LAWRENCE — The first coaching moment of Jerrance Howard’s life came in the fall of 2003, on a practice court in Champaign, Ill.
He was a college senior then, a veteran on an Illinois team still reeling from the loss of its former coach. For three years, Bill Self had been the charming voice of the Illinois program, a sleeping giant that was ascending to the big time. Now Self was gone, pulled to Kansas by the lure of tradition, and the Illini players were still sleepwalking through a bout of post-Self melancholy.
So one day at practice, as talented young stars such as Dee Brown and Deron Williams went through the motions, Howard approached first-year coach Bruce Weber.
“This is bull-(expletive),” Howard told Weber.
The team wasn’t going hard. He needed to talk to the guys in the locker room.
In the next few minutes, Howard delivered an emotional plea to his teammates — a speech that some say was a turning point for an Illinois squad that would play for the NCAA championship one season later.
“I just stood up to the guys in the locker room,” Howard told The Star in a conversation earlier this month. “ ‘Coach (Self) is gone. I miss him more than anybody. He’s at Kansas. But we’re still here, and we got to buy in.’
“Looking back at it now, it was kind of bold. But I think I was born to coach.”
It was also prophetic. Nearly 10 years after that locker-room intervention, Howard is still coaching, ready to take another step in his young career. On May 31, Howard reconnected with Self, who hired him to round out the Kansas staff as an assistant coach. The move continued a fairly swift career rise for Howard, who arrives in Lawrence after a year working under Larry Brown as an assistant coach at Southern Methodist.
And for Self and Kansas, a program going through a spring of promising rebirth, the addition of Howard fits with the Jayhawks’ recent theme of rejuvenation. First, there’s his age. Howard is 33, a fringe millennial who is fluent in the languages of Twitter and Instagram, the sort of social media favored by most teenage basketball stars.
“Jerrance has that ability to connect with people,” says former Illinois guard Jerry Hester, who knew Howard while both were growing up in Peoria, Ill.
A reserve guard at Illinois, Howard counts Dee Brown and Williams, his former teammates at Illinois, among his close friends. And he’s known in college basketball circles as “Snacks,” a nicknamed given to him by former Illini teammates Frank Williams and Brian Cook.
“I used to always carry around Skittles and Lemonheads,” Howard says. “I used to always have it in my back pocket.”
In one sense, Howard is the ideal template for a new breed of college assistant: On a staff with seasoned assistants Norm Roberts and Kurtis Townsend, Howard is of a new generation: a coach who can blend old-school grinding with a different perspective for connecting with young basketball players.
“Jerrance has great energy,” Self said after making the hire. “(He) is unbelievably positive and in a short amount of time has established himself as one of the better recruiters in college basketball.”
It is in the latter category that Howard can make his largest impact with the Jayhawks.
But it wasn’t always like that, though. Howard likes to tell a story about the time he was hired as a 27-year-old assistant under Weber at Illinois. Howard had cut his teeth in administrative roles under Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M and Kentucky, and Weber provided Howard with a career break. It turned out to be more than that.
In his first years at Illinois, Weber struggled to make recruiting inroads in Chicago. (Worse, Weber had lost two of the area’s best players, Sherron Collins and Julian Wright, to Self at Kansas.) Critics howled that Weber needed an assistant with a deep understanding of Chicago. And Howard didn’t fit the profile.
He was 27, still mostly green, and he had grown up in a hardscrabble neighborhood in Peoria. His Chicago contacts were limited.
“Coach Weber got killed for hiring me,” Howard says. “But actually, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I was nervous, and it boosted a little fire in me. I had such love and passion for the University of Illinois, and I wanted to do the best job that I could.”
Howard went to work with an old-school mind-set. He made trips to Chicago, meeting with any high school or AAU coach that might have Division I players. And then, he says, he would do the same with every coach that didn’t have players.
Howard helped Illinois regain a foothold in the area, landing highly regarded Chicago-area players such as Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Brandon Paul.
“I think people respect anybody that works hard at their craft,” says Mike Mullins, who runs the Illinois Wolves AAU program in Chicago. “And I think Jerrance has always had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, and that’s infectious in recruiting.”
Howard, however, doesn’t want to be typecast as just a Chicago recruiter. His one year at SMU and time under Gillispie at Texas A&M provided a primer on Texas basketball. And Howard will be counted on to recruit a burgeoning Texas scene.
Three of the top 15 players in the 2014 recruiting class are from Texas, and that comes after the state produced five McDonald’s All-Americans in 2013.
One of those players was Julius Randle, a blue-chip power forward who spurned KU for Kentucky. And one of those players — Dallas guard Keith Frazier — became the first McDonald’s All-American in SMU history when Howard convinced him to stay home.
Maybe the timing was coincidence. But when former assistant Joe Dooley left for Florida Gulf Coast, Self went looking for someone with knowledge of Texas.
“My relationships and ties in Texas,” Howard says, “are just as strong as Chicago and the state of Illinois.”
Howard’s one season at SMU also provided a chance to learn under Brown, a former Kansas coach and mentor to Self. During his first month at SMU, Howard says, he and Brown were the only coaches in the basketball office. They would work together, sometimes 14 hours a day, and Brown would tell stories about his Kansas days.
“He told me about the 1988 run,” Howard says, “and how special Kansas was, and every time he comes back, he’s still family.”
When the season began, Brown started another routine. He would call Howard after every game, asking the young assistant for advice: Was there anything he could have done better? Those conversations stuck with Howard.
“Here’s a Hall of Fame coach asking me what he can do to get better,” Howard says. “ It was just amazing.”
On the day Howard told Brown he was heading for Kansas, Brown offered his blessing. And a week or so later, Howard arrived at Kansas. His family, including his wife, Jessica, and two kids, Jerrance Jr. and Jaya, arrived last weekend. And Howard christened his arrival with a series of tweets from his active Twitter account.
“Nothing like going to workouts in the best Arena in the country,” Howard wrote. “Allen Fieldhouse.”
More than a decade ago, Howard says, Self called him over at an Illinois practice and asked him he’d ever thought about coaching. Finally, Howard says, he’ll have a chance to pay Self back.
“Coach Self, he was one of the best at having the best player-coach relationship,” Howard says. “What I got from coach Self was having that personal relationship with your players. And then, when you develop that personal relationship, you can get the best out of them on the court.”