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Smizik: Howland's fate hinges on money

Saturday, March 29, 2003

MINNEAPOLIS -- Pitt's basketball season ended more than 24 hours ago, so let the analysis begin. Whatever spin anyone wishes to put on the season, it ended in massive disappointment. The Big East championships were nice, but this was a team with higher aspirations. It was No. 4 in the nation, it was a second-seed in the NCAA tournament. When those credentials result in a third-round loss -- no better than last season -- there's no possible way to put a happy face on it.

This is not to suggest the season was a waste. It was not. It was a major step forward. Pitt significantly increased its national exposure, which can only help in recruiting, stayed in the top 10 in the rankings all season and won its first Big East tournament championship.

The stage is set for another strong season, despite the loss of seniors Brandin Knight, Ontario Lett and Donatas Zavackas.

Pitt has the depth to handle those losses. But can it handle another looming loss? The question of the day is this: Has Ben Howland coached his last game for Pitt?

Is Howland to be a brief flash across Pitt's horizon, another Johnny Majors, another Jackie Sherrill. Majors lasted four seasons in the 1970s, Sherrill followed with five. Both left for better-paying jobs. That was the way of the world in the 1970s and '80s, and it most certainly is the way of the world today. The fact neither Majors nor Sherrill accomplished as much in subsequent jobs as they did at Pitt would be lost on Howland. Like any successful coach, he believes there's no mountain he can't climb.

This is about money. By all accounts, Howland is a good man besides being a good coach. But he's a husband and father in the 21st century. He wants what's best for himself and his family. That's the American way.

There was a time when this column would have come down hard on a coach who flirts with one job while being under contract with another, as Howland is doing. Not anymore. This, too, is the way of the world. There's no contract that can hold a coach, especially one that has a buyout clause. Howland is free to go -- without anyone having a right to hard feelings.

Only Howland knows what he truly wants. Only UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero knows if Howland is at the top of the list to succeed Steve Lavin at the school with the greatest tradition in college basketball. Only Guerrero has a good handle on how high he'll bid for Howland's services -- if he bids at all.

There's a mistaken notion that salaries for coaches at UCLA are capped. They are not. If it wanted, UCLA could easily match what Pitt plans to offer Howland in an attempt to keep him. UCLA could probably surpass that figure if it wanted.

But is this school willing to get down and dirty for a coach? As one observer close to UCLA said, "The only thing that caps UCLA coaching salaries is UCLA arrogance."

UCLA believes itself to be a cut above, and with some justification. Pauley Pavilion, its home court, is the most hallowed ground in the college game. It is so because the greatest coach -- in any sport -- worked a magic there that never will be equaled. UCLA clings to the belief that this tradition can be resurrected by the right man. But John Wooden was one in 10 million.

Meanwhile, the world is passing UCLA by. Wooden won the last of his 10 national championships more than a quarter of a century ago. He's still greatly revered by those who remember his accomplishments, but that's not as many as it used to be. Since Wooden, UCLA has one only one NCAA title, and that with the oft-disgraced Jim Harrick as coach.

Pauley Pavilion, might be famous college basketball facility on the planet, but it's also decrepit. And UCLA had a losing record last season, causing Lavin's firing and leaving an opening at a still very glamorous job.

Howland has worked both sides of the street on this one. He has delivered statements that appear to all but close the door on him leaving Pitt. But under scrutiny, it's obvious he has left the door ajar. He says things like, "I have no plan to leave." Of course, he doesn't. But plans can change, especially in college coaching.

Just to make sure UCLA gets the message he might be interested, Howland opens up more to the Los Angeles Times. "I'd love to be considered," he brazenly told the Times' Steve Henson, who covered Pitt's NCAA tournament games.

Howland isn't stupid. He knows his L.A. words will filter back to Pittsburgh. He knows those words might make him look bad. But he knows the right signals must be sent to UCLA, and if he comes off looking slightly worse, so be it.

Four days after his team was eliminated from the tournament, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few, another leading candidate for the job, had not heard from Guerrero. That could mean Guerrero was waiting for Pitt's season to end to go after Howland.

It's possible that Pitt's loss to Marquette has diminished Howland's stock and, at the same time, increased that of Tom Crean, the Marquette coach. If Crean beats Kentucky tomorrow, UCLA might forget Howland and come hard after him.

It's a delicate game being played out with a variety of players, and it's impossible to know the result.

The gut feeling here, though not with an absolute conviction, is that Howland will stay and use UCLA as leverage to make his Pitt contract richer still.

That, too, is the American way.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.

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