2:00 a.m., Tuesday, Starkville
Ben Howland has been Mississippi State’s new basketball coach for all of a few hours, and at age 57, he’s close to pulling an all-nighter for the first time since college as he studies for a test the next day. For Howland to coach, he just has to sign a few papers. For him to recruit players, however, he’s got to pass the NCAA’s lengthy open-book test on rules and regulations, the laws and bylaws governing nearly everything he’s going to do off the court as the Bulldogs’ new head man. And recruiting is his focus in the first few days on the job, trying to lure both fans and prospects to Starkville and MSU.
8:00 a.m., Tuesday, Mize Pavillion offices
As much as everything that happened in the process of hiring Howland was a whirlwind, he’s an organized man, very structured when he can be. When he gets to his new office first thing in the morning, he wants a glass of cold water. By nine, the need for caffeine kicks in. Howland wants a Diet Coke and a cup of ice. The Diet Coke by itself doesn’t complete his ritual. He needs the cup of ice to pour it over and the caffeine jolt it provides.
His wife and daughter are big coffee drinkers, he told me, but he didn’t like the taste as a kid and has never wanted to acquire the taste, if he even could.
“I know this stuff is probably awful for you,” he said, swishing the Diet Coke in the cup, “but I was just never a coffee guy. My wife and daughter are all over it. It’s a big part of a lot of people’s day. I just never liked the taste.”
I was there, with my mug full of hot coffee, to trail Howland throughout the day, his first 24 hours on the job. It happened particularly fast, as MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin called him Saturday, again on Sunday, met with him Monday, then flew him (and his family) to Starkville that night, making it official when Stricklin tweeted a picture of he and Howland together on campus.
Howland was tired even before he stayed up all night studying for his recruiting test, but as he mentioned before taking it Tuesday morning, that was the most important thing he had to do. There was a full itinerary of appearances and interviews, but the test allowing him to get (and keep) the players he hopes to coach was his priority.
At 9:28, the first of those itinerary items was ready to be crossed off: an interview with Bo Bounds, a sports radio host out of Jackson, Mississippi.
“Can I use the landline?” Howland asked his media relations director Gregg Ellis as he motioned toward the phone on his desk he’d not yet used.
“Of course,” Ellis told him. “My cell gets good reception here, but we can go either way.”
“I prefer to use the landline,” Howland said. “As much as I’m on the phone, I don’t want to fry my brain.”
The explanation followed of how to use the office phone, how to dial out for off-campus numbers and the long-distance code required for dialing out of the area code.
“I’m gonna have to do this every time I call out of the city?” he asked, consequently explaining that at UCLA they had somehow engineered a workaround on his office landline so he wouldn’t have to type in the long codes each time. “I live on the phone.”
He happily made the call, however, without the soon-to-come workaround. His first interview at MSU sounded like it was his 20th; his polish from two years on TV and a decade in the Los Angeles market are obvious.
Howland told Bounds about being in New York when MSU last played in the Final Four, how he watched that team under Richard Williams and was impressed. He talked about meeting with the current team on Monday night, how they were incredibly respectful and attentive and looked him in the eye. He told Bounds how nice the facilities were, something he hadn’t been as aware of from a distance.
“The practice facility and my office are just beautiful,” he said. “I’m really impressed.”
He went on to share how much he loves college football, especially the SEC (“If you’re a college football fan, there’s only one league to watch.”), and how impressed he was watching Bulldog quarterback Dak Prescott under head coach Dan Mullen (“I can’t wait to meet him”) back in the fall when MSU ascended to No. 1 in the country.
9:45 a.m., Tuesday, Drill Field on campus
If Howland’s biggest priority is recruiting future students, his second biggest is very clearly to recruit the current students. In the first of several planned surprises and activities this week, Howland was crashing a government class on campus taught by White Waide.
As part of the surprise interruption, he wanted to take a selfie with the couple hundred students in the auditorium and tweet it out. However, in his two years of fly-fishing, TV commentating and film studying, Howland has gotten slightly behind on technology and social media. Earlier that morning, he was on the phone with his daughter trying to figure out his twitter password so he could log back in. Since re-gaining access to that account, he’s tweeted more in three days than the previous two years combined.
