Jerry Howell, Foothill High School's new football coach, is a positive kind of guy.
Howell, whose Knights open their season tonight against Capistrano Valley (at Tustin High, 7:30 p.m.), is in the unenviable position of replacing one of Orange County's best coaches, Ted Mullen, who was 59-15-2 in six seasons at Foothill. Mullen, who took teams to two Southern Conference championship games, moved to Anaheim High this season.
Rather than letting the pressure of replacing Mullen get to him, Howell seems optimistic.
"It's been a smooth adjustment for me . . . these kids are used to a well-organized, well-disciplined program," he said. "Coach Mullen developed a very sound football program."
Howell is rebounding from a three-year stint as head coach at Eastern Oregon State College, where he was 1-25-3. Howell's lone victory there came in 1984 when Southern Oregon forfeited for having an ineligible player.
Instead of sounding bitter from the frustrating experience--which he attributes to Eastern Oregon's lack of interest in and support for football--Howell sees the bright side of the program he left.
"It might have been a good thing," Howell said about the impact his resignation had on the college's administration. "The next guy got a lot more support."
Howell, 42, has had a lot of experience looking for the positive in new situations and career changes.
The son of migrant workers from Oklahoma, Howell grew up in Patterson, Calif. He attended college and played football at San Jose State, received master's degrees in physical education from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal State Bakersfield, and completed a doctorate of education at Western Colorado and a Ph.D. at Oregon State.
Howell, who has written three "how-to" coaching books on football and one on weightlifting, coached at Claremont-Mudd, Occidental and New Mexico State before Eastern Oregon State.
Howell said that at Eastern Oregon, he was outdistanced by his competition in terms of budgets, coaching staff, scholarships and the ability to recruit players. Even Howell's positive attitude was worn down.
"It's hard to keep telling kids 'Let's go out there. They (the competition) put their pants on one leg at a time just like us,' when that wasn't really the case," he said.
So, with one year remaining on his contract, Howell resigned, and he and his wife, Patty, examined their options. Howell knew that his unimpressive record at Eastern Oregon would exclude him from almost all college coaching opportunities. Although he hadn't worked at the prep level since 1976 when he coached in Bakersfield, Howell began searching for a high school coaching position. He found it at Foothill.
Howell doesn't feel that he has come down in moving from the college level to high school.
"Orange County takes its football as seriously as any small college does," he said. "I've got the best of both worlds here. The parents and school are very involved and understand the emphasis placed on athletics and how important extracurricular activities can be."
Howell has attacked his new position with enthusiasm. He has worked 12- to 14-hour days every day, getting up to speed on Foothill's program, his players and his coaching staff.
Only five of 17 assistant coaches stayed at Foothill after Mullen left, so Howell has put together a new staff, which includes Kevin Benjamin, the wide receivers coach who played for Howell at Eastern Oregon.
"He's a good coach, a smart coach," said Benjamin, who quit a forest service job in Oregon to come to Foothill. "He's always positive--nothing is ever negative with him."
Howell concedes that he has stepped into a pressure-filled situation but said he and his team are adjusting.
"I brought (Mullen) up on day one," Howell said. "I said, 'I'm not Coach Mullen and I don't try to be Coach Mullen,' and I haven't brought him up since. I just want them to get to know me and my philosophy. I want to accent the positive."
And Howell is feeling positive about the Knights' 1987 season.
"I think we will be competitive against anyone," he said. "We'll be in every game. No one will dominate us."
Howell wants to make sure of that, not only to maintain Mullen's winning tradition but to prove something to himself.
"Deep down inside, I know I know football," he said. "But I need to win some football games to feel comfortable with myself."