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U. of Pittsburgh Basketball
Basketball: Vaccaro instrumental in UCLA luring Howland from Pitt

Sunday, April 06, 2003

By Chuck Finder , Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The kingmaker of college basketball, the ultimate playah in hoops, is a 63-year-old diabetic from Trafford who wears rumpled sweatsuits, hugs and kisses everybody, and, in the most elemental sense, works as a shoe salesman.

The thing is, he has helped to sell sneakers -- and other athletic apparel -- by the billions. Air Jordans? His baby. Dressing coaches and entire college programs in his company's clothes? His doing. Signing Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady so adidas could leave a sizeable, pardon the pun, footprint in basketball? All him.

This past week, though, he made his presence felt in his own hometown.

It was Sonny Vaccaro who helped to buy and sell Ben Howland from Pitt to UCLA.

Forget footprints.

His fingerprints were all over it.

And, as one source said, he has been planning this move since March 2002.

It was more than a year ago, the source added, when Vaccaro vowed privately: I'm going to get Ben Howland the UCLA job.

Vaccaro admitted the other day that his involvement only went as far back as January, yet at that time he was the one who prepped the UCLA athletic director for life after Steve Lavin. He was the one who submitted Howland's name. He was the one who facilitated the move, the same way he pointed a Northern Arizona coach eastward in 1999 to a moribund Pitt program that the new guy grew into a Top 5 power.

"I would never do anything to hurt Pittsburgh," explained Vaccaro, the man who ran, along with the Post-Gazette charity, the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic for 27 years until 1991. "I owe my life to Pittsburgh.

"I feel I did a great thing for Pitt."

Some Panthers fans may not feel similarly, especially in the wake of Howland's hasty retreat home to Southern California.

Yet Vaccaro already seems to be toiling behind the scenes on a new Pitt coach. He has spoken publicly, to reporters about how "Johnny" Calipari of Memphis by way of Moon would make a dandy Panthers coach. He also made remarks in March that prompted the New York Post to report then about a Howland-to-UCLA move followed by the Pitt arrival of Manhattan's Bobby Gonzalez, who, it just so happens, is another rising star on the adidas coaching circuit (and a Pitt candidate in 1999 as a Virginia assistant).

A helping hand

Anyway, that's getting ahead of Vaccaro's Howland-to-UCLA story.

"I talked to Mr. [Dan] Guerrero in January, when Lavin was under contract," he said of the UCLA athletic director. "What we talked about was how he could handle this search. We didn't talk about candidates. He said he had a list he would discuss with me the moment Lavin was released. There never was an official discussion until after Lavin was fired.

"Dan came to me [later]. He had a list of people. We went over the list. He asked me to give him four names. I gave him four names, and then he went about his search. He also looked at three pro coaches. After a week, he decided he wouldn't go the pro route."

Vaccaro offered no particulars, no names.

"Of the four names I submitted to him, only one was an adidas guy [Howland]. People say I'm all for adidas, but one of the names I gave him is one of the biggest Nike guys in the country.

"The point I want to make is, Ben Howland didn't get this job because he is an adidas coach. Anybody UCLA . . . hired would have been an adidas coach -- we have a contract with the school. Roy Williams is a Nike guy at Kansas, but if he took the UCLA job, he'd be an adidas guy."

Adidas has a $19 million contract with UCLA, one of the most high-profile basketball programs in the country. Vaccaro, a Los Angeles resident, told the LA Times: "With UCLA, we haven't received a return on our investment lately." And it's an investment athletic departments and universities take seriously.

Guerrero termed Vaccaro's role in Howland's hiring as "negligible."

Duquesne's Brian Colleary knows different.

"He's a very influential person in regards to hiring basketball coaches," said the athletic director of the Dukes who, by the way, are an adidas program. "I talked to him [two years ago] about Danny Nee. But that was more, 'Here's our list, what do you think?' And he was a big Danny proponent. You talk to as many people as possible. I talked to Steve Pederson at Pitt because he was with Danny at Nebraska.

"But I'd say Sonny's probably as responsible for Howland being at UCLA as Howland is."

Certainly, Vaccaro doesn't hold as much gravitas at a Nike school. There aren't professional interests at stake in those places. But because his company helps to defray school's costs -- adidas lump sums can be spread however a program wants, such as supplementing all coaching salaries -- considerable back-scratching occurs regularly.

Vaccaro added: "Let's just say that all major schools get $4 to $5 million [yearly] from shoe companies. They are free to do what they want with that money, as long as they wear the equipment. So if Ben is getting adidas money, it's money already in the pot."