Before he went into the classroom, he stopped the group mid-stride to practice his attempt.
“Selfie? Yeah, I think I can do that,” Howland said, looking down his nose at his iPhone. “This is how you switch the camera,” he concluded, tapping the button to reverse the view of the lens.
He turned out to be a natural at selfies, snapping and tweeting a good one when he finished talking to the class. In that auditorium, he explained why he was doing such a thing.
“Everywhere I’ve been,” he told them, “the students are the key to a great atmosphere.”
10:30 a.m., Tuesday, University photography studio
On the way to have his official headshot and a few promotional pictures taken, Howland told the group of us with him about his dinner the night before with MSU President Dr. Mark Keenum.
“What an impressive man he was. And his wife Rhonda is just great.”
From the sound of things, Howland was the one asking questions of the Keenums and listening to them speak, instead of the other way around.
In researching Howland and talking to people about him after I found out MSU was hiring him, I heard some things about him that were confirmed on Tuesday. Primarily, that he is incredibly curious. Howland is thirsty for knowledge, constantly inquisitive and always wanting to learn and know more.
“He’d have made a great reporter,” Ellis told me later that day.
“I had the same thought,” I replied.
When Howland had that dinner with the Keenums, he asked the President what the split was between undergraduate and graduate students at MSU. He wanted to know what programs were big at State. As we walked around between appearances Tuesday, he asked about every building, what type of classes were taught inside and what the academics were like.
“Is that guy a football player?” he asked, seeing a large young man walking out of a building across the street.
“Yep, offensive lineman.”
Outside the studio he had his portrait taken, there hung several pictures on the wall of former MSU athletes.
“That’s Anne’s dad,” he said, pointing to one picture.
Anne Stricklin is Scott Stricklin’s wife, the former Anne Howell, daughter of NBA Hall of Famer and former MSU basketball player Bailey Howell. Howland had barely been in town 12 hours and he already recognized Howell from his playing days at State without so much as a nametag on the picture.
“I did not like him when I was a kid,” Howland told us with a laugh. “He was always beating my Lakers.”
Later that day, he passed by a mural on the wall outside MSU’s locker room of several former stars. He stopped the traveling group and asked us to tell him about each player.
Passing by the baseball stadium later, he asked about the team. Each person he met, he asked where they’re from, where they went to school, where they’ve worked before. He’s thirsty for knowledge, some of it relevant and much of it not.
He retains it, too. If he met 500 people (he met more), I heard him confidently repeat over 100 of their names at a later time.
On the way out of one office on campus, he stopped and grabbed copies of five magazines all about MSU so he could read up on the school’s academic side. In his introduction speech later that day, he knew enough to talk about MSU being the flagship research university in the state, something the school very much prides itself on.
Every morning, starting that Tuesday and presumably going for the duration of his tenure, he will have someone on the staff collect every item written about he and his team that day and bring it to his office so he can read every word. He wants to know what people are saying.
It goes beyond sports, too. He was still carrying around a copy of the Starkville Daily News late Tuesday afternoon, reading it from cover-to-cover.
“Tell me about this Mr. Smith,” he said, eyes looking at a column written on him by sports editor Danny P. Smith.
Beyond the info gathering on the school, taking selfies with students and realizing he needed to buy more maroon clothing (“I’ve gotta get some maroon stripes. I’m gonna be spending a whole lot of money on new suits.”), Howland finally got time in the afternoon to sit down and worry about his actual team.
1:00 p.m., Tuesday, lunch in Mize Pavillion conference room
Finally, finally, finally, Howland was getting what he wanted. Like a starving man at a buffet, Howland’s hunger to get back to coaching has been aching the last two years. Few children have been as excited on Christmas morning as Howland seems to be to get to work on Mississippi State basketball.
