Arguably the most successful high school baseball coach in Georgia history called his varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams together after Thursday’s practice.
Bobby Howard, who has collected 12 Georgia High School Association state tiles and 819 wins in 31 years at Columbus High School, then told the 50-odd players he was retiring — effective immediately.
“I told them I was 64 years old — older than any of their parents — and I was walking out and moving on,” Howard said when contacted Thursday night.“I have earned the right to move on.”
Howard would not go into details about why he walked away from a high school baseball dynasty that was built over three decades at the city’s flagship high school.
“I couldn’t give it all the time it deserved,” Howard said. “The job was demanding much more than I could give. CHS is not a job, it is my life.”
Howard did confirm his decision is not health related.
Assistant coach and athletic director Chad Mathis will assume the head coaching duties, Howard said. Both principal Marvin Crumbs and Mathis, also the school’s softball coach, told the Ledger-Enquirer they would not have a comment Thursday.
Howard retired from full-time teaching in 2010, but continued to coach the baseball team.
He had been thinking about baseball retirement for about a week, Howard said. Howard sat down last month for an extensive interview with the Ledger-Enquirer in which he offered no hints this was in the works. He even laughed when asked if he was of those coaches who was going to work until he died.
“I don’t know,” Howard said in an interview published less than two weeks ago. “I have a lot of old players that come around and cut up with me by bringing me a walker and a wheelchair, and all that stuff. But I still throw BP and I feel like I’m active and engaged in the team process.
“But I can’t answer that question. I go year-to-year and I still enjoy it, but I’m still engaged.”
On Thursday Howard said, “They deserve a coach in the best frame of mind, and I couldn’t give it to them.”
On the field, Columbus High’s season has started well. The Blue Devils are 3-0 and are scheduled to play at home today against Brookwood. Howard’s record at Columbus High alone is 819-214.
During an interview after Thursday night’s forum at Dorothy Height Elementary School, superintendent David Lewis said he had no indication that Howard would resign. Lewis said he called Howard after Muscogee Coounty School District athletics director Todd Stanfill broke the news to him.
“He just said it was a personal decision on his part,” Lewis said. “There were things in his life that he felt that it was time to make that decision.”
Asked what those things are, Lewis said he doesn’t know.
“That’s his business,” he said. “I respect that.”
But the superintendent emphasized the coach left on his own accord.
“He was not forced out,” Lewis said. “He was not asked to resign. This was personally and solely his decision.”
Asked whether he is aware of any accusations against Howard, Lewis said last year a complaint from a parent was investigated but unsubstantiated. This year, Lewis said, he was copied on an email from a parent who expressed a concern, which he forwarded to Stanfill.
“I don’t remember what it was about,” Lewis said, “but it was totally unrelated to this. I can tell you, at least from our perspective, this has nothing to do with that at all.”
Regardless of the resignation’s reason, Lewis said the void that Howard leaves is clear.
“He’s an institution in Columbus and throughout the Southeast, frankly, for his record, so he’s going to be missed in that capacity,” said Lewis, a former ballplayer who has umpired college and professional games. “But, nonetheless, we certainly respect his need and want to do that at this point in time.”
Howard has been Columbus High’s coach since 1984 with a one-year break when he took the head coaching job at Middle Georgia College in 1997. He led that team to the state junior college championship.
He has won more than 900 games in coaching tours at his alma mater Jordan, Kendrick, Middle Georgia College and Columbus High. He has also racked up an impressive list of individual honors, including the Diamond Baseball National Coach of the Year in 2000 and the ESPN High School Coach of the Year in 2012.
He has been the Ledger-Enquirer Coach of the Year 12 times, once while at Kendrick in 1982 and the rest at Columbus High. He was the Ledger-Enquirer’s all-sports coach of the year six times. He was a state coach of the year at least 11 times.
Former Auburn University baseball coach Hal Baird was surprised by the news Thursday night. Baird coached about 10 former Columbus High players, including recent Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Frank Thomas.
“You can look in that trophy case and see how many championships there are and you don’t have to wonder why,” said Baird, who coached the Tigers from 1985-2000. “It is the person in charge. Sure, he had great players, but he was the constant.”
Baird said Howard was simply one of the best high school coaches around.
“He was totally without equal as a high school baseball coach in this part of the world,” Baird said.
Without question, Thomas is the best baseball player Howard ever coached. Last July, Howard was in Cooperstown, N.Y., as Thomas was enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
During Thomas’ speech at Cooperstown, he singled out Howard.
“You made me grow up in a hurry,” Thomas said. “Your no-nonsense approach to the game was needed at an early age. Winning was the only option, you preached that. And you made me work for it. You set my foundation for life. Love you. And I thank you.”
Thomas, who played much of his 19-year career with the Chicago White Sox, has kept in touch with his former coach and donated money to the program over the years.
In his recent Ledger-Enquirer interview, Howard said it was more than a great honor to coach Thomas.
“It’s not an honor when you have somebody like that — it’s a privilege because you don’t have a lot to do with it once he leaves here,” Howard said. “He said some good positive things about the program and our staff, but more than anything else, he had to put up the numbers and he had to do what he had to do.”
Here is some reaction from Twitter:
One of the greats retired today. Congrats to Bobby Howard. Big reason for the man and coach I am today is bc of him. Thanks coach! #BlueHell— Brandon Jenkins (@UGA723) March 5, 2015
Bobby Howard - honor to play for you. Thankful for the year we had together at MGC and for 18 years of friendship that followed! #blessed— Jeremy Kemp (@jeremykemp31) March 6, 2015
Proud to say I pitched the last game coach Howard coached!— King Daddy (@KingHouse4) March 6, 2015