In UCLA's case, the university must adhere to strict rules in the state of California system, meaning that salary levels had to stick to a certain (read: low) amount. Lavin's base salary was listed around $150,000 and his overall pay hovered around $570,000, which still made him the state's highest-paid employee. Suddenly, with Pitt dangling a $1.3 million offer to retain Howland, Guerrero and the Bruins needed to somehow conjure a relatively competitive counter offer.

Enter Vaccaro and adidas?

No one says anything definitively, but the inference is that -- in addition to boosters raising $10 million for the program -- Vaccaro rode to their financial rescue to some degree. In the end at UCLA, under their memorandum of agreement, Howland will receive a base salary of $900,000 and make more than double Lavin's pay if he reaches certain graduation-rate, coach-of-the-year and NCAA tournament incentives.

The gravy train

So the middle-aged Pittsburgher in the rumpled sweatsuits is a gift horse.

"The money helps us run a quality athletic program that is not paid for by the taxpayers," UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale told the Times.

This method worked for Pitt when hiring Howland, too.

Steve Pederson, then the Panthers' athletic director but now the AD at Nebraska, admitted that he relied upon Vaccaro and adidas for Howland's first contract at Pitt.

"I called Sonny and told him that I was considering Ben and I hoped that we could rely on a shoe contract, in terms of getting Ben all set financially and so forth," Pederson said. "He did know Ben and helped him at Northern Arizona."

Vaccaro maintains he did much more than that during the Pitt process, disputing Pederson's claim that the AD found Howland among the San Francisco Peaks at Northern Arizona all by himself.

"Our people at adidas knew Pederson from [his previous stint at] Nebraska," said Vaccaro, who had taken a shining to Howland after mutual friend Rick Majerus of Utah introduced them, and adidas started giving $5,000 or so yearly to the new coach of a woeful Big Sky program that hardly merited such attention. "I didn't know Pederson. To this day, I've never met him in person; we've only talked on the phone.

"He was a football person. He wasn't a basketball person. He wanted someone who was a solid, fundamental coach. That's who I recommended. There are a lot of [athletic directors] who I've helped but I never met in person.

"I told Steve about Ben and said, 'He's what you need. He's a coach. He ain't going to play in Pittsburgh the first year, but he's one of the best young coaches in the country.' "

The tale went something like this: Vaccaro called Howland in Flagstaff, Ariz., in February 1999, soon after Ralph Willard announced his impending Pitt departure. The shoe rep did most of the talking, and the coach answered mostly in affirmatives -- "Uh huh. . . . Yes. . . ." Vaccaro agreed to drop Howland's name on a program to which the West Coast coach had no ties and maybe even land him the job. Howland hung up muttering something along the lines of, "Yeah, that'll happen."

As Vaccaro said in March 1999, about the time Howland was introduced as the Panthers' new coach: I had no trouble at all standing by him. Adidas is making an investment, too. We want Pitt to win.

Vaccaro this week: "Now that was a miracle. . . . In my wildest dream, I didn't think he'd do what he did."

Three Big East tournament finals and a championship this March. Consecutive Sweet 16 NCAA appearances. Consecutive conference West Division titles. An 89-40 record. Full houses in the new Petersen Events Center. National exposure.

Finally, this week, Vaccaro delivered on the vow he made privately last spring: He got Howland to UCLA.

To be sure, Vaccaro has other worries, other people to handle. LeBron James, for example. The adidas guy is vying for the Akron schoolboy's marketing rights, a deal worth perhaps as much as $30 million. Vaccaro's former company, Nike -- the one that allowed him to court Michael Jordan over a Tony Roma's meal at the 1984 Olympics, make them billions of dollars, then fired him in 1992 -- is vying as well. CEO Phil Knight has had the Jameses over to his Oregon home for dinner. Vaccaro has brought the family several times to California, and just had LeBron playing in his Sonny V. EA Sports Roundball Classic in Chicago.

This is the marketing director who gave clothes to Lamar Odom when he was at Rhode Island and housed Felipe Lopez of St. John's for a while. This is the gent who runs three national-showcase summer camps and gets so close to high school players that many heed his counsel, such as: college or pro?

Players are transformed into stars. Coaches' careers are made by his behind-the-scenes orchestrations. If the college program succeeds and earns money, then everybody's happy, right?

"You can't say I pulled strings," Vaccaro tried to modestly say of his coaching connections, "but I helped a lot of their jobs. This is what I do. I've always been in the mix. I never shied away from it. I thought I did Pitt a wonderful service suggestion to Pederson that they hire Ben Howland.

"I want to make one thing clear. Isn't it ironic that what we saw happen at Pitt was one of the most unbelievable comebacks in college athletics. They took a guy from Northern Arizona, and what he did was put the program on a high plateau. Now it is recognized as one of the Top 25 programs in America."

Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

Bob Smizik contributed to this story. He can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.

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