And he wasn’t planning on going anywhere either.
But then Ohatchee came calling.
Howard, an Ohatchee alumnus, verbally accepted the position on Monday. The move was made official on Thursday at the Calhoun County Board of Education meeting. Howard replaces Chad Cochran, who led Ohatchee the past two seasons.
“If it wasn’t Ohatchee, I’d still be at Spring Garden,” said Howard, who graduated in 1989. “I wasn’t going to leave Spring Garden for anywhere but Ohatchee. I’d been contacted before by other schools and turned them down.”
Howard graduated from Jacksonville State University in December of 1992, then spent 11 years as an assistant at Cedar Bluff before heading to Spring Garden. He turned the Panthers, who had a woeful string of fruitless years before his arrival, into winners. They won a game in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.
For Howard, coming back to the Creekbank provided the opportunity to do something he knew he wanted to do since he began his career as a volunteer at Pleasant Valley during his undergraduate years.
Howard said he was personally contacted by several members of the Ohatchee community about the position in the time since Cochran resigned nearly a month ago. He did a little research and decided to apply for the position. He interviewed for the job this past Friday, a process that included an appearance before a panel.
Principal Robin Kines offered him the position Monday afternoon.
“She asked me if I was ready to wear the red and white again,” Howard said. “It’s a dream come true for me to come back to Ohatchee.”
Howard worked wonders while he was in the Panthers’ maroon and gold. He endured five straight losing seasons before breaking through with a 5-5 campaign in 2007. He guided Spring Garden to its most successful season in 2008, as the Panthers earned their first playoff victory. The Panthers finished 9-3 and reached the second round in the playoffs.
This past season, despite a 5-5 regular season, the Panthers upset Coosa Christian in the first round of the playoffs before losing 14-13 on the road to Gaston in the second round.
“It was rough,” Howard said of leaving. “I love those kids and made a bond with them. We went through some tough times together and then made back-to-back playoff appearances the past two years. This year, we were 2 yards away from making it to the third round. It was tough because we’d built something. I respect the work ethic of those guys.”
“I challenged them when I left. I told them, ‘I’m not Spring Garden football. The men in this room are Spring Garden football.’”
Ohatchee won just four games in 2008 and 2009, going 3-7 and 1-9. The Indians haven’t reached the playoffs since 2003. Howard said he’ll finish out his teaching duties at Spring Garden but also handle his new obligations at Ohatchee. He said he wants to begin spring practice after baseball season ends and is hoping to schedule a jamboree game as well.
“I’ve had alumni call me from as far away as Atlanta and Texas and say, ‘I haven’t been to a game in five or 10 years. But I’m going to be at the first game. I’m going to be in the booster club. Just tell me what I need to do,’” Howard said. “I think a lot of that has to do with having a local boy (in the head coaching position). That’s gotten people interested in the school.”
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 235-3575.