“We’re trying to teach them to set good screens, how to use a screen, how to come off a screen watching a defender, all of it,” Howland says. “They were the s—iest screening team. Last year’s team averaged [nine] assists and 15 turnovers a game. They weren’t a good passing team. They weren’t a good shooting team.
What motivates someone to make that choice? And since we’re asking: Why was it always so clear, in the two years after Howland’s firing at UCLA, that he was determined to coach again? Why was the conclusion always so foregone? Why not stay in Santa Barbara? Why not, you know, chill?
“How many people do you know who love their jobs?” Howland said. “Did your dad love his job? Was he passionate about it? Because I am. I love it. I love the relationships. I love teaching. I love the competition. I love everything about it. And I feel like I’ve been pretty good at it.”
The root causes might have been as simple as recruiting missteps — of a staff prioritizing obvious talent over the hungry up-and-comers, like Collison and Afflalo, that drove UCLA’s early success, and alienating local power brokers in doing so. All the same, Dohrmann’s portrait of ideological decline was devastating, and 2012-13 was a last, desperate stand. Howland signed the best recruiting class in the country. He unveiled a new, up-tempo style. He beat Arizona three times. He got back to the NCAA tournament.
And, in March, he became the first coach in modern college basketball history to be fired after winning a power conference regular-season title.
“That’s not a distinction I’m necessarily proud of,” Howland said. “But it’s true.”
That was a hard time. Few disagreed with UCLA’s decision, even as Howland’s replacement, Steve Alford, was greeted coolly by fans. Almost as soon as Howland was gone, he heard offers from other schools. He turned them all down. A year off was the healthier choice. He was ready for a break. He was still licking his wounds.
A second year off wasn’t part of the plan. He had more offers. He held out for better. When nothing materialized, he tried TV. He called Atlantic 10 games for NBC Sports. He did studio work at Fox.
It was an enjoyable learning experience, but mostly it was a chance to sate his withdrawal. Fellow coaches, empty gyms, pregame film study. Practices. The routine. It was coaching methadone. The longer it went on, the more he missed it. The practices most of all.
Like all new coaches, Howland had to sell himself to his current roster, too — to any player thinking of transferring after Ray’s departure, and to those who might be lingering skeptics moving forward. That was especially true at Mississippi State, where a glut of experienced returners, some of whom were recruited by Stansbury, have experienced more turmoil than success.
That sale didn’t take long, either.
“When he got here, we had our first team meeting, and basically he told us what was in his resume,” junior guard I.J. Ready said. “He hasn’t mentioned it since. But, I mean, he coached Russell Westbrook. You know? You can’t beat that. You say, ‘OK, he’s been with real-deal players.’ He knows what he’s talking about. So why not come in here every day and listen to him and maybe you can get to that level one day?
“The very first workout — it was intense,” Ready said. “We caught a whole bunch of his energy. And it hasn’t been down since.”
He’s been impressed by the team’s work ethic thus far. He loves his players’ willingness to absorb brutal honesty, to spend time on things — passing, shooting, setting good screens — that must seem rudimentary to Division I athletes. Veterans like Ready, senior guard Craig Sword and senior forward Gavin Ware are untouted players with something to prove, the kind that have always suited Howland best. He is in his element here. Hard-charging, focused, commanding.
His biggest fan in Starkville — and the best sign that Howland has found a place where his edge will be welcomed — is the one most likely to make Mississippi State a factor in the SEC as soon as 2015.
“I love him,” Newman said. “He’s just intense, man. Extremely demanding. Extremely competitive.”
“In everything,” Newman said. “Every drill. Every workout. Every conversation you have with him. The way he talks. The way he carries himself. Everything is — he’s always a competitor.”
“Yeah, I’ve got a great place to retire,” Howland said. “But I’m not ready to retire. Not even close. The practices, where you’re organizing your team. The part of the season when we’re watching film of our opponent and figuring out how to attack them. Getting ready to play. That stuff, to me, is all really fun.”