And Howard indeed,hopes to prove Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” right.
Less than a week from Saturday’s spring jamboree against Ragland, home is treating Howard well.
The 1989 Ohatchee grad had hoped to have 35 varsity players out for spring practice. He reports 38.
A week ago today, about 200 backers and players turned out for a hot dog supper at the school. The meet-and-greet occasion marked the start of Howard’s first spring practice on the job.
It’s clear that fans of a program that most recently tasted the playoffs in 2003 want better.
It’s also clear they trust in a coach who turned Spring Garden football into a winner.
It also doesn’t hurt that Howard is one of their own.
“It’s a big thing,” said Ron Dover, owner of Ron’s Bar-B-Q, president of the school’s booster club and chairman of the panel that recommended Howard’s hiring.
“... It’s home for Jason. The community is really behind this thing as much as I’ve ever seen.”
It should surprise no one that Ohatchee went with one of its own. Tribe followers have seen the formula work well for one of their former coaches and his alma mater.
Wellborn hired alumnus and ex-Ohatchee coach Jeff Smith a year ago. Smith, who won at Ohatchee and Hueytown, delivered a playoff berth in his first year on the job.
Hiring Smith also energized the Wellborn community.
Months before his first practice with the team, Panthers backers reported a surge in booster club meetings.
As for Howard, Kines said the first draw was his history of righting struggling programs. Spring Garden’s most recent senior players finished with a school-record 24 victories, and the Panthers made the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in school history.
The 2009 Panthers routed Coosa Christian in the first round and nearly upset Gaston in the second, falling 14-13. A fourth-and-2 conversion would have put them within kicker Jake Scott’s range for a game-winning field goal, but Trey Littlefield’s run fell 1 yard short.
After that game, Gaston coach Swane Morris made a comment about Spring Garden’s progress in football, a comment that no doubt would resonate in Ohatchee.
“It used to be that you just looked at the basketball trophies,” he said. “Now, they are a true football team.”
Ohatchee, as with Spring Garden, has had its greatest successes in girls’ sports in recent years.
“The major difference here is the fact that there is tradition,” Howard said. “When I took over the program at Spring Garden, there really wasn’t a football tradition.”
But Ohatchee needs a shot of enthusiasm following seasons of 3-7 and 1-9. Having a coach who uplifted a struggling program helps, but it adds something in a small community when that coach is home grown.
“It was certainly appealing that he’s from Ohatchee,” Kines said. “He certainly knows what the community will respond to.”
Howard knows it intimately. His parents moved from Alexandria to Ohatchee in 1971. His mom, Scottie Wallace, still lives in the same house, about three miles from the school, and owns a beauty shop in town. His sister lives in Ohatchee, and two nephews go to school there.
But Howard doesn’t need native knowledge of the right buttons to push. His enthusiasm is genuine, as folks at Spring Garden know.
Girls’ basketball coach Ricky Austin helped to recruit Howard there seven years ago. When Howard was hired, Austin expressed hope that Howard would stay a long time.
Howard said one job would pull him away — Ohatchee.
“That’s always been a dream of mine is just to go home,” Howard said.
Howard spent the first 21 years of his life in Ohatchee. He ran track, played basketball and was a two-way lineman in football.
As a senior, he was part of an Ohatchee football team that made the playoffs. The 1988 Indians, coached by Jim Lowery, won their first five games and finished 8-3 after a first-round loss to Cordova.
Those were good times for Ohatchee football. The Indians also went 8-3 and made the playoffs during Howard’s junior year. The 1984 team went three rounds deep in the playoffs.
Go back a few years, and Ohatchee won no fewer than eight games per season from 1974-81. The Indians had five seasons with double-digit wins in that stretch, including a 13-1 finish and Class 1A state title in 1977.
“I can remember growing up and seeing Ricky Gallahar, Greg Brewster and all of those guys,” Howard said. “When I was growing up, those were the guys we looked up to.
“It was a hero-type thing with those guys. Back then, as elementary school kids, it was like, ‘Man, that’s what we want to be when we grow up.”
Howard called those teams “hard-nosed.”
“I think everybody here wants to see Ohatchee football like it was, and not just football, but all the programs and the school,” he said. “Whenever you talk about the community, I feel like the school is the center point of the community. Everything sort of feeds off what goes on here at school. Whenever we’re having success here at the school, it shows here in the community.
“That’s what we’re trying to get across to these guys who are in here now, is how much pride they need to take in the fact that they’re wearing red and white.”
Four practices into spring, Howard said he has found a receptive roster. If nothing else, it’s about 20 players longer than the roster Ohatchee finished with in 2009.
“I told them first day, ‘I can stand right here, and I can tell you about Ohatchee — not because I read about it, not because of anything else, but because I was right where you are,’” Howard said. “‘I sat right here in this locker. I faced the same things you all faced. I was born and bred Ohatchee, just like you.’
“I think it means more to them when they hear it from someone who’s been through those same things.”
The Indians will practice all five days this week leading to Saturday’s 2 p.m. jamboree.
“Then intensity level has been great,” Howard said. “The boys have really responded to what we’re trying to do.”
Howard recently purchased a new cell phone. Busy with spring practice, he said he hasn’t had time to figure out how to change the ring tone.
When he does, he said he has a song in mind.
So far, it looks like he most certainly can go home.