the University of California, Santa Barbara, before embarking on a series of impressive reclamation projects, reviving moribund programs at Northern Arizona University and the University of Pittsburgh before landing the most glamorous post in college basketball, head coach at U.C.L.A., in 2003.
Howland's turnaround skills took center stage last season, when he led an offensively limited Bruins team to the national title game against Florida and was named coach-of-the-year in the Pac-10, the third conference to give him that honor. This year, his team is more polished offensively and even better defensively; as a result, U.C.L.A. spent six straight weeks ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll this winter, and will enter the tournament as one of a handful of teams with Final Four expectations.
Howland says he spends about 15 to 20 hours a week studying video, far more than most head coaches. (To handle the avalanche of film, Howland created a team video coordinator position at U.C.L.A. Its impact? "Huuuuuge," Howland bellows.) Before each game, someone on his staff watches every game the opponent has played that season, so there will be no surprises. After every game, Howland's entire staff watches the contest again in his office. He leaves no moment unexamined. Once, at Pittsburgh, when his team blew a double-digit lead over Syracuse in the second half, Howland watched the game three times that same night. After a loss to U.S.C. last season, Howland reviewed the video at least nine times -- enough to memorize every possession.
Armed with this research, Howland and his staff figure out U.C.L.A.'s defensive strategy for each game. At practice, he explains each play, then walks the players through it. Next, the starters run the play and then defend against it so they understand its nuances from both sides. After that four-part process, they view each play on video, practice the plays again the next day and then walk through them yet one more time before the actual game. "It's exactly like a class," the point guard Darren Collison says of Howland's preparation. "You have to pay attention and memorize."
All of this requires an impressive infrastructure. In less than three years, U.C.L.A. has put together one of the most extensive video archives in the country, and the team's video room offers a perfect window into Howland's meticulous nature. Seventeen DirecTV units are hooked up to VCRs and the team records more than 1,500 games over the course of the season. The payoff? When U.C.L.A. was matched up against tiny Belmont University in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament last year, it had seven recorded Belmont games to micro-analyze. "If Tijuana Tech is playing," Clay McKnight, the current video coordinator, says, "we're taping it."
Of course, anyone can watch film. It's Howland's skill at processing that information, his ability to take two fleeting moments from random games months apart and make larger sense of them, that has led him and his team to the cusp of greatness. "He's like a gifted trader on Wall Street," says Barry Rohrssen, a former assistant of Howland's at Pitt and now the head coach at Manhattan College. "Everyone has the same screen and information in front of them, but the upper-echelon guys see something different. That's Ben. He sees things no one else can see."[?][?][?]PETE THAMEL
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company