By AARON BRACY
It was a typical postseason spring workout for Ashley Howard.
Howard had just come off a successful sophomore season at Drexel, where he averaged 8.9 points and 4.9 steals. He was excited to get the opportunity to play under Bruiser Flint, who had been named the Drexel coach following the 2000-01 season.
He was at the peak of his basketball prowess, a young man ready to make his mark on a program. But he didn’t feel right during that workout. The answer he got after telling Dragons trainers and being evaluated ended up being one of the worst moments of his life – but also one of the most important.
It was discovered that Howard had a heart condition, and his basketball career, so suddenly, was over.
“It was the most difficult part of my life when you talk about being 20 years old, the time I invested in basketball from I can’t even remember up until that point and then to not be able to play again, it was hard,” Howard told Bracy Sports Media (full interview below).
But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Flint kept Howard around, naming him a student-assistant coach.
“It really set the table for me moving forward as a young coach who had an opportunity to get into the business early,” Howard said.
That set the table for Howard’s ascent to head coach at La Salle University, where he just completed his second season at the helm.
And the 39-year-old, who ESPN recently named one of the best coaches under 40 years old, paid his dues to get there.
A Mop and a Bucket
Upon graduating from Drexel in 2004, Howard was hired as a camp counselor for the well-respected Hoop Group camp, which was run at the time by former Rutgers coach Mike Rice. Upon meeting Howard, Rice put the eager coach right to work – but not in the manner Howard expected.
“I really appreciate you giving me this opportunity,” Howard told Rice upon meeting him. “He’s like, ‘Ashley Howard, the third floor of this dorm is a mess. The kids left it a complete mess. I need you to go get a bucket and a mop and clean these rooms, man.’
“First thing is this dude’s giving me a bucket and a mop telling me to clean the dorm and I’m like, ‘Here we go again, running to 7-11 (for Flint) to get chips and soda.’”
But Howard did as he was asked, something that was a lesson for him and one he tells young coaches trying to break into the business.
“The one thing that you realize as a young coach is you have to do any and everything to show I’m loyal, I’ll do whatever you ask, there’s no task that’s too big or too small for me,” he said. “That was one of the examples I always use about my journey coming up as a young coach.”
Howard was good enough at the camp that the Hoop Group hired him full-time. Just two months into his job, though, fortune came calling in the form of then-La Salle coach John Giannini. Giannini had an opening on his staff and considered Howard for the position. The only problem was Howard was working for Hoop Group.
So, he went to Rob Kennedy, who was running Hoop Group, and explained the situation.
“So I go back and talk to him,” Howard said, “and said, ‘Listen, I met with Dr. Giannini about this job’… and before I couldn’t even finish the sentence he said to me, ‘So, why are you still standing here in front of me right now?’”
Howard ended up spending four years under Giannini. The thing he appreciated the most about his first stint at La Salle was being able to learn so many aspects of the program.
“Dr. G, I owe him a lot for that opportunity,” he said. “He taught me the value of an individual who understands every aspect of the program.”
Leaving and Returning
After departing La Salle, Howard spent time again at Drexel before a year at Xavier. Then, he returned home to join coach Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova, where he spent five seasons and helped the Wildcats to national titles in 2016 and 2018.
Howard said the key to the Wildcats’ success is the buy-in from every individual at every level of the program, and the way Wright is able to develop players and build tight relationships with them.
“From the managers and the walk-ons all the way up to Coach Wright, it was just individuals in every single role that took unbelievable pride in their responsibility to the program,” Howard said. “And Coach Wright, he set the standard. Everybody followed his word as if it was the gospel. Everybody understood their role and tried to do their part to be great in their role.
“…The other thing is that coach is an unbelievable basketball mind. He has a great perspective on player development, he has a great perspective on how to build relationships with players and create that buy-in where the players know you love them, you care about them, you’re invested in them.”
In Villanova’s Image
It is in Villanova’s image that Howard is trying to model La Salle’s program. However, Howard couldn’t have gotten off to a more un-Villanova type start than in his first season when the Explorers began 0-10.
“I had the opportunity to be a part of one of the most successful runs in college basketball, and I was at the pinnacle of our profession,” Howard said. “And then to go 0-10, it just shows God has another plan. He’s teaching me something. Maybe I need a little exercise in humility. That humbled me and really forced me to take a back seat and think about what’s most important and what’s most important in that time was just staying consistent with our message to our players and trusting and understanding that the things we’re talking about every day: playing with effort, playing together, trying to use our effort and togetherness to make us the closest, tight-knit team we can be.
