Hoops coach puts down roots on the court and off

With the Pacific Ocean just steps outside his backdoor, Ben Howland spent the two years since his last coaching stop fielding offers from around the country. While each provided a chance to get back to the game he loved, nothing tempted him away from his Santa Barbara home—until last March.

That’s when he met Mississippi State University Athletic Director Scott Stricklin.

“When we met, I told him all of the ways that Starkville and Santa Barbara are similar. For instance, they both start with S,” Stricklin joked. “But I had studied enough about Ben to know he was eager to get back into coaching.”

While it didn’t look like a natural fit from the outside, Howland said Mississippi State offered the opportunity to compete at the highest level, at a place with a strong basketball tradition.

“I didn’t want to take a job I wasn’t excited about or go somewhere and not be successful because coaching and not winning is not fun,” Howland said. “But I think we have a chance to win here.

“I’m looking more long term than short term,” he continued. “I wasn’t just thinking about this season when I took this job. It was more about building a program that could be successful and have stability year after year.”

With that in mind, Howland and his wife Kim Zanhow are wasting no time leaving their mark on the Magnolia State. As he works to build a sustainable, winning basketball program in Humphrey Coliseum, the couple is also in the process of building a home in one of Starkville’s growing neighborhoods.

“Building instead of renting, that’s the kind of stuff that I love to hear,” Stricklin said. “This can be a transient profession, that’s just the nature of it, but I want stability. We all want people putting down roots.”

Howland comes to Mississippi State with an overall coaching record of 401-206, including appearances in the NCAA championship game, and Stricklin has little doubt he is up to the task of leading the Bulldogs to the Big Dance.

The bigger question was how Howland and Utah-native Zanhow would adjust to life in a small Southern town, when his previous posts at UCLA, Pittsburgh and Northern Arizona had them living in larger cities or, at least, closer to their families.

“When we discussed the job, Ben was concerned about Kim,” Stricklin recalled. “He said she was really involved with their church in Santa Barbara and that the most important things to her are God and family. And I said, ‘Ben, Kim is going to fit right in, in Starkville, Mississippi. It’s going to be seamless because that’s very much our value system.’”

Still, Zanhow had reservations about moving more than 2,000 miles from their home and children—daughter Meredith, a pediatric oncology nurse at UCLA, and son Adam, an assistant district attorney living in Santa Barbara with his wife Brittney and son Benjamin Clark Howland II.

“When Ben took the job, I just remember praying ‘Lord, I will go where you want me, but I would like to stay close to my kids,’ and I remember asking for Godly girlfriends,” Zanhow said. “Then about a month after Ben took the job, it was like God said I answered your prayer; you’re going to be in a place where you’re surrounded by Godly women. And I was like I’m ready.”

Zanhow spent the summer packing up the couple’s house and spending as much time as possible with grandson “Little Ben,” but she’s wasted no time settling into their temporary rental since her September move to Starkville. She said they have started attending CrossPoint Southern Baptist Church, and she’s been touched by the way they’ve been received around town.

“The people here are so sincere and generous. I’ve just felt so welcomed. There is always someone who will come up to talk and say ‘Hi,’” Zanhow said. “Everyone loves sports. I could tell Ben was so uplifted and ready to get going when he got hired and that has proven to be true.”

Howland signed his first recruit—five-star guard Malik Newman—just a month after arriving in Starkville, and he spent his summer overseeing the off-season workouts of his current team and scouting future talent on the recruiting trail. He said that during his tenure, Bulldog fans can expect to see a unified team taking the court.

“We’re recruiting good kids who fit this community and this institution,” Howland said. “This is a special place, and I want guys who are really focused on getting their degrees and being the best basketball players they can be. They’re going to try very hard, be very well disciplined, be unselfish and play together as a team.”

Stricklin said Howland’s complete focus on his players will ensure great experiences for the student athletes, which by extension will create great experiences for the student body, alumni and fans as they support the basketball team.

“Ben told me during his interview, ‘I want to go coach one more place and where I go, it’s going to be the best coaching job of my career and I’m going to do the best coaching that I’ve ever done,’” Stricklin recalled. “So, I want our fans to know they’re about to get a great effort from the guy who is leading our basketball program.”

Story by Susan Lassetter | Photography by Russ Houston