8:15 a.m., Ballantyne Hotel lobby, Charlotte, North Carolina
Ben Howland asked the bellhop for a copy of the USA Today as soon as he got down to the lobby from his room. He had a few minutes to spare before taking a shuttle to ESPN’s studios down the street and wanted to get in as much of his morning ritual as he could before going through the marathon that is SEC basketball media day.
Reading the paper is part of that, but not just the sports section. In fact, that morning, it wasn’t the sports section at all, but the money section. Howland, to a certain level, is a business man. As Mississippi State’s head coach sat down in an armchair next to his video coordinator Michael Moynihan, he scanned the headlines for stories that caught his eye while quickly but succinctly breaking down the Republican and Democratic fields for the Presidential nomination in casual conversation with Moynihan.
“Where’s the money coming from for that?” he asked of one candidate’s particular idea.
At least twice over the course of the day, Howland found himself in conversation about the exponential spike in the value of homes in Santa Barbara, California, where he himself has a house. He had a similar conversation with new Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes, espousing the low cost of living in Starkville, while also explaining the headaches of trying to build a home in this particular neighborhood.
Shortly after, ESPN personality Maria Taylor half-jokingly asked the two if they would consider donating to a charity she works with. Howland was quick to respond, “This is the guy you need to ask. Rick’s been living in Texas, he hasn’t paid state income tax in 20 years!”
On a lighter level, Howland was twice asked during his trip what his favorite movie is. Both times, he offered two films as his one favorite: Godfather 1 and 2.
“But I’m a movie buff,” he says. “I could go on for days. There are so many that I love.”
Howland didn’t end up getting very far into the money section of the paper before the shuttle arrived to take him away, but he asked his media relations director Gregg Ellis to hold it in his backpack, if he wouldn’t mind, so Howland could read it later.
When they left the bus for interviews to begin, Howland asked if Ellis would hold on to his wallet, too, please.
“Don’t let it get stolen,” he said with a hint of comedy to his tone. “It’s got a lot of money in it.”
Ellis responded with a laugh.
“I’m serious,” Howland deadpanned.
Noon, ESPN Charlotte cafeteria
“I’m not going to lie,” Howland said.
He was reviewing the morning he’d had going from studio-to-studio and room-to-room doing various interviews for television and online ESPN platforms. And no, he didn’t lie, as was obvious to those who watched and listened to him that morning.
Coaches in general so consistently offer little-to-no substance or information in their answers to questions, that they’ve earned their own term, coachspeak, to refer to the way in which they avoid questions whether they needed to or not.
Howland, at least on most subjects, isn’t a coachspeak kind of guy, which may have taken those around him by surprise in the ESPN studio when he was part of a panel of new SEC coaches with host Dari Nowkah. Reporters in Starkville were a little surprised the first time Howland referred to freshman point guard Malik Newman as a one-and-done guy (something he’s done pointedly and repeatedly), because though they all knew and expected the same, they surely didn’t think MSU’s coach would come out and say it.
When the topic was broached in Charlotte, Howland offered the same refrain and took his belief one verse farther as Nowkah asked him about recruiting big-time players.
“Kids want a great experience in college, but they also have the hope and dream of being a pro,” he said as he finished talking about Newman’s NBA expectations as well as the previous players of Howland’s to advance to the highest level. “Kids can see that and say, ‘I can go play for Coach Howland at Mississippi State and he can make me a pro.’”
It’s not just grandstanding, either. Howland does have a history of doing it, over 20 of his former players having littered the NBA over recent years. Point guards, forwards, five-stars and no-stars, Howland’s track record is impressive. That’s why MSU was so excited to hire him in the first place.
It’s important for the Bulldogs that Howland bring in good players, and it’s just as important to Howland that he develop those players while they’re in his care, be it for a single year or the maximum allowable by the NCAA. After all, he said, it’s the SEC. Every player who comes to play in this conference believes they will be a professional one day, whether they end up making it or not.
“That’s a big selling point for Mississippi State,” Howland continued. “I have a track record of getting people to the league.”
Plus, he added as one more touch to the unplanned recruiting pitch, “there’s automatic playing time if you come here.”
Howland’s belief in what he can do for players and what he can do for MSU basketball is the same. He will occasionally mention the many players he’s coached to go on to pro careers, but more often in Charlotte he bragged on the history of Mississippi State basketball, reviewing the successes of Richard Williams and Rick Stansbury in recent memory, and even successes of the past from Babe McCarthy and the many great players he coached.
“Where you’ve had success before,” Howland told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, “you know you can have it again.”
3:30 p.m., Sirius/XM interview room, Ballantyne Hotel
Howland was in Charlotte for basketball. He’s a basketball coach who lives and works in the southeast, the land where pigskin is king and everyone else is just fighting for runner-up. The whole point of his trip was to promote the basketball team, despite that other sport being in the middle of its season.
But off the air, all Howland could talk about was football. Even on the air he made sure to bring it up a few times. Some coaches shy away from talking about football, Nowkah had told him earlier in the day, but not Howland, Nowkah noticed.
He sat there during his Sirius/XM interview and went on about how much he loves football. Perhaps because it’s a sport he gets to watch as a fan, not always with the coach part of him nagging in the back of his brain like with basketball.
When MSU hosted LSU back in September, it was the first time in his 58 years on earth that he’d been to a real, live SEC football game, a match-up he took his wife to see, too.
“Our ears were ringing the whole game,” Howland said of MSU’s traditional cowbells. “I loved it.”
He went on to say, first, what an impressive atmosphere it was and how helpful that is when bringing recruits into town. Second, he expressed his hope and belief that MSU fans will do the same for basketball in Humphrey Coliseum.
“If you bring a kid to a football game at Mississippi State,” he said, “that’s an incredible experience.”
Even on the shuttle that morning, Howland got into a conversation with Missouri coach Kim Anderson about their football teams who play each other in a couple weeks. Howland said he thinks MSU has looked better than their 1-2 conference record indicates, and he also revealed his true colors as a basketball coach when telling Anderson that MSU lost “at the buzzer” to LSU.
It’s not just football, though. Howland seems to genuinely love Starkville, too. Even if he hated it, he wouldn’t say so on camera, but Howland is preaching the gospel of StarkVegas to anyone who will listen, whether it’s on the record or not. It’s a place he believes in and truly appears to enjoy.
“Being in a college town is so much fun,” he said. “Everything revolves around the university.”
He used to work in Los Angeles, but Howland was raised in a town of 10,000. Starkville is the big city to him in some ways, but it certainly has the benefits of being a college town.
“No traffic. You get to know people,” he listed off. “And we have great restaurants!”
4 p.m., Ballantyne Hotel lobby
Finally done with interviews and waiting on the shuttle to the airport for the short flight home, Howland’s mind clicked back to one of the things he never got to do that morning.
“Gregg, do you still have the newspaper I gave you earlier?”
Always, to some degree, a business man, Howland remembers. He pays attention.
Earlier that day while walking through the ESPN complex, Howland passed through the hallway where the football helmets of every major school hang on the wall in three rows and dozens of columns.
Howland found the maroon and white helmet he was looking for, disappointed to see that it was on the bottom row, tough to see for anyone passing by. Not even checking to make sure no one was looking, Howland removed a helmet from the top row and set the MSU one its place.
“Gotta get Mississippi State in a prominent spot,” he explained.
If Howland’s tenure in Starkville goes like he expects, he’ll do just that.