It’s one thing to read the quotes from stories the last couple years about how much he missed it and how much he wanted to get back into it, but a totally different thing to get to see him rip the proverbial wrapping paper off the present that is MSU’s basketball program.
Over a lunch of barbecue and baked beans, Howland met with his director of operations, the head trainer and the head strength coach to talk about the state of things. He wanted the rundown of what games they had scheduled next year and what openings there were for some games he had in mind. He needed updates on injuries and recoveries and he wanted to know who was strong, who was disciplined and who needed some work.
The very first question Howland asked strength coach Richard Akins wasn’t about who’s the most talented, who’s the strongest or even who might think about leaving.
“Who’s tough?” Howland asked him. “Who are my tough guys?”
That’s what Howland wants in a player. Over his long career of coaching and recruiting, he’s signed the guys no one else wanted and he’s signed No. 1 players in the country. He’s sent both to the NBA. His type isn’t about size, skills or stars. It’s about toughness.
“Chicken,” was Akins’ first response, referencing rising senior guard Craig Sword before mentioning a few others with Howland’s requisite quality.
Talking to the trainer, Howland opened up a bit about his philosophy.
“I believe in flexibility,” he said after asking if any of the players do yoga.
Of the many things he’s learned and taken notes on the last two years of seeing other programs and what they do, proper care for the body is one of his favorites.
5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Bryan Airfield
Following his class-crashing, test-taking, interview-giving and press-conference-filled morning and afternoon, Howland was on the school’s private seven-seat jet to fly down to Jackson and throw out the first pitch at MSU’s baseball game against Southern Miss. It’s only a 20-minute flight, but the six of us were still in a rush to land, hop in the vans waiting on us and get to the stadium in Pearl to throw out the first pitch at 6:15. We made it, barely, as Howland had enough time to meet baseball coach John Cohen and throw a couple practice pitches with pitcher Myles Gentry before stepping onto the mound.
As the successful head coach at UCLA for most of a decade, Howland has thrown out plenty of first pitches, many of them in front of massive MLB crowds at storied stadiums. He was nervous for this one, though, because it was his first since an arm injury sidelined him and made motions such as throwing a bit more difficult. Just as he was with the selfie that morning, he was adamant about getting some practice in before he did the act in front of a crowd.
His pitch was fine, of course, but it was after the reason for the trip that the real action started. Trying to make it from the dugout to the press box for a radio interview, Howland’s path took him straight into the grandstands and through the concourse, a 40-minute walk to get a couple hundred feet. He was a rock star, there’s no other way to put it.
Surrounded by four or five cameramen from local TV stations, escorted by Ellis and trailed by me, he was stopped at every step for a handshake, autograph, picture or quick conversation. Those MSU fans too shy to walk up and talk to him all watched, pointed and smiled from their seats as he worked his way up the aisle, happily taking a moment or five for every one who approached him.
The excitement within MSU’s fanbase about Howland is something most associated with the school say they haven’t seen in some time.
8:30 p.m., Tuesday, MSU jet
Flying through the airspace between Jackson and Starkville, Howland’s day was finally slowing down. It wasn’t yet done, as he had a list of recruits to call and appointments to make once the plane touched down, but the whirlwind that had started the night before seemed to have reached something of a calm.
If Howland had reclined his seat, closed his eyes and rested for a moment, none on the plane would have faulted him. But while his adrenaline should have run out hours before, it was still pumping. I listened from my seat as he and Stricklin spent every moment on the plane talking excitedly about his passion: basketball.
They broke down the evolution of the game, what’s good and what’s bad about modern basketball, how the personalities have changed and the attention that goes into it.
For both Stricklin and Howland, it’s not about one particular style, look or form. Just as it is with the type of players Howland wants, all shapes and sizes and are accepted. For him, it’s about desire.
“Guys like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker turn down more money somewhere else so that they can be legends,” Howland told Stricklin as the plane descended on Starkville. “And they are legends of the game.”
With a full resume already and his newest challenge in front of him, Howland is hoping he can become a legend himself.
Stricklin is hoping so, too, if I had to guess.