This is where it all began. Eleven years ago. It’s hard to believe that they first sprouted their wings here.
Three men gather for work in a drowsy city that sweeps effortlessly along a gentle curve of the Pacific. The Santa Ynez Mountains stand like a watchful sentinel to the east, cradling the city, humming in the quiet, star-studded night. The ocean almost seems to breathe, panting, catching its rippling breath, if you pay close enough attention. There must be a game of pickup basketball going on somewhere in this world. The ocean almost whispers under each impending rolling surge of wave, “I’ve got next.”
* * *
Former UCSB men’s basketball Head Coach Jerry Pimm had a knack for recruiting. Not just players but assistant coaches, the backbone of every good college team. Assistant coaches are the beavers with hard hats and steel lunch pails that dig and munch and work and sweat every day. They have only one switch: on.
“Assistant coaches don’t join country clubs, don’t play golf, aren’t socially involved,” Pimm said. “They’re workers, and they work.”
For Pimm, surrounding himself with self-motivated, loyal and hard-working people was essential to maintaining a successful basketball program. With Ben Howland, Ray Lopes and Jamie Dixon bolstering the bench in the 1991-92 season – with pen, paper and eager spirits – Pimm knew he knew he could rely on his assistants. Who knew that they would steadily grow, and grow so tall on their own.
A Santa Barbara native and 12-year assistant coach at Santa Barbara from 1982-94, Howland ran his own team in 1994-95 at Northern Arizona University. Howland recently signed up with UCLA on April 2 after a great run at Pittsburgh. Lopes, who spent four illustrious years at UCSB from 1989-93, finally earned a head coaching job last season at Fresno State. Dixon, a graduate assistant on the 1991-92 Gaucho squad, secured his first gig at Pittsburgh on April 15, replacing his colleague and friend, Howland.
Though they all work in different parts of the country, a bond sturdier than the sticky web of a tinkering spider links the three coaches.
“I think if there would be one common thread among the three guys is that they’re always learning. I don’t think any one of them believes that they have all the answers, even to the level they’ve gotten to,” UCLA Director of Basketball Operations Chris Carlson said. Carlson, who has a degree in history from UCSB, was a manager on the 91-92 team and has known Howland since 1988. He has worked with Howland at NAU, Pittsburgh and now in L.A.
“Here are three guys who 10 years ago were in the Big West and now they’re in the [Western Athletic Conference], the Big East and the Pac-10,” Carlson said. “They’re still learning and still trying to learn.”
* * *
The Bruins yelped out for help – injured, hurt and hungry, they needed to savor the taste of winning again. With Steve Lavin fired, somebody needed to instill a sense of pride back into UCLA basketball. Enter Ben Howland.
The task might be Howland’s most daunting yet, with all nettlesome eyes watching his every move.
“He’s in a high-profile program with no scholarships and not a lot of great players,” Pimm said. “That’s a tough situation.”
UCSB Athletic Director Gary Cunningham, a head coach for two seasons at UCLA, owns the highest winning percentage (.863) of any head coach in Bruin history. Cunningham went 50-8 from 1977-79 and was an assistant from 1965-75 under John Wooden, winning eight national championships. Cunningham sees the tensions Howland will face in a different light.
“The pressure at UCLA is something the media talks about a lot, and it’s very overrated,” Cunningham said. “I think Ben will do well. He has all the credentials: He’s a good recruiter, he’s a person that has proven he can win, he’s a very hard worker, and his teams will be fundamentally sound.”
Howland was also the only coach Pimm kept at UCSB from Ed DeLacy’s regime.
“He was a player at Weber State and I knew him when he played against my Utah teams,” Pimm said. “I knew him to be a real good competitor and a tough, hard-nosed guard. He was a guy who was very dedicated to what he was doing.”
Howland led the Panthers to a 28-5 record, a #4 final AP rank and a second straight NCAA Sweet 16 appearance last season.
Lopes went 20-8 with the Bulldogs in 2002, winning the Don Haskins Award, the WAC Coach of the Year and CBSSportsline.com’s Rookie Coach of the Year. He helped FSU win a conference title at 13-5 after spending nine years under Kelvin Sampson, including one year at Washington State and eight at Oklahoma.
“You know, it’s funny about that, in 15 years of coaching that’s my first ever conference championship,” Lopes said, “which shows you how hard those things are to come by.”
UCSB Media Relations Director Bill Mahoney remembered Lopes’ distinctive style on the 91-92 staff.
“Ray was the calming influence of that group,” Mahoney said. “He was the most levelheaded and least emotional. … I was ecstatic when he got the Fresno State job because it was long overdue.”
Lopes, a New Haven, Conn., native, turned down an interview for the head coaching vacancy at Iowa State last week and has continually proved his commitment to the Bulldogs and faces in the past.
“When I was at Santa Barbara, I got involved with the Big Brother/Big Sister program and there was a young man that lived in Santa Barbara by the name of Shantay Legans,” Lopes said. “He was about 8 years old when they called, and they were looking for a Big Brother for him. None of the team members were interested so I took him under my wings.”
Legans transferred from California last season and will play his senior year for Lopes at Fresno in the fall.
“It’s kind of a reunion for him and me,” Lopes said. “I’m fortunate to have him play for me his last year of college.”
The final star to shine with his own beam, Dixon inherits a Panther program that lost three All-Big East caliber players. Yet Dixon added the final member of his coaching staff, Joe Lombardi, on Tuesday.
The Washington Bullets drafted Dixon in the seventh round of the 1987 NBA draft. Two teammates at Texas Christian, Carven Holcomb (round 4) and Carl Lott (round 5), were also selected in the same draft.
After a four-year professional career that included stops with the Lacrosse Catbirds of the Continental Basketball Association and in New Zealand, Dixon almost never made it back home. The 6’3,” 195-pound guard suffered a ruptured pancreas in Holland. Stuck in a hospital for three months, Dixon dropped 50 pounds. He refused to buckle.
“My goal in Holland – it happened around Christmastime – was to get out of the hospital in time to get to the Final Four so I could look for a job in coaching,” Dixon said.
Did he reach that goal, so far away from family and friends, stuck on a lonely hospital bed?
“I got there,” he said, squelching any fears. “It was an interesting deal. I almost didn’t make it.”
Dixon has made it, and Howland and Lopes are there beside him, supporting their peer – a member of their UCSB family.
* * *
Don’t expect any of these three coaches to stop and rest. They have to keep on working, keep teaching, keep learning. Maybe when they return to Santa Barbara to see the Pacific sparkle again from the crested nook of mountain and open sky, they can soak the tranquil end of day.
Maybe the next time they’re back in Santa Barbara, they will be able to hear the dribbling waves reassure them. There must be another game of basketball to play, and Howland, Lopes and Dixon certainly have called for the next game.