James Howard has coached basketball since 1987.
Even after three decades of coaching experience, he still finds himself flipping on his television to watch a basketball game any chance he gets.
“Every day you’re watching NBATV, you’re on Synergy watching the NBA, a lot of people run a lot of the same stuff,” Howard said. “I’m always looking to try to tweak other people’s stuff and make it my own.”
Howard is a true basketball lifer. He began his coaching career as a student assistant coach at Division III Greensboro College, and over the ensuing 30 years, he has soaked up advice and knowledge from a variety of coaching mentors.
Now, as Georgetown’s new women’s basketball head coach, Howard enters his first opportunity as a Division I head coach still focused on the same basic skills he taught in assistant roles over the past three decades.
“The game doesn’t change,” Howard said. “The teaching of everyday fundamentals is what makes the kids better, and I believe that I am blessed to be in the era of coming up with coaches taught it the right way. That helps me in teaching it today.”
After graduating from Greensboro College in 1991, Howard served as women’s basketball head coach at Wesley College for six seasons before moving onto assistant roles at Georgetown, Maryland, George Mason, Delaware State, Howard and Bethune-Cookman. He has spent the last two seasons as Georgetown’s associate head coach under his predecessor, Natasha Adair.
On the court, Howard takes pride in his ability to adapt his team’s strategy within games.
“I’m used to coaching and making adjustments,” Howard said. “A lot of coaches sometimes coach on what they see in the scout; I can make adjustments on the fly. And I think that’s what we’re looking for — my eyes are trained to see what the opponent is doing, I’m not just looking at what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, he has focused on building a strong team culture based around energy and teamwork off the court, as his players can attest.
“I know we are focusing on being a team,” junior guard Dionna White said. “We have this motto, ‘We are one,’ so it’s being together, playing together, no woman or man left behind.”
Howard is aiming to build on the improvements that Adair and her staff made in lifting the Hoyas from a four-win team in 2014-15 to back-to-back postseason appearances in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
“I feel as though I was blessed by Coach A, because she gave me the opportunity to implement a lot of things,” Howard said. “So with some things, we will continue. There are other things we will try to put out a blueprint on. We’ll continue our upbeat transition game. We’ll continue our focus on defense. I believe that you have to defend in order to win.”
Even as he aims to foster continuity, Howard has made some changes as he implements his own coaching philosophy. One of the key adjustments that Howard and his staff have worked to implement is a matchup zone defense, which diverges from Adair’s attacking man-to-man defense.
“We’re tweaking it every day in practice,” senior guard DiDi Burton said of the team’s zone defense. “Things like that, it’s just getting reps with it, communicating, talking, chemistry with the team.”
A deliberate and thoughtful speaker, Howard has built success around his ability to form connections with players. Bethune-Cookman Head Coach Vanessa Blair-Lewis, who worked with Howard for four seasons, spoke favorably of his ability to connect with athletes.
“Coach Howard is a people person,” Blair-Lewis said. “And he’s a one-at-a-time people person, meaning he’ll take time to make sure that if it’s just one player that needs his attention, that no matter what else he has to do, that player will get his attention.”
Throughout his coaching career, Howard’s interpersonal skills have allowed him to make a positive impact on the recruiting trail. In the first few months of his tenure as Georgetown’s head coach, he has already found success on the road, securing the commitments of five student-athletes who are expected to join the team next season.
Although Howard cannot discuss those recruits at this time due to NCAA rules, reports indicate that the class will be led by Shanniah Wright, a forward from Brooklyn, N.Y., who ESPN ranks as the No. 92 player in the country for the Class of 2018.
“I’m a personality guy that is built on faith. I’ve been a recruiter all my life. From the time of being a head coach at a Division III program, I had to recruit without scholarships, and be able to go into households and sell yourself and sell that university,” Howard said. “I just think it’s identifying from that point what student athlete fits the mission statement here at Georgetown, and that’s academics and then athletics.”
Both in the recruiting process and continuing once players arrive on campus, Howard focuses on forming relationships with players that go beyond the game of basketball.
“When he goes into a parent’s home, he doesn’t sell them on just Georgetown, he sells them on Georgetown, plus ‘I’ll be here for the rest of your life’,” Blair-Lewis said. “‘When you have that baby, when you go get married, I’ll be here.’ He has always fostered relationships like that with his players that are way deeper than basketball.”
In the long run, Howard hopes that the relationships he forms with players and recruits will lead to winning, and that winning will help further solidify those relationships. Even as a first-time Division I head coach, he is not shy about his ambitions for the future.
“My vision is to do something special here, and that’s build a program that people can be proud of, and you can hang your hat on Georgetown women’s basketball,” Howard said. “We’re going to build it, we’re going to try to put it together and hopefully get the right kids, but our plan going forward is to win.”
(Photo: Georgetown Athletic Department)