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Savran: Pitt shouldn't have to court Howland

Saturday, March 29, 2003

The question isn't whether Pitt should do everything it can to keep Ben Howland. The central question is should Pitt officials have to do anything to keep a man already obligated under the terms of a long-term contract?

Where else but in college athletics is a contract not worth the parchment it's written on?

By definition, a contract offers protection for both participating parties. The employee has security for the length of that contract at a predetermined salary. And if he's dismissed for anything other than a violation of a morality clause, he'll be paid that salary for the length of the agreement.

By entering into the agreement, the employer is guaranteed the services of the person for the agreed upon time span and is further guaranteed the employee may not accept work elsewhere.

Presumably, those are the inducements for both parties to enter into the agreement.

But not in college sports. Sign a deal today, entertain overtures tomorrow.

How many times is Pitt going to get whipsawed?

I could understand if this was the last or next-to-last year of his contract. But consider the background here.

Because Howland engineered the greatest renovation project since Station Square, Pitt signed its basketball coach to a revamped contract in the summer of 2001. Just six months later, because Howland proved there were bigger and better things still ahead for Pitt basketball, his contract was again extended, binding Howland to Pitt until 2009.

Or, apparently, until UCLA began singing its sweet siren song in Howland's ear.

Why should the Pitt again be forced into defending a position that finds them on legal and moral high ground?

When Howland was signed to not one, but two contract extensions, shouldn't that have been enough?

Now Pitt officials have to scramble and scrape for more money and whatever other nonmonetary sweet nothings it will take to keep a man they thought they had already kept.

If there's a buyout clause in the existing contract, good for Ben Howland. If it's not menacing enough to ward off invaders like UCLA, shame on Pitt.

Pitt officials should learn from the experience. Better yet, they should refuse to include such a clause again.

This isn't to suggest Howland has done anything wrong. He can't reject an offer that hasn't been made. Thus far, UCLA has done nothing more than float trial balloons into the smoggy Los Angeles air to see who's interested.

That being said, it's not terribly difficult to imagine that talks -- no matter how preliminary -- have taken place between UCLA and a Howland representative.

But even through the smog, you can sense Howland's interest or, at least, that he's intrigued by the thought of coaching in the motherland. It's obvious UCLA strikes a chord deep within the man, and you can't blame him for that.

If you had a great job in Kansas or North Dakota or wherever and had a chance to come home to Pittsburgh, wouldn't most of you jump at the opportunity? Be it ever so humble ...

Howland has tried to defuse the controversy swirling around him, but in attempting to do so, he has energized it.

Clearly, his primary motivation has been to protect his players from any distractions. But Howland has always stopped just short of shooting the controversy right between the eyes and killing it dead in its tracks. He could stop all this by saying, "I will not seek, nor will I accept any offer from UCLA!"

Bingo. End of story.

In Howland's defense, even if he made the kind of definitive statement Pitt fans want to hear, in these times of Dennis Franchione and Butch Davis, would anyone believe him anyway?

Still, Howland has the wherewithal to end it. By not doing so, he has fueled it. His statements on the matter haven't been contradictory, but the tone and tenor of those statements have varied depending on the audience.

His comments to L.A. reporters, who have been covering Pitt in the NCAA tournament like its campus is in Hollywood, send the message that coaching UCLA is the ultimate for him.

This has become a terribly small media world what with the Internet and national talk shows. What's written in the L.A, Times is immediately available in Pittsburgh. What is said to Tony Bruno or Jim Rome is heard immediately, or eventually, in L.A.

Now that the team has been unceremoniously dismissed from the NCAA tournament, the controversy will soon end.

Should Pitt do everything in its power to keep Ben Howland? Of course.

But should it have to?

Even if Pitt officials are successful this time, how long will it be before they're forced to do it again?

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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