Ashley Howard is settling in as La Salle basketball coach

Ashley Howard was hired away from national champion Villanova to revive La Salle, which has only made one tournament (2013) since 1992.

Ashley Howard still has not fully transitioned his thought processes from those of an assistant coach to those as the head coach of the La Salle basketball team.

After 14 years of working as an assistant, Howard is finding it hard to break some old routines even though he now sits at the head of the table.

“In a lot of ways, I’m still thinking like an assistant coach and trying to do all of the things that I would have been doing in the past,” said Howard, who is running the Explorers through offseason workouts. “I’m not used to having assistant coaches do things for me.”

Howard was just a few days removed from winning his second NCAA championship in three seasons as a member of Jay Wright’s Villanova staff when La Salle hired him to replace John Giannini.

Camera icon TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Howard is looking to restore the Explorers to their former glory.

He’s beginning his third month of laying the bricks for the revitalization of a program that has an NCAA championship and two Final Fours in its history but has only made the tournament once (2013) since 1992.

The last couple of weeks he has had a chance to introduce the foundations of his program to players whom Giannini recruited to 20th and Olney.

“The thing right now is to get the bonding process in place,” said Howard, who played high school ball at Monsignor Bonner and point guard at Drexel University from 1999-2002. “We’re trying to change the culture here and bring back the proud tradition of a storied program.

“Some guys are buying into that right away, and in all honesty, a couple of guys are determining if La Salle is still the right place for them.”

Howard said he understands that.

“I don’t want to lose any players, but I also want guys who are fully committed and invested in La Salle basketball and what we are trying to accomplish,” Howard said.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
As an assistant coach at Villanova last season, Howard waves to the crowd after cutting a piece of the net after winning the East Regionals in March.

Building things sometimes requires boldness, and Howard put himself out there when he hired former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson, who has a reputation as a top recruiter.

Even though Johnson was not named in the FBI investigation that cost Louisville head coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich their jobs, the school fired him as well. And his having been fired by Louisville was going to result in raised eyebrows for anyone who hired him – particularly a first-time head coach.

“It would have been a risk if I didn’t know [Johnson] and his character,” Howard said. “I’ve known him for around 15 years.

“I would not have done this if there was a risk of harming the reputation of La Salle or my reputation as a coach. The administration vetted [Johnson] and we’re confident he has not committed any NCAA violations or is in danger in the FBI investigation.”

Howard is focused on La Salle but keeps track of what is happening on the Main Line.

Villanova is losing Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman to the NBA draft.

“Villanova will be fine,” Howard said. “Coach Wright is used to having a more veteran team, but [seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall] will be great leaders. Coach Wright might have to use some younger players, but he’s the best coach in the country. He’ll figure it out.”

La Salle isn’t going to suddenly field a team of five-star recruits. Villanova never did, either.

“We could sell Villanova because of the success we had,” Howard said. “What we’re doing right now is trying to sell ourselves as coaches and where we’re going take La Salle. I have a lot of relationships with kids we can recruit and so do my assistants.

“Yes, some kids are attracted to the bright light of big-time programs. But there are other talented kids that may not feel like that necessarily is the right fit for them. Those are the players we need to target, get them to visit La Salle; show them what’s going on here and convince them that they can be a part of building something that is going to become special.”