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CHRIS FOSTER

Howell Changes, but Slowly

November 28, 1995|CHRIS FOSTER

Somewhere there's a painting of Jim Howell that's getting older. The man now looks the same as he did when he accepted the Western football job in 1979.

At 39, he resembled a veteran football coach. At 54, the features, mannerisms and costume are the same. Hunched shoulders and deep cut lines across a stoic, you-can-trust-me face. The baseball cap, the clip board and, of course, that Midwestern drawl. Nothing is different. Almost nothing.

Contrary to reports, Howell is open to change. Honest.

Sure, the Pioneers still run the wing-T. Coaches still scout opponents writing in long hand. Howell still talks about retiring. And the band still breaks into that corny "Bonanza" tune after touchdowns.

But, believe it or not, Howell has switched restaurants--twice.

Pregame team meals are now at the Sizzler. The Sundowner, the Pioneer tradition for nearly a decade, closed a few years back.

Saturday lunches with his assistants are now at Super Mex. Halpas, long Howell's post-victory favorite, has changed hands and lost a customer.

The reckless way Howell alters his eating schedule shows adaptability. Why, a few years ago, he even replaced the haunting sounds of the film projector with video.

So you see, the man does move. Oh sometimes, it's more like James Arness in "Gunsmoke" than that rash, impetuous Ben Cartwright. But Howell is always moving forward. Soon, he may move for good. He may get out of Dodge. Our loss. You hate to see a coach with perspective amble off into the sunset.

Howell is talking about retiring, as he has for the last decade. It seems a bit crazy considering his program's current state. The varsity is 12-0 and plays El Toro in the Southern Section Division V semifinals. Both Western's lower-level teams went 10-0.

Not many coaches would say "adios" to that. But, then, Howell is not like many coaches.

This is a man who has the audacity to take summers off in an era where keeping up with the Joneses (and the Barneses and the Rollinsons) seems a necessity.

But every summer, Howell goes home, with his wife and three sons, to enjoy that vast Rocky Mountain high. He left there in 1960, after graduating from Colorado, and came west to coach. He returns each year with Beverly, Toby, Jimmy and Barry.

Let others do what they must--summer passing leagues, summer linemen competitions, summers in the office watching video--Howell will summer with the family. And still Western has made the playoffs 14 of the last 16 seasons. Maybe there's a lesson there.

Howell just moseys along. His offensive scheme seems to vary little. If he didn't invent the wing-T, he certainly holds the current copyright. The man even has books on the belly series. But the Pioneers' helmets aren't leather. They do wear face masks. They do throw the ball. And they do win.

There was a point, a few years back, when the Pioneers had back-to-back losing seasons. Some might have packed it in. Howell had before, walking away from the Magnolia job in 1977 after five losing seasons. But Western was different. He had rebuilt it.

The Pioneers were Southern Section runners-up in 1971 and 1972 but had fallen so far that even Magnolia was beating them by the late 1970s. Howell wasn't going to leave the program the way he found it.

Now, Western is in the semifinals for the second time in three seasons. If Howell calls it quits now, it's on his terms and at his pace.

It's odd, but every August, Western players are required to race Howell in a two-mile run. Yet, there are kids a third his age who can't beat him.

The man moves slow. Yet, he's so far ahead of so many.

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