STARKVILLE, Miss. -- This hotel lobby could be anywhere. This is by design.
Familiarity is the driving sales pitch of the modern hotel conglomerate. You, the weary traveler, can stay in two cities on two nights and have exactly the same experience, down to that tiny bottle of shampoo. The effect is powerful and not entirely unpleasant. Every now and then, just for a moment, you might even forget where you are.
At this moment, Mississippi State coach Ben Howland is sitting across the table, having just polished off a low-carb, diet-compliant omelet, and he's particularly fired up. The team he inherited in March wasn't very good at a lot of basic basketball stuff. Summer workouts are in full swing. His list of immediate developmental priorities is exhaustive.
"We're trying to teach them to set good screens, how to use a screen, how to come off a screen watching a defender, all of it," Howland says. "They were the s---iest screening team. Last year's team averaged [nine] assists and 15 turnovers a game. They weren't a good passing team. They weren't a good shooting team.
"And shooting, as you know, that's why Wisconsin was so good last year, because they shoot the ball. Virginia, they shoot -- The best teams shoot the -- And uh, this is --"
Howland trails off. The waitress at this nondescript hotel lobby restaurant has accidentally switched two tables' checks. The coach glances at the wrong bill, begins to slide it across the table, then opens it again.
"You know what?" he says. "You got two beers for five dollars."
Seriously? That can't be right.
"No, look," Howland says. "Two beers for five dollars. No -- two microbrews for five dollars. Welcome to Starkville!"
Laughing, he repeats it, this time in a Southern drawl.
"Wailcome," he says, "to Sturkvuhl."
It's an unlikely welcoming committee.
Howland has barely arrived himself. Athletic director Scott Stricklin officially introduced him as Mississippi State's men's basketball coach on March 25, just four days after outgoing coach Rick Ray -- a universally liked former Clemson assistant who finished with a 37-60 record in three seasons -- was fired. Howland's been on and off the road since, and he's still getting settled in. Construction on his new home is in the early stages. Howland's wife, Kim Zahnow, is still splitting time between Starkville and their home in Santa Barbara, California.
Howland keeps photos of that Santa Barbara house on his phone. His backyard is the Pacific Ocean; the Channel Islands loom on the horizon. Howland calls it a "pretty sweet little spot." This is an understatement.
Which is the real reason the new surroundings are so implausible: At 58, Howland traded Santa Barbara for Starkville. With no significant financial need, totally of his own volition, this native Californian waved goodbye to endless summer on the American Riviera and went back to work in a small Southern town that only recently co-opted a nickname -- "Stark Vegas" -- originally intended as an insult.
The question is: Why?
What motivates someone to make that choice? And since we're asking: Why was it always so clear, in the two years after Howland's firing at UCLA, that he was determined to coach again? Why was the conclusion always so foregone? Why not stay in Santa Barbara? Why not, you know, chill?
"How many people do you know who love their jobs?" Howland said. "Did your dad love his job? Was he passionate about it? Because I am. I love it. I love the relationships. I love teaching. I love the competition. I love everything about it. And I feel like I've been pretty good at it."
All right: love, then. Not a bad place to start.
Howland is not wrong: He has been pretty good at it.
In 1994, after stints as an assistant at Gonzaga and UC Santa Barbara, the upstart coach took his first head job at Northern Arizona. In his third season, the Lumberjacks made their second NIT appearance; in Year 4, they went to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
That led to a job at Pittsburgh in 1999, where Howland was, again, almost immediately successful. By the end of the 2002-03 season, the Panthers had won two straight conference titles -- and their first Big East tournament title -- and Howland was one of the hottest names on the market. Meanwhile, 2002-03 was UCLA's first losing campaign since before John Wooden was hired in 1948. Steve Lavin was fired. Howland was offered a rare opportunity and didn't need much persuasion.
"That was my dream job," he said. "I was always in love with that place."
And he was good at it. In just two seasons, Howland had UCLA back in the NCAA tournament. At the end of Howland's third, freshman guard Darren Collison joined fellow Southern California products Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar in the backcourt. Despite their youth, the hard-nosed Bruins gradually morphed into a defensive monster. After Feb. 19, they lost exactly once -- in the national championship, to Florida. (They are probably best remembered as the team that scored 11 points in 20 seconds to upend Gonzaga, moved Adam Morrison to tears while the outcome was still in doubt and just about asphyxiated commentator Gus Johnson.)
