The excitement in the Central High cafeteria was palpable on Tuesday night as the school introduced Bobby Howard as its new baseball coach.
Football coach Jamey DuBose was there. So were basketball coach Bobby Wright and former baseball coach Ron Nelson. The tables were packed with more students than could possibly fit into the dugouts at Darnell-Nelson Field.
All to meet the guy who won 819 games and 12 state championships over the course of 31 seasons across the river at Columbus High.
It’s an energy that Howard said he still possesses despite walking away from coaching 54 days ago, one that made Central an exciting landing spot for a 64-year-old coach who has already done it all.
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“I still have a fire and a passion,” Howard said at a press conference in the school’s library prior to being introduced to the players. “All the things are in place to be successful here.”Sophomores Gage Dollar and Wade Chandler, who both played on the team this past season, used the same words to describe the reaction players had when learning who their new coach would be.
“Excited,” Dollar said. “He’s got such a great reputation. He wins a lot of state championships, so he knows how to win. We’ve got a good team, now we just need to figure out how to get there.”
“It’s good to have a coach who’s been there,” Chandler said. “He can lead us to a state championship like we’ve always wanted.”
Howard will become the team’s fifth head coach over the past 10 seasons. After Ron Nelson retired after 24 seasons (1982-2006), Jason Stamp coached for two (2007-08), Scot Hemmings for three (2009-11) and Chris Heaps for one (2012). Outgoing coach Roy Dixon coached for three years before stepping down from his post a week ago following the team’s failure to advance to the postseason for the third straight season.
Howard stressed that it was never his intention to return to coaching baseball so quickly, but the timing of the opening was impossible for him to overlook. He cited the school’s community aspect, with its long list of successful head coaches in multiple sports and their continued interest in the program post-retirement.
“Everybody is going to the games,” he said. “I see Coach Wright and (former football coach Wayne) Trawick out there. They don’t have to be there, but it’s in their DNA.”
He joined DuBose’s staff on the football team as a strength and conditioning coach, where he intended to finish out the spring before reassessing his future in coaching. Once he joined the staff, however, the baseball job became available, he said.
“It wasn’t planned, I promise you,” he said. “It happened. I just happened to be on campus, and then they had a need here and they were going to make a change regardless. This is what I do. I was just flattered that they asked me to coach again.”
His record speaks for itself, of course.
In addition to his 12 titles at Columbus, his teams also finished runner up eight times, giving him 20 trips to the state finals in 31 years. And while Central isn’t at that place yet, he said the pieces are there to get there sooner rather than later.
“There’s been a lot of good baseball in this area, and what we’ve got to do is start developing and keeping the kids that are zoned here,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is look at the success that Russell (County) and Smiths (Station) and Glenwood have had. Baseball players are here. We’ve got to keep them here.”
He will also be in somewhat unfamiliar territory, coaching with a completely different staff than he had the year before. Assistant coach Greg Mathis, however, played for Howard at Kendrick High and also coached with him for eight years at Columbus. He will help bring some level of familiarity for Howard as he adjusts to his new job.
He spoke glowingly of the staff he left behind, calling it the best in baseball, and noted he’d be open to scheduling his former team in the future.
“Sure, those guys are excellent too,” he said of the Blue Devils. “You saw what they did (this year). They’ve done a great job, and I’m proud of them.”
While Howard had retired from teaching and was solely the baseball coach for his last three seasons at Columbus, he will teach part time — two weight lifting classes — at Central. His coaching salary wasn’t immediately available.
Howard acknowledged his age and that there were probably younger coaches who would have been interested in taking the job. Despite having already accomplished more than most coaches of any sport ever do, he said the challenge and the excitement is still very much a part of him.
“The main thing is, I’m a young 64,” Howard said. “I still enjoy doing it. There is a commitment here to win. And they’re hungry to win. That more than anything else — I’ll stay around as long as I’m helping them put a good product on the field.”