MIKE MONTGOMERY left Stanford a couple years ago. Arizona coach Lute Olson can't be far behind. And thanks to a new NBA rule, college basketball coaches once again have exclusive access to the most gifted recruits.

Can you hear the engines humming? Feel the earth move?

It's as if a path is being cleared for a coach to assert supremacy over West Coast hoops.

Bob Knight is 65, with a diminishing national profile. Mike Krzyzewski (59) and Jim Calhoun (63) are battling health problems. Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith are younger, but Ricky wonders where his magic went, and Tubby is being courted by the NBA.

Openings will be available. Interested and qualified candidates can apply to join the new era of prestigious coaches, if not the short list of living legends.

Could Ben Howland'stiming be more impeccable?

He is in his third season at UCLA, where rich tradition gives a coach a head start toward building a kingdom. Recruits tend to enjoy the company of royalty.

He is in L.A., where stardom can be manufactured at microwave speed. Recruits can be seduced by the prospect of fast fame.

Moreover, Howland is winning, each season more impressive than the last. He has won over his players. He is winning over fans and colleagues.

Three decades after John Wooden, the ultimate college basketball coaching legend, retired in 1975, with his 10th national championship, UCLA has found someone whose backside is worthy of warming of The Wizard's throne.

As Howland, 48, brings his No.2 seed Bruins into the NCAA tournament Oakland regional semifinal Thursday at the Arena in Oakland, he is one national championship away from validation — and maybe three away from coronation.

In winning nine in a row, including the Pacific-10 tournament and first- and second-round NCAA tournament games, UCLA has shown remarkable discipline, consistent effort and a ruthless devotion to defense. It's signature Ben Ball.

Howland is an exacting coach, a proponent of tough, muscular basketball, but willing to allow athletes to exhibit athleticism. The Bruins are as capable of sprinting and slamming as they are of banging and bruising.

It's a recipe bound to attract recruits who long for the glories of the higher league. A nauseating thought for the other nine schools in the Pac-10. Just as one impact coach, Montgomery, departs and another, Olson, approaches his 72nd birthday, here comes a bully waving the big blue UCLA banner.

The indication is UCLA got it right this time. That the Bruins knew what they were doing upon hiring Howland away from the University of Pittsburgh in 2003.

It wasn't the seven-year contract worth about $6.6 million that sold Howland. It wasn't the weather. Or the Bel Air home, with marquee neighbors named Denzel and Keyshawn. It was, quite simply, the chance to coach at UCLA. To walk the sideline at Pauley Pavilion, beneath 11 national championship banners, alongside the enormous, unforgiving shadow of Wooden.

Howland grew up a few miles south of L.A., watching the Bruins on TV during the 1960s, as Wooden built his dynasty. The lure of home was so strong that Pitt had no chance to keep its coach, despite assembling a superior financial package.

It was an easy call for Howland, who arrived in L.A. saying he "wasn't good enough to play here, but the opportunity to coach here is even better."

None of the seven coaches who followed Wooden were able to fully capitalize. Gene Bartow, 52-9 over two years, was shoved out of town. Gary Cunningham went 50-8 and out. Larry Brown went 42-17 and bolted. Larry Farmer (61-23) lacked presence, while Walt Hazzard (77-47) too often got outcoached.

In 1995, 20 years after Wooden, UCLA won another championship, that coming behind coach Jim Harrick, liked by a few and trusted by even fewer.

The seventh post-Wooden coach, Steve Lavin, a Harrick assistant promoted in the aftermath of scandal, got no respect and less acceptance. Lavin, whose seven-year run included five Sweet 16s, was fired after the 2002-03 season, when the Bruins were 10-19, their first losing record in 55 years. 

Three years later, Howland is the Pac-10 Coach of the Year. In his third year at Pitt, he was Big East Coach of the Year. In his third year at Northern Arizona, he was Big Sky Coach of the Year. All of which suggests he knows how to build a program.

Howland has the look and feel of a coach who can dominate regional recruiting and be selective about national/international players. He has Hollywood's velvet rope in one hand, Westwood's mystique in the other. Recruits don't stand much of a chance.

It appears Wooden, 95 and still going, finally has met the coach who can stand up to his legacy. The rest of the Pac-10 had better buckle up. As should the rest of college basketball.

Monte Poole can be reached at (510) 208-6461 or by e-mail at mpoole@angnewspapers.com