UCLA followed that breakthrough with two more Final Four appearances. The same Florida roster ended the Bruins' run in 2007's national semifinals; a year later, a Derrick Rose-led Memphis pulled the plug. But five years in, with a combination of tough program players (Collison, Afflalo) and eventual NBA megastars, (Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook) Howland had reached something none of John Wooden's successors could claim: three straight Final Fours. He was at least meeting UCLA fans' extreme expectations. He was exceeding everyone else's.
Which is pretty much when it stopped. By 2009-10, with a roster decimated by NBA departures, the Bruins won just 14 games, adding a second losing season since Wooden's hire. Despite highly ranked recruiting classes, Howland's teams would never touch those mid-aughts highs. From 2010-11 on, the Bruins went to the tournament twice. They never finished a season ranked higher than No. 45 in adjusted efficiency -- which came in 2012-13, Howland's final season.
A year earlier, in February 2012, Sports Illustrated published "Special Report: Not the UCLA Way." Citing interviews with "more than a dozen players and staff members from the past four Bruins teams," SI writer George Dohrmann described Howland as aloof, short-tempered, difficult to work for and unwilling to punish his most talented players. Embarrassing anecdotes pocked every paragraph. Former All-Pac-12 selection Reeves Nelson, who was dismissed from the team the previous November after missing the team's flight to Maui, openly admitted that he tried to injure teammates on multiple occasions. (In 2012, Nelson sued Time Inc. for defamation; a judge later threw the suit out.) Howland has long disputed many of the story's claims but has also conceded mistakes, among them not cutting ties with Nelson sooner.
The root causes might have been as simple as recruiting missteps -- of a staff prioritizing obvious talent over the hungry up-and-comers, like Collison and Afflalo, that drove UCLA's early success, and alienating local power brokers in doing so. All the same, Dohrmann's portrait of ideological decline was devastating, and 2012-13 was a last, desperate stand. Howland signed the best recruiting class in the country. He unveiled a new, up-tempo style. He beat Arizona three times. He got back to the NCAA tournament.
And, in March, he became the first coach in modern college basketball history to be fired after winning a power conference regular-season title.
"That's not a distinction I'm necessarily proud of," Howland said. "But it's true."
That was a hard time. Few disagreed with UCLA's decision, even as Howland's replacement, Steve Alford, was greeted coolly by fans. Almost as soon as Howland was gone, he heard offers from other schools. He turned them all down. A year off was the healthier choice. He was ready for a break. He was still licking his wounds.
A second year off wasn't part of the plan. He had more offers. He held out for better. When nothing materialized, he tried TV. He called Atlantic 10 games for NBC Sports. He did studio work at Fox.
It was an enjoyable learning experience, but mostly it was a chance to sate his withdrawal. Fellow coaches, empty gyms, pregame film study. Practices. The routine. It was coaching methadone. The longer it went on, the more he missed it. The practices most of all.
When Stricklin reached out in March, it took less than 48 hours to agree on a four-year deal with an average annual salary of $2.05 million.
Which is not to say either side was grasping. Before Ray's predecessor, Rick Stansbury, was fired in 2012, the Bulldogs were a tournament team as often as not. And State, being an SEC school with SEC football money, more than holds its own on the facilities front. Mize Pavilion -- a $11.2 million attachment to Humphrey Coliseum that houses new basketball offices, practice courts and a weight room -- was built in 2011 and still looks brand-new.
There are things to sell, #StarkVegas quips aside, and Howland has wasted no time seizing on them. A day after his hiring was announced in March, Howland was in point guard Malik Newman's home. A Jackson, Mississippi, native, Newman has paternal ties to Mississippi State -- where his father and uncle both played -- which kept the Bulldogs in the running for the No. 10 prospect in the 2015 class despite competition from heavyweights Kansas and Kentucky. On April 24, a month after Newman met Howland for the first time, the biggest recruit in program history committed to State.
