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Q&A with Tony Howell: taking risks

When the volleyball team heard its former head coach was leaving in the middle of its spring season last year, former assistant coach Tony Howell immediately stepped into the role of head coach.

It was only a matter of time before the athletic department made it official.

Howell started at Belmont in 2004 and left in 2010 to coach at Tennessee State, but after two years, came back to assist in coaching the Bruins to an OVC championship in 2012.

Vision sports editor Emily Proud took time after a volleyball practice to chat with Coach Howell about his risk-taking style of coaching and ways he’s pushing the team to work harder each day.

How did you get into coaching?

The first time I got into coaching was in North Texas in ’93-’94, and I really wanted to go into coaching but didn’t know how to go about it. Then I felt this urge to talk to the head women’s volleyball coach and so I said, ‘I just want to know how to get back into it.’ The timing of it was so amazing in that she had just fired her assistant coach, and she didn’t have anybody to help her, so I started working from that point on.

What originally drew you to Belmont?

From 1999 to 2004, I was coaching club, so I got out of college during that period of time. I really wanted to get back into college, and Belmont was an opportunity to get back into college. Now, once I got here, started to learn about Belmont and got to know the people, the administrators and what Belmont was really about, then I started really buying into it. Because with the student athlete, it was the student side that came first, which was very important to me. I was seeing that the student athlete was put before the program, which was great. If you take care of the student athlete and you help them out, then your program is going to soar. That’s what was important to me, and it’s always been important to me that the student athlete comes first. The program comes second.

How did you transition from assistant coach to head coach?

As soon as I was told by Coach Webb he was leaving for Ohio, first priority was to make sure the girls were OK and everything was going to stay normal. We were just starting spring season and then he left. I stayed and made sure the girls were OK. Then I pretty much immediately went to the A.D. the next day and said, “I really want this job.” He said, “I’ll get back to you and your job right now is just to take care of the girls. Take care of spring season, make sure you train them well.” That’s basically what I did, and my focus was basically just on the team and to make sure that they were taken care of.

How do you think your experience with the team as an assistant coach will help with being the head coach?

I know the history of Belmont very well. I even know their history the two years I wasn’t here because I did follow them because I knew a lot of the younger ladies on the team. It was fun in a sense that, in the spring, I got to do what I wanted to do with them, and they were really buying into everything I was teaching at that time. It was just exciting to see their energy and excitement come alive. By knowing them and working with them since 2012, it was fun to see them grow. It was fun for them to come into preseason and take that leadership and to see them evolve. Now it’s just a totally different energy. Any time you get a change, that’s what you’re hoping that you would get is a different type of energy, and these ladies are giving it. That’s exciting.

What is it like to shift from assistant coach to a head coaching position?

The only difference I’d say I have noticed is you get more responsibility, and you get to make the final decisions. I haven’t noticed a huge difference just because the jobs I’ve had in the past have always trained and prepared me for this position. By being an assistant, I’ve always tried to go at it as if I was doing it from a head coaching standpoint – always getting it done, giving the best I can. I’ve had a lot of jobs that trained me to manage my time and to put things into proper order of priority. It’s finding that balance that can be good for your team, that can be good with your staff, that can be good with your family. I’m getting close to finding that right balance.

How have you done things differently this season compared to how they were done last season? What is your style of coaching?

I’m going about this season based on who I am, who God has trained me to be and who has put me into the position since ’94 to develop my own personal style. My style is different than the previous Coach Webb. My style is a bit different in the sense of a playing standpoint. I’m an aggressive risk-taker. I want the girls to go after things. I want the girls to be willing to take a risk and take a chance. Be able to go for something they didn’t believe they could go for. I want the girls to feel comfortable as far as taking those chances, and in turn I will be taking chances. If I have to make a sub at the last minute, because every coach has to make an adjustment during the match if something’s not working, I’ll just make those changes right then. We haven’t made that many changes as the match was going on. The girls are really buying into the aggressive style, and they’re having fun with it.

How are you taking your style and implementing it with this team?

We’ve had meetings outside of practice before preseason started, and basically, I just laid out the plan. Every practice is different because I don’t want them ever to get bored. In the past, we’ve done some certain drills all the time, and you kind of lose interest of the student athlete. This year we have different practices every time. In the practices, we will have a criteria in a certain time base, and they have to get the certain criteria in an amount of time. So it is very fast paced. I don’t really give them that much time to breathe. Get up off the floor and dig the ball, let’s go. Once they bought into that type of mentality, they’re just focused on getting it done. I don’t count balls in their favor if they just get it over, I want them to take that chance. I told them I’m not going to be upset if you miss the sideline or the end line on an attack by a foot or so because you went after it. I’d be upset if you missed it and didn’t go after it.

Photo Courtesy: Belmont Athletics

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