No, Ashley Howard said, no one from La Salle University has contacted him yet about its men’s basketball coaching position, made vacant Friday when the school’s administration decided it was time to move on from John Giannini after 14 years. And as far as Howard is concerned, if his phone doesn’t buzz for a while with such a call, that’s fine. When you’re Jay Wright’s top assistant at Villanova, these kinds of opportunities will present themselves, but the time to concentrate on them has to be just right, because there might be higher priorities in the here and now. The Wildcats could always end up playing games deep into March, just as they have this year.
“I’m just trying to stay zeroed in on this weekend,” Howard said in an interview Tuesday, four days before ‘Nova’s Final Four matchup against Kansas. “You show up every day, run with everybody else, and this is the fruit of what we’ve done. I don’t want to cheat everybody else in our program by not staying dialed in to what’s the most important thing now, and that’s winning a national championship.”
Make no mistake, though: No matter how the Wildcats fare this weekend at the Alamodome, Howard is going to get a phone call soon from an athletic director or a search-committee chairperson interested in interviewing him. It doesn’t have to be La Salle’s Bill Bradshaw (though it might be), and it doesn’t have to be this year (though it might be). From Monsignor Bonner to Drexel as a player, from Drexel to La Salle to Xavier to Villanova over his 17 years as a college assistant coach, Howard has paid enough dues and risen high enough that he’s primed to become the latest Wright assistant to branch off to something bigger.
Brett Gunning spent 14 years with Wright, at Hofstra and Villanova, before joining the Houston Rockets’ staff; he’s in his second season as an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic. Billy Lange was with Wright for three years, was named Patriot League Coach of the Year after coaxing a 19-win season out of Navy in 2008-09, returned to ‘Nova, and now rides shotgun next to Brett Brown on the 76ers’ bench. Baker Dunleavy, who played for Wright at ‘Nova and left behind the wealth of a Wall Street job to join Wright’s staff in 2012, was hired as Quinnipiac’s head coach last March. That’s a diverse coaching tree, one that Howard wants to help grow.
“I’ve watched Coach Wright for the last five years, how he handles himself, the way he runs a program with integrity,” Howard said. “Coming to Villanova gave me the opportunity to do what I’ve done at other places at the highest level for the best head coach in college basketball. I think it’s prepared me for whatever comes next, wherever that may be. I’m definitely confident that I’ve gained the adequate experience over the last 17 years to run my own program if the opportunity presents itself.”
When Howard became his top assistant, Wright at first wondered if he’d find the same comfort with him that he’d had with Dunleavy. “A guy who has played here knows everybody on campus, every former player,” Wright said. “He remembers things we did in ’04, ’03 that I don’t even remember. That’s helpful to me. We’d be talking about a game, and Baker would remember, ‘Oh, we did this in your second year.’ So Ashley doesn’t have that recall because he wasn’t here, but he brings different ideas, too, that stimulate me. He has a brilliant way of understanding me and what we do and being able to suggest different nuances within what we do.”
Howard, for instance, was ‘Nova’s point man for one of its recruiting coups of the last half-decade. As a product of the Philadelphia Catholic League, as the son of former St. Joseph’s Prep and University of Maryland star Mo Howard, Howard has a network of contacts in the basketball community that might as well have been his birthright. In 2016, several of them urged him to check out Archbishop Wood guard Collin Gillespie, who at the time had received scholarship offers from a couple of local mid-majors: Drexel and Rider. The two of them already a connection: Howard and the father of Tyree Pickron, one of Gillespie’s teammates at Wood, had been friends for years.
“Last year, Phil Booth had to sit out with an injury, and in my mind, I was thinking, ‘We’ll need another guard next year as a security blanket if we have another injury,’” Howard said. “I went to a game and watched him, and I was like, ‘Yo, this kid can play.’”
So Howard persuaded Wright to offer Gillespie a scholarship. It was only after Gillespie had accepted that he became the Catholic League MVP and emerged as a high-profile player, and as a freshman, he’s been a valuable part of Villanova’s backcourt rotation.
“I knew we were getting a winner, a kid who is tough,” Howard said. “Collin is a Philly guard, man. I think he’s the epitome of that. He made me look like a genius.”
There are basketball programs in the country, and this city, that could use a coach like that. Ashley Howard will be waiting for one of them to call. Just not quite yet. He and the Villanova Wildcats have a game to play first. Two, they hope.
— #BIGEASThoops (@BIGEASTMBB) February 17, 2018