Catching Up with Jeff Howell

March Madness is all about winning in absolute terms. But in local basketball courts at schools around America, the next generation of ballers is preparing for much more. The work of helping student athletes grow falls to school athletic directors and coaches who take on a role much larger than teaching just the technical elements of basketball.

For the last four years, Madison Christian High School’s (MCHS) Girls Varsity Basketball Head Coach has been teaching defense intended to go beyond the court. Jeff Howell, a father of an MCHS senior who will head to Kent State this fall, has extended his family to include 12 young ladies with aspirations to do the same. During the day, Jeff spearheads national sales relationships for Cascade Capital, a firm based in Petaluma, California that provides account receivable solutions to the consumer finance and healthcare industries. We caught up with Jeff recently to learn more about his work with the girls, and how he does it all as a professional, a father and a coach.

From the stands, coaching looks like a huge commitment- especially high school girls. How do you balance coaching with your professional work?

Anything you plan on doing the right way is going to require motivation, commitment and consistent focus. I’ve had the honor of having my own daughter on the team these last four years, so that was an initial motivation right off the bat. She’s my youngest child, and she’s a graduating senior, but I’m going to stay on as coach after she graduates because I feel deeply connected to all the kids on the team. It’s important and beyond rewarding.

Coaching is much more than just teaching the game. I have a front row seat to see these kids mature and become solid leaders. They are growing in their understanding of themselves, and in their confidence as student athletes and young women. It’s been an experience that has enriched me probably even more than it has enriched them, to be honest. So in terms of giving my time, it’s a real pleasure to have the opportunity to do it.

In terms of balancing coaching with my professional work, I’m thankful to have an employer who really believes in empowering their staff to be fulfilled inside and outside of work. Providing workplace flexibility is a vote of confidence in the workforce, and it really inspires loyalty and commitment to my employer. Workplaces that let people thrive in all the roles they play in their lives are really smart. It allows a company to not just talk about its values, but really demonstrate them with actions that benefit the company, its employees and customers.

I’m very lucky that my managing director at Cascade, Lee Brockett, is not only aware of my coaching, but he encourages the mentorship that I am providing to the youth. The time commitment required of my coaching happens after 5pm and on weekends, but during the basketball season, I have to be there for practice and games, so between November and February, I am able to adjust much of my business related travel accordingly. It’s certainly a balancing act that requires focus, time management, and structure. It is a lot of fun figuring out how to deliver for your employer by day and still keep joyful, powerful and inspirational things in your outside life, at night.

How did you get your start in coaching basketball?

This IS my start in coaching basketball! Other than having spent 17 years as a certified basketball official for the Ohio High School Athletic Association (OHSAA), and having played the game myself as a kid and throughout high school, I had never coached basketball before I started as an assistant coach at Madison Christian High School four years ago. The year after my initial stint as an assistant, my athletic director informed me that the then-head coach would not be returning and asked me to step up as head coach. Here I am!

Of course it crossed my mind that it was a stretch for me, but I decided that it was worth a good stretch, and I figured it out because I felt I had to, and I really wanted to. Isn’t that so much of life, both professionally and personally? Stretching and figuring things out? That first year, I was like a sponge: I watched a ton of coaching videos on YouTube, I went to as many coaching clinics as I could, I read voraciously on coaching, and most of all I sought to develop direct relationships with the players and parents. I wanted to develop a thoughtful and thorough program. Part of it was I felt it important to model the idea that taking a leap and trying something outside of your normal reach is how you grow. Taking risks and doing all you can to manage those risks to the upside, is something you can get better at with some practice.

My objective then and now was to build a program that was structured and would prepare these girls for a lifetime- and not just in terms of basketball. Team sports in general are invaluable for kids. They teach kids to problem solve, to work as a unit, to study opponents, to take responsibility, to improve on weakness, to play to your strengths, to communicate and to work toward a goal. These are all things I first learned when I was a student athlete.

What would you say drives your coaching philosophy at this point?

You can’t always control the ball going into the basket, but you can control other things, like your preparation to play good defense. We study ourselves. We watch videos. We scout the players of other teams to learn their styles; their strengths and weaknesses. We do this to customize our approach to neutralizing players in upcoming games. It’s also important to have off-court activities to drive team building and fellowship with one another. We attend Ohio State Lady Buckeye basketball games; we complete yearly service projects together such as Meals on Wheels, Children’s Literacy Events, or we volunteer at assisted living facilities. We also eat out a lot as a team!!

Winning is certainly important, but I don’t focus on winning. I focus on the development of student athletes; and on the value of hard work, effort and having good attitudes. I think that approach will serve us very well after this year because I will be losing four seniors who have been great leaders and have served as a center of gravity for our team. Once the older girls move on, I want to be sure we have an environment that encourages the younger girls to step up and develop on their own terms. I don’t want them feeling like any footsteps are too big to fill. Instead, I want them empowered to find their own gifts and showcase them on a court with a team that values them for being themselves.

This season we had an overall record of 17-6 which were the most wins the girls varsity basketball team has achieved in the school’s 20+ year history. We won our first-round tournament game this year, then lost to the #7 ranked team in the State of Ohio 41-40!! I had two players named all-league, one named 3rd team All District and another named Honorable Mention All District. Our team won the League Academic Award with an overall GPA of 3.65. Finally, I was named League and District Coach of the Year. We had an awesome, awesome season. None of these accomplishments would have been possible without my assistant coach, the players, supportive parents, the athletic and school administration and my wife.

Would you say there is a secret sauce to your coaching program?

This particular school is a Christian school. My faith is central to me personally and guides me along the way. We take a faith-based approach to teaching these girls. Specifically, we meet with the girls every Monday to make a clear and routine connection between the Scriptures and their lives. We share testimony; just in an effort to connect with the kids and listen to what they are facing daily. As a coach, I try to relate to them and share what I’ve learned on my own journey. It truly doesn’t seem like that long ago that I was their age, having similar issues and going through many of the things they are experiencing as a teenager.

I want them to know that their faith is a foundation and a never-ending tool for them. I want them to know they are part of a community that genuinely cares about them and is committed to supporting them. In my role, I listen as much as I talk. I try to be a resource, a mentor and a role model. I want them to complete their experience as a student athlete knowing that they are, and always will be, invaluable to any team they’re on. I want them to remember that the body, mind and spirit are connected and they have the power to keep those connections healthy for the rest of their lives.