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A dream job and the ghost of John Wooden

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Pitt men's basketball coach Ben Howland has said a lot of things about a potential move to UCLA: "I have no plans to go there." "I have no intention of leaving Pitt."

But Howland has not said this: "I will definitely be coaching at Pitt next season."

That's because a lot of money can change plans. And intentions.

As soon as Pitt finishes its season, Howland definitely will look at the UCLA job. Howland told the Los Angeles Times that he would "love to be considered." He'd be foolish to feel otherwise. It's the dream job for any basketball coach from the West Coast, and UCLA likely will fork out a whole lot of cash.

But not as much as Pitt already pays Howland.

Pay attention, because this is where it gets weird.

UCLA, a state school, reportedly has a ceiling on how much it can pay its men's basketball coach. That ceiling is $632,000 per year. Pitt already pays Howland around $800,000. Howland, however, likely could take home as much as a million bucks a year if he goes to UCLA.

UCLA basketball boosters would make up some of the money. I hope you're not naive enough to believe that never happens.

But, disturbingly, the adidas shoe company would probably help make it worth Howland's while to go west.

UCLA is an adidas school. So is Pitt. Pitt is a better program right now, but UCLA still has a much higher profile on a national level. UCLA is in the second-largest media market in the country. As far as adidas is concerned, it's much better for UCLA to be good than it is for Pitt to be good.

Adidas rep Sonny Vaccaro, a former Pittsburgh native, would encourage his company to kick in major dough to steer Howland to UCLA. It would really stink if adidas' PR agenda made the difference in Howland leaving Pitt. But that's pro, er, college sports. Heck, Vaccaro helped Howland get the Pitt job.

As Digger Phelps said, Howland would be insane to leave Pitt for UCLA. Pitt has a great team and peerless facilities, and, as the man who resurrected the program, Howland would have a hard time getting fired by Pitt. Howland has the potential to be Pitt's John Wooden in terms of reputation, if not results.

At UCLA, Howland could never be better than second best to Wooden. He would be frustrated by unreasonable expectations.

Recently fired Steve Lavin coached UCLA to the Sweet 16 in five of his seven seasons. His reward? Getting run out of Los Angeles. Howland has guided Pitt to two Sweet 16 berths in a row, and Pittsburgh is ready to elect him mayor.

UCLA doesn't get all the best kids anymore. The Bruins were pathetic this past season, finishing 10-19. Here's the decline of UCLA basketball in a nutshell: Bill Walton and Henry Bibby are UCLA legends. Their kids went to Pac-10 rival Arizona.

But UCLA is Howland's dream job. It's reminiscent of when David Letterman had to decide between NBC and CBS.

CBS offered Letterman more money, ownership of the show and guaranteed him a much-desired 11:30 p.m. time slot. NBC offered Letterman the mere possibility of being the host of "The Tonight Show" eventually. CBS was the obvious pick, but Letterman's dream job was be the host of "The Tonight Show."

After calling Johnny Carson for advice, Letterman wound up making the clear -- and correct -- choice. Maybe Howland should call Wooden.

Howland probably will wind up staying at Pitt. It will take a lot of soul-searching on his part and a bit more money from Pitt, but common sense will win the day. Maybe.

Howland likely thinks he always will wonder about what might have been if he doesn't go to UCLA.

I say Howland always will wonder about what might have been if he leaves Pitt. The Panthers are poised to hit the heights UCLA has seen in the past. The Bruins already have hit the skids.

Perhaps the most interesting rumor concerning the UCLA job is the school's reported interest in Connecticut women's coach Geno Auriemma.

There's no disputing Auriemma's record at Connecticut, but there's also no disputing that his record was compiled coaching a totally different version of basketball and a totally different kind of athlete. Auriemma would have trouble adjusting to the men's game and to his players' personalities.

He also would have trouble being taken seriously. He could have won a billion games at Connecticut, and his players at UCLA would always think of him as a women's coach.

Howland deftly has managed to keep the UCLA rumors from becoming a distraction as Pitt drives toward the Final Four. But then, I don't think anything could distract Julius Page from his appointed duties.

Page made Indiana's Tom Coverdale disappear in Pitt's second-round win Sunday. Page is a defensive stopper without peer. He should be able to handle Marquette's Dwyane Wade tomorrow, and I like his chances of negating Kentucky's Keith Bogans if it comes to that.

For months, Pitt fans -- and desperate talk-show hosts -- have bemoaned Pitt's lack of a go-to guy. Turns out the Panthers do have a go-to guy. It's Julius Page.

The Panthers just happen to go to him when the other team has the ball.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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