March 6 , 2006
Diving In: Coach
BY Alfred Charles
When Jon Howell arrived at Emory in 1998 to coach the men and women’s swim teams, he found squads mired near the cellar of the NCAA rankings.
But in just eight years he has managed to turn around both teams, and is preparing to lead the Emory Eagles to the national championships, where they will compete against 60 other Div. III teams from around the country.
“For us, it’s the celebration of our season,” he said recently from his third-floor office in the P.E. Center, which overlooks the giant pool where his teams practice. “It is the result of a lot of hard work.”
The women’s swim squad is scheduled to travel to Minneapolis March 9–11 for the championship tournament, which will be held at the University
of Minnesota Aquatic Center.
The men’s team is set to swim March 16-18.
Howell said he is optimistic about both groups’ chances. Eighteen Emory women have qualified to swim for the Eagles, and 18 men are expected to qualify, too.
It appears that Howell may be building something akin to a swimming dynasty, given the enormous amount of recent successes his teams have had. The women’s team scored its first national championship last season while the men’s squad has placed second two years in a row. The results are equally as compelling in the University Athletic Association (UAA), where the Emory Eagles have dominated, winning their eighth consecutive title last month.
Howell, once a finalist for national Coach of the Year honors, has managed to rack up wins in spite of the fact that he has little financial incentive to offer prospective swimmers being courted by big Ivy League schools and their Div. I athletic scholarships.
Even so, Howell said, Emory has managed to carve out a niche in academics and athletics.
“This is a place that really promotes excellence and attracts great athletes,” he said. “They want to push the envelope in the academic area and the athletic area.”
Betsy Stephenson, athletics director at Emory and Howell’s boss, praised his accomplishments.
“He has set a new standard in our recruiting, our competitive level and our expectations for success,” she said.
Howell—a tall, lanky fellow who projects an air of calm restraint—stands at the helm of the men’s and women’s teams, somewhat of an amazing feat considering that he dabbled in the arts, politics and philosophy before finding his own niche as swim coach.
The road to coaching glory for Howell, 36, began when he graduated in 1990 from Kenyon College in Ohio with an undergraduate degree in philosophy. While obtaining his bachelor’s degree, Howell spent the summers in New Hampshire, where he landed in the middle of a U.S. Senate campaign.
Howell said he joined the staff of Senate hopeful Tom Christo because he bunked at the Christo family home during his summer stays in New Hampshire. Howell recalled the time as being a heady rush of adrenalin and political energy even though Christo’s candidacy would go down in defeat.
“It was a challenge and new,” he said. “It was a lot of fun.”
After the Christo campaign ended, Howell found himself in the nation’s capital, where he landed work at an art gallery in the city’s trendy DuPont Circle area. He waited tables at night and worked in the gallery during the day. It was in Washington where Howell discovered an appreciation for art.
During his stint in Washington, Howell decided to return to school and pursue a master’s degree in art history, opting to attend the University of North Carolina. While living in Chapel Hill, Howell said he ran a catering company and began coaching on the side.
That was the launching pad for his professional coaching career.
He accepted a swim coach position at UNC, working there for three years before returning to his alma mater, Kenyon, to serve first as assistant swim coach and later as interim head coach.
Following Howell’s two-year stay at Kenyon, he traveled to Clemson University, where he served as a recruiter and head coach for two years. But Howell said he was uneasy at Clemson.
“I missed the academic environment,” he said. “The goal [at Clemson] was to keep kids eligible.”
Howell longed to coach at a school where athletics were important but not more important than academics—a school like Emory.
And yet, any team that plays wants to win. When Howell arrived at Emory, he found swim teams stuck in a drought of losses even though there were promising athletes on both squads.
“It was a very motivated group that wanted to win,” said Howell, who took the reins as head coach of a men’s team that had never won a championship and a women’s team that hadn’t won in a while. “One thing I’ve found with Emory students is that they are extremely committed and have a great work ethic.”
So Howell went about building a swim program that would allow student athletes to live up to their full potential. He is a bit coy when asked to explain exactly how he devised the winning formula, but he attributes his success to the students themselves.
“It was a group ready to take the next step, but they needed more of a challenge,” Howell said. “The students weren’t apathetic but [we] needed to give them something worthwhile.”
Part of the equation for winning is practice—and lots of it. Howell said his squads practice their swim paces at least twice a day for up to two hours each session. There is more practice on Saturday, when swim meets are often held.
“It’s a pretty full schedule,” Howell said.
He begins each season by meeting one-on-one with players to assess their needs, strengths and weaknesses. From that meeting, the coach develops a personalized program for each team member.
“Every individual is different,” Howell said. “But this is not an environment where
I have underachievers. The kids I have are overachievers.”
When it comes to recruiting, Howell said he finds athletes through a database that logs the results of high school swim meets. Emory sends questionnaires to prospective students who have demonstrated both athletic prowess in the pool and academic performance in the classroom. Many students respond, even though they know that swimming for a Div. III team does not carry athletic scholarship dollars.
“They’re swimming here because they want to be here,” Howell said. “It’s a pure form of the sport.”
The coach also attributes much of his teams’ success to their close camaraderie. Even swimmers who have graduated rally around the program, forming a tight-knit support group.
Said Howell: “As hokey as it sounds, it is an extremely close group. It’s a very nurturing type of program.”
Jess Ivry, a sophomore on the women’s team, said Howell is a big reason why the squad is so close.
“He is supportive and really cares about every person on the team,” she said. “He goes out of his way to make everyone enjoy what we are doing.”
Howell said the biggest weakness for the team members is their fear of failure. “They’re such high achievers,” Howell said, adding that the achievement doesn’t end at the diving board; 10 of his swimmers had 4.0 GPAs last semester.
That fear of failure could hold the key as the Eagles prepare to compete in the NCAA championships. Howell is optimistic about their odds.
“There is a strong group on the men’s side and the women’s side,” he said. “They are set up to perform pretty well.”
Howell’s ties to Emory are more than professional, they are personal as well. He is married to Jane Howell, an editor in the Emory Creative Group. He has two young children, a boy and a girl.
Robyn Mohr contributed to this story.