“That was most important and not deviating from it and not allowing our record to distract me from what was most important at that time. … It was extremely humbling and it taught me a lot about patience and grace and staying the course and not second-guessing myself and trusting myself that we were working on the right things. We just had to turn the corner.”
The Explorers got better, finishing 10-21 and they were 15-15 in Howard’s second season and playing their best basketball heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament, which got canceled due to Covid-19.
“I felt like it was a positive step in the right direction for us as a program,” he said.
Ready to Take Next Step
A renowned recruiter and player developer, Howard has put together a talented roster. The Explorers will return a pair of seniors in David Beatty (10.7 ppg) and Scott Spencer (8.9 ppg), who showed their scoring ability last season. There are a core of young players who got experience last season, including sophomores Sherif Kenney, Ayinde Hikim, Christian Ray and Brandon Stone and junior Jared Kimbrough. And there are newcomers, including incoming freshmen Jhamir Brickus (Coatesville), Tegra Izay (Montreal) and Anwar Gill (Washington, D.C.), about whom Howard is bullish. In fact, he believes Brickus and Gill can be two of the best rookie guards in the Atlantic 10. He also looks forward to getting Indiana transfer Clifton Moore and Jack Clark, a top prospect who’s been held back due to injury, on the court.
“I see versatility, I see unbelievable depth,” he said. “We have great leadership.”
The program took a jolt late in the season, though, when big man Ed Croswell announced he was transferring. Croswell took his 10.4 points and 7.6 rebounds to Providence. Transfers, especially in the last few years, are part of the game. In the mold of Wright, who always praises players who transfer or enter early into the NBA draft even if maybe he feels otherwise, Howard had kind words for Croswell when making the transfer announcement.
The coach went into some more depth with us about Croswell, and how he’ll hope to keep the Explorers’ best players from leaving going forward.
“Ed is a great kid, I felt like he was a great contributor to our program, he was a great representation of our men’s basketball program, off the court as well, hard worker in the classroom,” Howard, echoing what Wright might say, said. “It’s unfortunate to see him leave, but it’s not uncommon to have kids who come in and recognize they may have an opportunity to play at a higher level to look into those opportunities. The biggest thing for us is, and as I evaluate our program moving forward, understanding that this is a real thing, I want to continue to develop our players.
“I felt like we did a great job of that with Eddie, I felt like he got a lot better during his time at La Salle. The other thing is the relationships, like player development and fostering the relationships with your players, are of the utmost importance right now with these rules changes as it pertains to transfers. My biggest thing is especially if you look at this talented young roster that I have is developing these guys and then keeping them. If we can develop our team and keep this team together, I think we can be really, really good in a year or two. But that’s the challenge that everybody is facing here. It’s important that you put into account we’re servicing these young people. We service them in terms of helping them become better basketball players, the best students they can become and then the best men they can become. And when the students feel like they’re getting that type of development, I can only hope that they’ll want to stay in the program and be a part of it.”
A turnaround at La Salle?
If he can do that, Howard has a chance for success at La Salle. The Explorers have a proud history, with a 1954 national championship banner hanging in their gym, and players like Gola, Simmons, Brooks, Durrett and Butler appearing in their media guide under all-time players.
But that media guide also shows just one NCAA tournament berth since 1992. Outside of that great Sweet 16 run in 2013 when Ty Garland was the darling of the country for his Southwest Philly floater, La Salle hasn’t had much success over the last 25 years. The Explorers have had just four winning seasons in conference play since joining the A-10 in 1995.
Can Howard make La Salle a league and NCAA tournament contender again? Time will tell.
What Howard is going to do is create a culture that he has seen have success, like the one Wright has built at Villanova, by building relationships and developing players.
“The biggest thing is you have to recognize who you are and what you can be great at,” he said. “What can we be elite at? The thing we can be elite at is player development? A lot of people look at my career and think, ‘This dude was a recruiter.’ But one of the things I always hung my hat on was player development and creating an infrastructure at La Salle where guys are getting better. You create an atmosphere where you have gym rats, guys who love being in the gym, love to play, love to be around other workers.
“I think that’s going to give us the best opportunity to elevate the program and get to the point where we can be a sustainable A-10 conference contender. If you’re a team that can contend for an Atlantic 10 and Big 5 championship every year, you’re an NCAA tournament team. The good thing I have is the vantage point of working at Villanova and understanding what it takes to be an elite college basketball program.
“We’re chasing that, and that’s what I want.”