Columbus interim baseball coach Chad Mathis sat in the visitor’s dugout on Friday after the Blue Devils dropped a 2-1 contest to Brookwood in his first game at the helm. His team had missed a handful of opportunities to pull out a win in the low-scoring affair, giving him plenty of reason to be disappointed or upset.
Instead, he said, he felt a sense of relief. Though he was visibly emotional when talking about his mentor and friend Bobby Howard, who abruptly resigned after 31 years of coaching on Thursday, Mathis said post game that he felt more at ease than he had in over 24 hours.
“It’s been pretty difficult for me,” he said. “I talked to the team and I addressed the parents last night. I didn’t know whether to be excited that, finally, this is happening to me in my life or to be scared to death. ... I have no choice but to move forward. I’m not letting this ship sink.”
The news of Howard’s departure from the program he had led to 819 wins and 12 state championships was just as much a shock to Mathis as to everyone else.
Howard called a meeting with Mathis and Columbus High principal Marvin Crumbs on Thursday morning. There, he provided the two of them his resignation letter, effective immediately.
“Of course, I denied it,” said Mathis, who is also the schools athletic director. “I got a little upset with him. He looked at me and said, ‘It’s not your choice.’”
And that was that. Suddenly, the man who had spent 10 years as Howard’s assistant was in charge of one of the most prestigious baseball programs in the state and, arguably, the country. He will lead the team for the rest of the season, and then he and Crumbs will determine the future leadership of the team after the season.
It was a job Mathis said young coaches dream of having one day, but the circumstances in which the job, at least for the time being, became his left him unfulfilled.
“No, no, no, not at all,” he said when asked if he would have wanted to take over the program under these circumstances. “To be honest, I’m almost 40 years old and I was fortunate enough to become the athletic director six years ago with the hope that one day you can take over a program of this stature and the tradition that it carries. I never wanted to take it over this way, though.
“I told him yesterday that I wanted him to walk across this field the last game of the season whether we win a state championship or we get beat in the third game. At least you’re walking off of your own accord and people can respect you for what you’ve done and you can get a standing ovation. You deserve that. That wasn’t his wishes.”
Howard isn’t a man who craves attention for his accolades. While Mathis and countless others dreamed of a win-one-for-the-Gipper scenario, with Howard sent off with another state championship, a retirement ceremony and a standing ovation, it wouldn’t have been true to his personality.
“That’s not his style,” Mathis said. “He’s a very humble person. He doesn’t like all that attention.”
But the new head coach wants people to know that any success the team has going forward is still due mostly in part to its former coach.
“There’s more to Coach Howard than people realize,” Mathis said. “I mean, he’s helped a lot of people. He’s probably helped over 1,500 men either get to college or become better men in the community. Matter of fact, he’s helped me become a better coach. I was a junior college coach before coming to Columbus High, but I’ve probably learned more from that man in the last 10 years than some coaches do in a lifetime.”
And Mathis hopes that will be enough. At risk of sounding negative, he admitted he doesn’t think anyone can fill Howard’s shoes. He said he couldn’t imagine another coach coming close to what Howard was able to do with Columbus over his 31 seasons.
His plan going forward is to just be Chad Mathis.
“I’m going to be Chad Mathis and coach these boys the only way I know to coach them,” he said. “The routine that we do, the things that we say to them in the locker room won’t change. We’re still teaching them the same game.”