When D.C. native James Howard steps onto the court for Georgetown women’s basketball’s first game against Howard University, it will mark a timely promotion for the journeyman coach who has served at nine programs over the course of his career. Howard hopes his second stint at Georgetown will continue to lead the team into the national spotlight for years to come, completing a remarkable turnaround for a program he has coached as an assistant and associate in the past.
Georgetown women’s basketball was a struggling program just three years ago. In the 2014-15 season, the Hoyas finished the season 4-27, winning only two Big East games. That season was the first for former head coach Natasha Adair, who added 16 wins in her second year before the season ended in heartbreak in the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT). The next year saw more improvement for the Hoyas, who finished 17-13 and even hosted a first-round WNIT game. Georgetown couldn’t get past the first-round hump, but the program was stable once again.
During Adair’s tenure, the team fed off of her energy. The coach was often standing and clapping, encouraging her players, bending her knees as if ready to spring onto the court herself. McDonough Arena was the perfect place for the team to play. With the arena’s low ceiling and bleachers right on top of the court, noise from the crowd didn’t travel far to the floor. When a crowd built up, the building stayed loud.
Georgetown’s remarkable turnaround under Adair caught the attention of the University of Delaware, a consistent women’s basketball powerhouse. In May, Adair made the move to Newark to coach the Blue Hens, leaving Georgetown to look for a new head coach.
As it turns out, her replacement was already on the bench.
In June, Howard stepped into the head coaching job with the Hoyas after serving as associate head coach under Adair during her tenure. Georgetown has gone a combined 33-27 since Howard joined the staff for his second stint on the Hilltop. Now in his first head coaching position in 20 years, Howard is adjusting to his new job.
“I think the biggest difference is the everyday managing of the office and the other stuff that comes outside of basketball,” Howard said. “From the basketball side, I think, I’m at home. It’s my safe haven to be on the court teaching and getting prepared for the upcoming season.”
For the coach, the game itself has been the only constant. Howard has coached in some capacity at eight different schools since his career began in 1987 as a student assistant at Greensboro College.
He moved to Wesley College as the men’s assistant coach in 1989 before switching to the women’s game in 1991. He was the head coach of Wesley’s women’s program through 1997, posting a winning record over his six-season tenure.
The next year, he joined the staff at Georgetown for a one-year stint on the Hilltop and remained in the DMV area for the next few years. He coached at the University of Maryland for two years and George Mason University for the following seven, before a year at Delaware State. He returned to D.C. a year later in order to work with former Georgetown assistant coach Niki Reid Geckeler at Howard University. Together, the two coaches recruited players that would lead the Bison to a record wins total (24) and the program’s first ever post-season appearance.
Howard then decided to move down south, coaching at Bethune-Cookman University. He spent four years with the Wildcats, including three as associate head coach before returning to Georgetown as Adair’s associate.
Through his travels, Howard’s coaching methods include influences from junior college coaches like Jim Wentworth at Wesley, as well as Florida Gulf Coast’s head coach Karl Smesko, who was also an assistant with Howard at Maryland. As a counselor at Villanova, Howard learned from Wildcat great Rollie Massimino, who led Villanova to a national title in 1985.
Now his former colleagues are more than past influences. Reid Geckeler is once again an assistant coach on the Hilltop, this time working under her former associate head coach from their time on the other side of the city.
“That’s where my experience comes from, because the game doesn’t change,” Howard said. “The teaching of everyday fundamentals is what makes the kids better.”
But Howard isn’t just teaching the fundamentals anymore. As head coach, Howard no longer spends all his time working with the players individually.
“They know that there’s other staff that is there to develop their talent as well,” Howard said. “Sometimes I miss that because I was on the court sometimes all day long just trying to get an individual to develop their talent.”
As associate head coach, Howard was able to add much of his own input to Adair’s system, making the transition to a new head coach easier on the players. Howard still believes in letting the defense create offense, so his team will be just as dependent as Adair’s on getting stops and pushing the basketball up the court.
Howard has coached most of the players on his roster for the past two years and knows each of their skillsets. More importantly, they know what to expect from him, even though they didn’t anticipate having a new coach this year.