Like all new coaches, Howland had to sell himself to his current roster, too -- to any player thinking of transferring after Ray's departure, and to those who might be lingering skeptics moving forward. That was especially true at Mississippi State, where a glut of experienced returners, some of whom were recruited by Stansbury, have experienced more turmoil than success.
That sale didn't take long, either.
"When he got here, we had our first team meeting, and basically he told us what was in his resume," junior guard I.J. Ready said. "He hasn't mentioned it since. But, I mean, he coached Russell Westbrook. You know? You can't beat that. You say, 'OK, he's been with real-deal players.' He knows what he's talking about. So why not come in here every day and listen to him and maybe you can get to that level one day?
"The very first workout -- it was intense," Ready said. "We caught a whole bunch of his energy. And it hasn't been down since."
It's a Monday morning in July, just before 8 a.m., and Howland welcomes office associate Suzanne Cook back from a three-day weekend with a rapid-fire list of to-dos.
Then it's off to the weight room, where Akon is already blaring, and where the coach will work an elliptical while his new strength coach, David Deets, puts the players through their overhauled regimen.
At 9 a.m., Howland will oversee the team's offseason skills workout, which will focus primarily on passing and shooting. He summons Mississippi State director of basketball operations Jason Ludwig; Howland needs to know how many more basketball workouts each of the players can attend without violating NCAA rules. They're allowed two hours per week in the summer. He desperately wishes it were more and insists his players agree.
He's been impressed by the team's work ethic thus far. He loves his players' willingness to absorb brutal honesty, to spend time on things -- passing, shooting, setting good screens -- that must seem rudimentary to Division I athletes. Veterans like Ready, senior guard Craig Sword and senior forward Gavin Ware are untouted players with something to prove, the kind that have always suited Howland best. He is in his element here. Hard-charging, focused, commanding.
His biggest fan in Starkville -- and the best sign that Howland has found a place where his edge will be welcomed -- is the one most likely to make Mississippi State a factor in the SEC as soon as 2015.
"I love him," Newman said. "He's just intense, man. Extremely demanding. Extremely competitive."
"In everything," Newman said. "Every drill. Every workout. Every conversation you have with him. The way he talks. The way he carries himself. Everything is -- he's always a competitor."
Now we're getting somewhere.
Yes, coaches are inherently competitive. But it takes something extra to make this move. It takes something more than a romance with squeaky sneakers and midnight film sessions to pull you away from your movie-star house with your Channel Islands view in your quiet little California beach community and deposit you anywhere else. Let alone here.
"Yeah, I've got a great place to retire," Howland said. "But I'm not ready to retire. Not even close. The practices, where you're organizing your team. The part of the season when we're watching film of our opponent and figuring out how to attack them. Getting ready to play. That stuff, to me, is all really fun."
Of course. But there's still something else. Something more than fun. More than love, even. Something less fuzzy. Something more raw.
"And no," Howland said. "I'm not going to leave this profession where I'm getting fired after we won the conference. I'm just not doing that."
There it is. Pride.
Love and pride. Potent, as motivations go.
There are signs, too, that Howland has mellowed. He seems at ease in Starkville. He loves the local institution diner, Starkville Cafe. He's gotten to know the regulars. He has already scouted out his favorite salad -- the Veggie Max -- at The Veranda. It's a quiet town. Calm. You can get pretty much anywhere in less than 10 minutes, which makes life less stressful than Los Angeles does.
Stark Vegas has its upsides. And, yes, the people are friendly.
Even back in this hotel lobby, which is meant to look like every other hotel lobby in every other city, Starkville shines through. The waitress is back, and Howland has to hear more about this bill.
"I don't think you charged enough for those beers," he says.
"I know, right?" the waitress replies. "Believe it or not, at Happy Hour, they're $1.08."
"Say that again."
"Yep," the waitress confirms. "Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., the price is a dollar-eight. You should come by."
"This is awesome," Howland says. "A dollar-eight. I mean, where else in the world can you get that?"
The waitress is joined by the short-order cook, the one who made Howland his off-menu low-carb omelet earlier. He wants to make sure it tasted OK, that he didn't use too much oil. He's "not a pro yet."
Howland ensures him it was very good. He thanks them both. They walk away.
"See what I mean?" he says. "See how nice people are? This is not Los Angeles."
No, it's not. It's Starkville. Welcome.