Only the most diehard Spokane basketball fans remember Ben Howland from his single year as a Gonzaga assistant coach, but horse-racing fans might remember Howland from his days working in the restaurant at Spokane's old Playfair racetrack.
"I got him a job as a greeter at the Turf Club when he was coaching here," recalls Dan Fitzgerald, the former Gonzaga basketball coach and athletic director. "He made pretty good money."
Howland broke into coaching as a graduate assistant at Gonzaga in 1981-82. On Thursday, Howland coaches seventh-ranked UCLA (29-6) against fifth-ranked Gonzaga (29-3) in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in Oakland (6:55 pm, KREM 2, KGA 1510).
Fitzgerald credits Howland with bringing grit and fire to a UCLA basketball program that was in desperate need of both qualities. Howland says his year at Gonzaga taught him all about grit.
"I was there when the recruiting budget was $10,000 ... You slept on floors," Howland recalls.
"Some guys talk about being tough; Ben Howland is tough," Fitzgerald says. "He's got his kids playing tough. They're playing as good a defense as they've played at UCLA in a long time."
Still a No Show Fitzgerald has not attended a Gonzaga home game since 1997, when he was forced to resign as athletic director after he admitted not reporting some money used by the athletic department. The school and the NCAA ruled it provided Gonzaga with no competitive advantage.
Asked if he might find his way into Gonzaga's fancy new arena someday, Fitzgerald (a Spokane businessman) says, "I won't go when I'm not invited. It's certainly not a reflection on a lot of the people there. I've got a lot of friends there."
Howland says: "Fitz deserves a lot of credit for everything [Gonzaga's basketball success] ... Do you understand what an incredible coach he is?"
Small World Fitzgerald remains close to Howland and Gonzaga coach Mark Few, another man who broke into college coaching after being hired as a Gonzaga graduate assistant during Fitzgerald's run as athletic director and/or basketball coach.
Few and Howland are the sons of ministers and were born near Eugene, Ore., in the small towns of Creswell and Lebanon, respectively. Howland grew up in Southern California.
Few met his wife, Marcy, when he was an assistant coach at Gonzaga and she was a GU student. Howland met his wife, Kim, when he was playing at Weber State and she was a cheerleader for the Wildcats.
Easy Access & r & Just like legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, Few still lists his home phone number.
It's highly unlikely that Few or anyone else will ever match Wooden's record haul of 10 NCAA Division I men's basketball championships (all at UCLA). However, Few set his own Division I men's basketball record last week when he became the first person to win as many as 188 games in his first seven years as a head coach (all at Gonzaga).
Perspective Check The Bulldogs are rightfully proud of their 20-game winning streak -- the longest active streak in Division I men's basketball, and tied for the longest in school history -- and their record six consecutive regular-season championships in the West Coast Conference.
Keep in mind, however, that UCLA set the NCAA record of 88 consecutive wins in the early 1970s and won a record seven consecutive NCAA championships from 1966-73.
Record Watch A Gonzaga win tonight would break the school record for victories (the 2001-02 team finished 29-4) and vault the Bulldogs into the Elite Eight for the second time in school history (1999).
The Bruins would have to win a record 12th NCAA championship to break the school record of 32 wins, set by the last UCLA national championship team in 1994-95 (32-1). The Bruins are riding a nine-game winning streak.
Mo, Mo, Mo NCAA Division I scoring leader Adam "Mo" Morrison struggled to score 14 points against Indiana last Saturday, but he still moved past Richie Frahm into second place on Gonzaga's all-time NCAA Tournament scoring list.
Morrison's 125 points and 20.3 average in six tournament games rank behind Casey Calvary's 136 points and Dan Dickau's 23.5 average.
Morrison, a junior forward, ranks third in school history in career points (1,843), points per game in one season (28.2) and points in one game (44). With all due respect to the people ahead of Morrison, they played much easier competition. And he's only a junior.
Morrison has set single-season school records this year with 902 points, five 40-point games, 237 free throws made (first in Division I) and 307 free throws attempted (one short of the Division I lead). Morrison needs 44 points to crack the career top 10 in the WCC.
Hail to the Prince Morrison may be the king of NCAA scorers this year, but UCLA freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (Umbah-a-moo-teh) is the prince of his village in the African nation of Cameroon.
Mbah a Moute rules the boards, too -- he leads UCLA with 8.1 rebounds per game.
Chalk Talk The Bruins (seeded second in the Oakland Regional) have the superior backcourt tandem in Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar, but the third-seeded Bulldogs have the superior scoring tandem in Morrison and center J.P. Batista. The Bruins are better on defense; the Bulldogs are better on offense.
Look for Afflalo, an outstanding defender, to hound Morrison with plenty of help from his buddies. The Bruins can't give Batista too much room near the basket, however, because the 6-foot-9, 269-pound Batista is much stronger than 7-foot, 225-pound UCLA center Ryan Hollins.
The Gonzaga-UCLA winner plays Thursday's Memphis-Bradley winner on Saturday (time to be determined) in Oakland for a trip to the Final Four. Memphis (32-3), ranked fourth nationally and seeded first in the Oakland Regional, beat Gonzaga 83-72 in Memphis on Dec. 27.