Old friends meet reluctantly for first time
UCLA Coach Ben Howland (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
UCLA Coach Ben Howland (AP Photo/John Froschauer)
Posted Mar 22, 2007

SAN JOSE, Calif. - It's the classic battle of two coaches who once worked together going up against each other for the first time with a whole lot on the line.

Only these guys have 25 years of history and built a program together.

Ben Howland actually recruited Jamie Dixon when the former was an assistant at UC Santa Barbara and the latter was a little-known guard from Sherman Oaks High in California.

"I applied because I wasn't very good and it was one of the worst programs in Division I," Dixon, who averaged about three points a game in high school, recalled.

Dixon, though, had a quality senior season and ended up going to TCU, where he was an all-league player in 1997.

When Howland got his first head coaching job at Northern Arizona in 1994 he brought Dixon on board. Dixon left for an assistant job in Hawaii (where his wife is from) in 1998, and spent two years on the island before being coaxed by Howland to join him when he got the head job at Pittsburgh in 2000.

"My wife and I had just gotten engaged," Dixon said. "Ben sold her on moving to Pittsburgh. That's what he says was his greatest recruiting coup."

Together, Howland and Dixon turned the Panthers into a Big East power before Howland returned to the West Coast in 2003, replacing Steve Lavin at UCLA.

Dixon took over at Pittsburgh and the program didn't lose a beat.

The two coaches will oppose one another for the first time when No. 2 seed UCLA faces No. 3 Pittsburgh in San Jose on Thursday.

"I don't feel any different whatsoever with this game," Dixon said.

C'mon. Let's be real. These guys practically grew up together. Dixon stayed at Howland's parent's house in Santa Barbara and Howland used to crash at Dixon's folks' home in Los Angeles. Howland's daughter, Meredith, is a student at Pittsburgh.

It goes so deep that Howland was a pallbearer for Dixon's sister, Maggie, after she died last year. Not at the request of Dixon but of his parents.

There's no way this is just another game.

"I don't want to play a close friend unless I have to," Howland said.

"I don't think it's another game for coach (Dixon)," Pittsburgh junior swingman Mike Cook said. "He's real excited about this challenge."

The pair already has decided they won't ever face one another in a regular-season game.

"He doesn't play away from home, anyway," Dixon joked. "Not that we play too many as well."

The coaching styles are similar. The players watch film and sometimes feel as though they are looking in the mirror. Even the terminology is nearly identical.

However, the personnel aren't.

The Bruins have arguably the best perimeter trio of Darren Collison, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp while Dixon's Panthers boast one of the country's biggest loads in the middle — hard-working senior 7-footer Aaron Gray.

It's the typical battle of Big East brawler against a soft Pac-10 team, right?


Howland has brought his hard-nosed attitude to Westwood — which resulted in a championship game appearance a year ago. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has yet to reach the Elite Eight, but the Panthers have gone to the Sweet 16 in four of the past six seasons.

"I'm excited," Howland said with a smile on his face.

The pair admittedly are similar. They both breathe basketball and family. They like to recruit the same types of players — physical guys who can defend.

Are there any differences?

"He's good looking," Howland jokes.

"Actually, Ben's at that stage where he lets everything roll a little bit easier," said Patrick Sandle, a Pitt assistant who also worked under Howland. "Dixon's more of a stickler for the particulars."

The two coaches still talk nearly every day, but both realize that it'll be the players that ultimately determine who has bragging rights after the game.

"Jamie and I are going to be in this business a lot longer than just tomorrow," Howland said. "So the focus in my mind, the NCAA tournament, is about the players."

Not quite yet.

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