Pulling out of the Tom Gola Arena parking lot, will Ashley Howard turn right or left on Olney Avenue to get up to Imhotep Charter School? Either direction can get you there in two or three minutes.
“I may walk — actually I may run,’’ Howard said Monday morning after the former top Villanova assistant was introduced as the new head men’s basketball coach at La Salle. “I’ll probably make a right out of the parking lot and then a quick left.”
This was no hypothetical, how to get from 20th and Olney to 21st and Godfrey, home to the current top high school powerhouse of Philadelphia basketball. The point is, La Salle hired a coach who not only can get buzzed in instantly at the school but can create a buzz of his own.
Sitting in his office at Imhotep, latest state championship trophy and net just outside on the front counter, Brother Andre Noble talked early Monday afternoon about the significance of Howard getting the La Salle job. Not about just Howard’s deep roots, but his connections to the scene as it exists today.
“I think that Ashley Howard, it could change the order for young people — I think it’s that big,’’ Noble said of the hire.
He’d gone down there, Noble said, but thought the introduction was at 10, not 11. He’d had to get back up to school.
‘He’s really a national assistant’
Down in South Philadelphia, Neumann-Goretti coach Carl Arrigale, who has sent top players to La Salle, difference-makers, answered his phone and agreed the hire just makes sense.
“It’s probably more important that he’s from Philadelphia than Villanova,’’ Arrigale said. “But the combination gives him a shot.”
Arrigale got to know Howard best as Howard recruited current freshman big man Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree to ‘Nova. Both high school coaches wanted to be clear. The former La Salle staff worked the city like crazy. These men weren’t trying to disparage John Giannini or even make a direct comparison. Their respect level toward Giannini was high.
“John was relentless,’’ Arrigale said, remembering the recruitment of Tyreek Duren, his point guard who eventually led La Salle to the 2013 NCAA Sweet 16. “John could’ve coached my team that year.”
The point is, the La Salle job opened and of any possible candidates, this new hire checks all sorts of boxes. Lionel Simmons, maybe the greatest living Explorers player, said he’s known Howard since he was a toddler, toddling around the Sonny Hill League. (Hill himself was in the third row at Monday’s introduction.) It wasn’t just the deep roots that jumped out to Simmons.
“He’s well recognized — to be alongside Jay (Wright) for years, he’s really a national assistant coach,’’ Simmons said. “We’re very, very lucky to get a guy like him.”
Being an assistant for a two-time NCAA champion carries massive weight but only for so long. Howard gets to prove himself starting now. In an interview after the introduction, he brought up La Salle’s Sweet 16 run, not Villanova’s title won seven days earlier, savvy enough to know that he doesn’t have to wear that hat around, the basketball world was watching what went down inside the Alamodome.
Howard doesn’t just know the high school coaches but the assistants and all the relevant grassroots hoops people. There is a local familiarity here that is rare when you’re talking about the top assistant for the NCAA champs.
That doesn’t make the job Howard now has any easier. (Toughest job in the Atlantic Ten, said one assistant working in another league.) His first college job was as an assistant for four seasons under Giannini, which means Howard is well aware he won’t have all the bells and whistles he had around at Villanova.
More than anything, he’ll be selling himself first.
“You know, Philadelphia is a rumbling place when it comes to high school basketball and between the grassroots AAU and the high schools — sometimes it’s battles,’’ Noble said up the street at Imhotep, where he has all sorts of future Division I talent. “I don’t know a person who would not speak extremely highly of him. I don’t know a person. And I’m saying that is extremely rare in high school and grassroots basketball in Philadelphia.”
Not just speaking highly, Noble said — “but would go to bat for him.”
At 37, Howard is one of the youngest head coaches in Big Five history, and the first to go directly from assistant coach at one Big Five school to head coach at another since Rollie Massimino in 1973 (Penn to Villanova). Paul Westhead made a similar transition, St. Joseph’s to La Salle, in 1970. Most head coaches typically were in charge somewhere else or were assistants at the school where they became head coach.
Howard went from La Salle’s staff to Drexel under Bruiser Flint to a year at Xavier under Chris Mack to five years with Wright on the Main Line. A key here, he really wanted this job. (La Salle’s president probably didn’t have a problem taking a call from Jay Wright pitching his guy.)
Just don’t discount the local knowledge. There is a currency here that goes a long way. Howard’s father, Mo, who played in one of the famous games in college basketball history for Maryland against North Carolina State, mentioned a conversation his son just had with La Salle athletic director Bill Bradshaw, the pair already discussing the best place to play Villanova next season to maximize homecourt advantage.
“We’ll play it at Belfield,’’ Howard told his new boss, referring to the recreation center around the corner from La Salle.