Brookstone assistant baseball coach David Smart started getting text messages about the time the news broke.
Bobby Howard — the man who had led Columbus High to 819 wins and 12 state championships over the course of 31 seasons — was abruptly stepping down as the team’s head coach just three games into the year.
“Right about the time (the Ledger-Enquirer) broke the news, my phone started blowing up. People asking me if I knew what had happened,” said Smart, who spent 10 years as Howard’s assistant at Columbus before becoming the Northside head coach, a job he vacated after last season. “(I was) surprised. Shocked. I talk to Bobby usually about once a week or somewhere around there, and nothing led me to think over the past week that this was coming.”
His reaction was shared by many others. Russell County coach Tony Rasmus, whose teams have competed against Howard’s for years, used the same words.
“I’m kind of shocked at the moment. I’ve made a couple phone calls to him to see what happened,” Rasmus said. “I’m surprised he quit in the middle of the season. I don’t know what to think. There’s no doubt about it — the coaching ranks took a big hit. He’s the best around here and probably one of the best in the country. I don’t think it makes baseball better, that’s for sure.”
Rasmus joked that his first thought was to ask for Howard’s services, now that he’s available for the first time in over three decades.
“My first thought was to call and ask him to coach with me,” he said with a laugh, before correcting himself. “Or ask him to be the head coach, and I can be the assistant.”
It’s high praise from a coach whose team’s have had plenty of success in their own right. Rasmus’ Warriors won a state and national championship in 2005 and finished runner-up in 2007. It’s a small accomplishment when stacked against the decades-long career of Howard, Rasmus said.
“I don’t know that you’ll ever see that again,” he said. “To win one state championship — that’s hard. That’s a big deal. To win 12 of them, I just don’t know if you’ll ever see that again.”
Howard’s legacy extends beyond win and championship totals.
He coached many players who went on to great success beyond the high school level. Garey Ingram, who graduated in 1989, played parts of three seasons in the Major League and is now a hitting coach for the Atlanta Braves double-A affiliate. Scot Hemmings (class of 1995) is the head coach of Darton State College. There are a host of others who played minor and major league ball. And, of course, there’s newly-enshrined Hall-of-Famer Frank Thomas, who praised Howard during his induction speech last July.
Thomas mentioned in his speech that it all started with Howard. Ingram had a similar experience.
When he joined the team, Ingram was supposed to play third base. Catchers on the team were struggling to catch for sidearmer Tommy Davis, however, and Howard stuck Ingram behind the plate. The result: an error-free game and a couple caught stealers by Ingram.
"That might have been the game-changer for me," Ingram said. "I got drafted as a catcher by the Dodgers in 1990."
Peers, colleagues and players each offer a different perspective as to why he was able to have the extended success that he had.
“The one thing that I really took away from him more than anything else is that Bobby is a legitimate, bona fide lifelong learner,” Smart said. “There’s something there that keeps driving him to keep getting better. It’s that internal drive that is unbelievable. I don’t know that I’ve seen that in anybody else.”
Smart remembered an oft-used quote by Howard: The biggest room in the world is room for improvement.
“He’s got more wins or championships than anyone, and he’s in the front row of every clinic, always reading and trying to get better,” Smart said.
Former player Garrett Groce (2001), who was drafted by and played four years in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, said that Howard knew how to pass that trait along to his players, that his expectations for himself rubbed off on those around him.
“He just challenges you to be better,” Groce said. “Later on in my career, I wasn’t necessarily challenged in that way, and you just sort of miss that. Each and every day you are out there, you are challenged to be the best player and the best person you can be. It’s tough when you’re doing it, but I’m done playing baseball now and I still love a challenge. I feel like he brought that out in me.”
And coaching against Howard? That was the biggest challenge of them all.
In 31 years at Columbus, he lost just 214 games, an average of fewer than 10 per season. Only a handful of coaches can say they got the best of Howard more than just a couple of times.
“If you go up against him, you’re never going to have your team coached as well as his,” Rasmus said. “That’s the challenge. You go in with that disadvantage. You think about playing his teams when you prepare your team as the year begins. Every time I’ve coached against him, he always one-ups you. He has always worked his kids to prepare them for something we’re not prepared for. After games, on the ride back, you’re kicking yourself trying to think how he has time to cover all these things. He’s a perfectionist.”
Despite the long tradition of success, Columbus High experienced down years — by its standards — the past two seasons. After winning three straight state titles from 2010-12, his Blue Devils failed to escape the second round each of the past two years. They did not win their region for the first time in 11 years last season.
Smart speculated that the expectations, combined with the politics that comes with being a head coach, could have driven Howard to make his exit.
“In Columbus, Ga., Bobby Howard is Bobby Howard,” Smart said. “He’s the standard. It’s set by him. If you’re in Columbus and you win a region, that’s not a big deal. It is to us, but to everyone else, that’s not a big deal. If you don’t play for it or win it, then you didn’t have a very good year. It’s tough with that expectation, and it’s no tougher than what he puts on himself. It’s hard enough with the expectations on yourself, but when there are things that can take away from that, like parents or family, that can become too much.”
Groce said he thought that dealing with parents may have taken the final toll on Howard, causing his career to come to an abrupt and unfulfilling end.
“I wanted to see him coach as long as he possibly could,” Groce said. “To see him go out at the beginning of the season is disappointing, for one, because I know there’s more than is being let on. You’d like to see him go out in a way that was announced and could be celebrated. It’s just kind of unfulfilling. I think he’s earned it. He’s left a lasting impression. It was difficult to play for Coach Howard, but you can’t really appreciate it until you leave. As you mature, you begin to realize how much Coach Howard did for you.”