“Initially, it was a sudden thing,” senior guard DiDi Burton said. “But luckily, we got a coach like Coach Howard, who really knows what he’s doing. He’s doing great.”
Beyond his work on the court, Howard has used his experience in recruiting to close in on five players that are set to sign their National Letters of Intent to play for Georgetown. Howard was determined to find players that fit Georgetown’s style and philosophy.
“I’ve been a recruiter all my life, from being a head coach at a Division III school having to recruit without scholarships and being able to sell both yourself and that university,” Howard said. “I always believed that once you get to a university or the Division I level where you have scholarships, I just think it’s identifying, at that point, what student athlete fits the mission statement here at Georgetown and that’s academics and athletics.”
Howard is a self-described “player’s coach.” He understands that correcting individual errors is not always the best course of action in the heat of the moment. During the game, he strives to get his players to play at their highest level and spends time finding the best way to motivate each one individually. He doesn’t want to lose a player for the rest of a game by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, and he sees that as one of the reasons the players recommended him for the job opening in May.
“Encouragement instead of constructive criticism I think will help me in the long run, and I think that’s what our players liked about me,” Howard said.
That doesn’t mean, however, that Howard isn’t active during games. He doesn’t simply stand up on the sideline to look the part; he moves to better see the action on the court. Howard feels that some coaches prepare solely based on the scouting report and let the game run its course. He stands so that he doesn’t have to rely on just the scouting report and continues to make adjustments to his team’s game plan over the course of the contest.
“If you see me sitting a lot that means the game must be under control,” Howard said.
In practice, Howard attempts to balance the need to refine each individual’s skills and improve the team’s overall play. A puzzle won’t come together with faulty pieces, and similarly, the team won’t function if the players struggle with the fundamentals. Adding new skills will help a player get to the pros and is always valuable for the team, so he ensures players have time for individual work where they develop. But Howard’s main job is to facilitate better team basketball.
“Being able to run that offense at pace, being able to make that pass on an angle, being able to shoot that open shot and hold your form on the release: That’s more about the team,” Howard said. “When you have that team time, you work on the team’s individual work.”
Howard is also constantly looking for new material to bring to his players. He wants fresh ideas, picking details from other teams and implementing them into his own system, always keeping the players on their toes. He doesn’t work on the same concept two practices in a row, but instead will revisit a concept or routine from three days prior.
“I always look to try to tweak other people’s stuff and make it my own in a way. I think that keeps in your brain, and it keeps you engaged in the game. I believe if you’re engaged, you can make a difference because [for]your players, it doesn’t get old,” Howard said. “When it becomes stale, they shut down.”
One of these tweaks has been teaching a zone defense. Howard has tried different lineups in practice to find what works best for his team and likely will continue to experiment as the season approaches. He is working the freshmen into the fold, having used the summer to get them ready for the rigors of college basketball so that they’re ready for the faster pace.
But the basic tenets of what made Georgetown women’s basketball a formidable opponent under Adair won’t change with Howard.
“We have the same core values, and we have to stick to them. Coach Adair did a great job establishing that foundation and Coach Howard was definitely a big contributor,” senior guard Mikayla Venson said.
Building on Adair’s foundation, Howard plans to make Georgetown women’s basketball a top program. He wants to take the next step from a stable basketball team to an elite program.
“Georgetown women’s basketball—we want to be the DePauls of the Big East, the Marquettes of the Big East. We don’t want to settle for NITs. We want to settle for NCAAs. We don’t want to settle for just the round of 32. We want to see if we can knock down the door and put something more significant up,” Howard said. “Dream big. That’s our goal.”
His project begins at home on Nov. 14 against Howard University. But the real test will come in Big East play, where DePaul and Marquette sit in the top 25 of the USA Today preseason rankings and the coaches poll. For Howard to build an elite program, those are the games in which his team must compete. For Howard’s plan to succeed, the team has to be better than .500 in the Big East.
“My philosophy is ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Field of Dreams all the way. So, that’s our plan. We’re gonna build it,” Howard said.
Adair laid the foundation; the next steps will come under Howard’s supervision.