Change is the only constant in life, or so some Greek philosopher once said.
But any sports geek can tell you that change also constantly happens in the world of big-time basketball.
Two of Santa Barbara’s biggest names in the game, Ben Howland and Alan Williams, found that out the hard way this week.
Big Ben was fired after seven seasons as coach at Mississippi State. Big Al, meanwhile, rushed out of a warring Russia after three years in that country’s top professional league.
They are now grizzled veterans in their stations of the sport.
Howland will qualify for Medicare in two months when he reaches 65. Williams will turn 30 in 10 months, and you don’t need a hippie from the 1960s to question your trust in the surgically repaired knees of anyone over 30.
How Now, Howland?
Howland, a former gym rat at the Goleta Boys & Girls Club, is the most successful college basketball coach ever born and bred on the Central Coast. His record of 533-306 places him 60th all-time in the sport, and only a handful of coaches have guided four different schools to the NCAA Tournament.
He did it at Northern Arizona in 1998, at Pittsburgh in 2002 and 2003; at UCLA seven times in 10 seasons (2003-2013), and at Mississippi State in 2019.
Nobody has coached their team to three consecutive Final Fours since Howland did it from 2006 to 2008.
Howland’s pink slip read like a love letter, with Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen thanking him for “pouring his heart and soul into our program from the day he arrived in Starkville.”
“There’s no question he left our program better than he found it,” he said while announcing his dismissal. “MSU owes a debt of gratitude to coach Howland, and we have the utmost respect for him as a coach and person.
“Coach Howland is one of the best basketball minds in the country and a future College Basketball Hall of Famer. He and his wife, Kim, have been tremendous ambassadors to Mississippi State and the Starkville community during their seven years here.”
But even a Hall of Famer can get a bad bounce from a perfectly round basketball.
Howland’s best player on this year’s 18-16 squad, junior guard Iverson Molinar, bounced 80 three-point misses off the rim and shot 25.2% from distance after making 43.6% last year.
If Molinar had just cut that difference in half, the Bulldogs might still be playing in the NCAA Tournament instead of ending its season in the first round of the NIT.
But the biggest misses were the 13 games without his best big man. Tolu Smith, a 6-foot-11 junior center, suffered a rash of injuries this year that ranged from a broken foot, to a broken toe, to a sprained knee tendon.
It admittedly broke Howland’s heart to be denied another season with them.
“I thought we were going to be really good this year,” he said during his farewell news conference on Friday. “I thought we had a great chance to have back both Tolu and Iverson, who are really the keys to our foundation.
“We had some really good recruits coming in. Guys who could really shoot the ball, which is something we were looking for in recruiting. And when I think about the young men we were going to have the opportunity to coach, it hurts. But it is what it is.”
The hurt for Howland was profound in 2020, as well, when the COVID-19 pandemic canceled all of college basketball just before the start of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. His Bulldogs were poised to get their second-straight NCAA Tournament bid after having won 11 of their last 15 conference games.
He cried at the team hotel while breaking the news to his players.
“When it happened, it all came down in one day, and we didn’t expect it,” Howland said. “I thought that we were going to play without any fans — or just family with masks on — but still be able to play, so it was really quite shocking.
“It will always haunt me to not know what was going to happen with that team.”
He didn’t know what his own future might hold when he and wife, Kim, boarded their Sunday flight home.
“Moving back to Santa Barbara and thrilled about it!” he told Noozhawk.
But he’s also concerned. Mary Howland, his 88-year-old mother, took a fall and broke her hip on the same day Howland was fired.
“She’s going to be not able to walk for six weeks, so that’s my first, No. 1 priority,” he said.
She still lives in Santa Barbara. So does Howland’s son, Adam, an assistant district attorney whose wife, Brittney, is expecting their fourth child. Ben’s daughter Meredith also lives in Southern California and works as a pediatric oncology nurse.
“That’s something we look forward to, spending more time with them,” Howland said. “Living out in Mississippi, I’ve seen my mom twice a year, essentially the last several years. Same thing with my kids and my grandkids.”
But he won’t close the door on a career that started in 1982 with a 12-year stint as an assistant coach at UC Santa Barbara. He helped Jerry Pimm take the Gauchos to the first two NCAA Division I Tournaments in school history, as well as to the Gauchos’ only tournament win in 1990.
“I’ve had a great career,” Howland said. “And never say never.”
Where There’s a Williams
Williams made his way out of Russia this week after getting his pro club, Lokomotiv Kuban, to terminate his contract. The team is based in Krasnodar in the southwest corner of the country, just a few hours drive from the disputed Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine.
He said his goodbyes to the team and its fans on Tuesday in a video that he posted on his Twitter account, saying, “The last three years of my life here with you guys have been extremely special.”
Williams, a 2015 graduate of UCSB, played parts of four seasons in the NBA. He enjoyed his best year with the Phoenix Suns in 2016-2017, averaging 7.4 points and 6.2 rebounds in 47 games.
A knee injury limited his minutes the following year, however, and he played sparingly in 2018-2019 after signing a two-way contract with the Brooklyn Nets.
Williams found a new home in Russia in 2019-2020, averaging 11.2 points and 10.1 rebounds for Lokomotiv before the coronavirus ended the season. He was enjoying a breakout season last year, averaging 22.1 points and 13.1 rebounds, when he suffered another major knee injury.
He was making a nice comeback this season, getting 17 points and nine rebounds in his most recent game on March 7. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine soon put the season on pause.
Williams only alluded to the crisis when he decided to turn that pause into a closure.
“It saddens me to say that we have found a way to mutually separate, but all on good terms,” he said. “Nothing bad. Obviously with everything that’s going on, it’s really important for me to be able to be back home right now.
“So thank you guys so much. I love you forever. LOKO forever.”
Williams had tweeted his congratulations to UCSB senior Amadou Sow only a few days earlier when the star forward joined him as the only two Gauchos in history to eclipse 1,600 points and 800 rebounds in a career.
“Big time,” he wrote.
He expressed hope for his own future with a subsequent tweet Tuesday.
“After all of the darkness and sadness soon comes happiness,” Williams said. “If I surround myself with positive things, I’ll gain prosperity.”
The club announced his departure later that day in a release that ended in a broken-English expression of gratitude.
“Center LOKO Alan Williams decided to leave our club for family reasons,” it said. “We’re appreciate him for years spend in club and wish a successful continue of career.”
Saying goodbye, after all, can be difficult in any language.
— Noozhawk sports columnist Mark Patton is a longtime local sports writer. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk Sports on Twitter: @NoozhawkSports. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook. The opinions expressed are his own.