The House That Howie Built: Remembering MCCC Legend Howie Landa

Story by Brandon Johnson

West Windsor, N.J. – “It’s because of all of you,” said Howie Landa to a crowd of supporters during Mercer County Community College’s (MCCC) 2012 basketball court dedication ceremony.

"It isn't about Howie Landa. It's about all of you," he said. “I was only as good as the players who played for me. You are the ones who put my name on this court. I am in 12 Halls of Fame, but this is the greatest honor of all."

Landa passed away on March 18, 2020. A hall of fame coach, father and friend, Landa’s impact was monumental in the local and national basketball scene. Originally from Philadelphia, Landa was a standout player at Central High School, his modest five-foot-nine frame deceiving his opponents.

After he graduated in 1950, he continued his basketball career at Lebanon Valley College. Landa held 16 college records throughout his life at Lebanon Valley, and still holds the titles for all-time free throws made (702) and free throws made in a single game (22). Landa is also the college’s sixth all-time leading scorer, tallying 1,936 points through his four-year career.

A stint playing professional ball in the Eastern Professional League gave way to Landa joining MCCC as its inaugural men’s basketball head coach in 1962. His first season, in which the Vikings went 23-12, set the tone for what would come to be synonymous with the Landa name: winning.

From there, Mercer never posted a losing season under Landa, the worst records being a pair of seasons in 1965-66 and 1968-69, when MCCC broke even at 17-17 and 13-13 respectively.  In 1972-73, Landa’s Vikings posted what stands as Mercer’s single best basketball season record, 32-2, en route to winning the National Junior College Athletic Association championship.

The next season, Landa's team repeated as champs.

Bob Pugh, a Mercer legend and Landa’s assistant during the 1970s, remembered that first title in 1973, recalling the team’s high expectations.

"When we returned to the national championships in 1974, our emotions were in overdrive,” Pugh said in 2012. “We had a target on our back. But we repeated as champs.”

“You never realize you are making history while you are part of it," he said.

Al Leister, then MCCC's Athletics Director commended Landa for setting the college's standard for excellent.

"I want to talk about Landa's genius," Leister said. He recalled a game he and Landa were coaching  d were losing by ten. 

"I was apologizing, and then a Hutchinson old-timer looked at me and said, 'What the Hell are you talking about, Landa's a damn genius.' We ended up winning by ten," Leister remembered. 

"Then at the end of the game all the old-timers just looked at me and said, 'See.'"

Indeed, Landa made history everywhere he went. In addition to bring the best basketball MCCC has ever seen to its home floor, he inspired a generation of aspiring hoopers to work their hardest when he coached summer camps.

One of those players was Howard Levy, a six-foot-ten forward who took Landa’s teachings to a stellar career at Princeton University. Decades after he left his mark as Princeton’s all-time leader in field goal percentage, Levy followed in Landa’s footsteps, returning to MCCC as its basketball head coach in 2008.

“Coach Landa was a great friend and mentor to me over the course of our 30+ year relationship, and especially during my time at Mercer," Levy said. "He followed the team closely and I would often hear from him with congratulations after a big win or with encouraging words after a tough loss."

"I’m so glad that we were able to celebrate the naming of the court after him several years ago.  He was a great man and I will miss him,” Levy added.

Though Landa retired from Mercer’s sidelines with an all-time 495-140 in 1983, his prominence in the basketball world remained steadfast. He joined the University of Las Vegas, Nevada (UNLV) men’s basketball coaching staff in 1989, and assisted the women’s team from 1990-94.

When he was called upon to lead the Runnin’ Rebels in 1994, Landa continued his winning ways, posting a 5-2 record over his seven-game stretch at the helm.

Then, after UNLV, Landa held coaching positions professionally, first with the New Jersey Gems of the Women's Professional Basketball League, as well as with the Phoenix Mercury of the WNBA. 

Internationally, Landa holds a gold medal for coaching in the 1985 women’s Maccabiah Games and a silver for the men’s in 1993.

Current MCCC Athletics Director John Simone encourages the community to continue to tell Landa’s story, which has touched so many to come through Mercer’s doors.

“The accomplishments of Howie Landa as a basketball coach have been a primary factor in Mercer maintaining a national brand in athletics for many years.”

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 Landa addresses the crowd during his 2012 basketball court dedication at MCCC (2012).

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Landa with long-time assistant coach Bob Pugh.

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Unveiling the Howie Landa basketball court are, from left, MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue, Landa's daughter Davida, alums Deitra Primas-Johnson, Rich Freda, Mel Weldon, and Coach Landa, far right (2012).

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Landa with his former players at his court dedication ceremony in 2012.

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Landa during his collegiate career at Lebanon Valley College (1951-55).