The following story is an abridged version of an in-depth interview that West Plains Coach, and History teacher, Nick Schmitt conducted with Mike Howard earlier this month in anticipation of reaching 500 wins. The complete interview will be available as part of Schmitt’s book, tentatively titled “Pursuit of a Championship: The History of High School Soccer in Southwest Missouri” which he hopes to have available in the Spring of 2009. Thanks to Coach Schmitt for sharing it with my readers.
Mike Howard has come a long way. It all began for Howie, as a young boy growing up in the soccer-crazed town of Quincy, Illinois. In 1978, his family moved to Sedalia, Missouri. Mike attended Smith-Cotton High School where he was a three-year Varsity player. In 1984, Howie was a 1st Team All-District Defender for the Tigers, who became the first non-St. Louis School to reach the Final Four. The Tigers finished 4th in the State after losing to DeSmet in the State Semifinal and losing 4-2 to McCluer in the 3rd Place Game. In 1985, Howard was named as an All-State Defender as the Tigers defeated Joplin in a Sectional match before falling in the State Quarterfinals 4-3 to Vianney.
Howard didn’t have to go far to continue his playing career. For the next two years he starred as a defender for State Fair Community College in Sedalia. In 1986, Mike was named to the All-Midwest team. It was there that Howard’s playing career ended. He had a scholarship offer to play soccer at Benedictine College for John Senkosky, but decided to attend Central Missouri State University (now the University of Central Missouri).
In 1991, Mike was hired to coach soccer at Rolla High School. The boys program was just a year old. Larry Roth led the program to an 8-11-1 record in it’s inaugural season (1990). Mike’s pictured at left following the win Saturday at the new soccer facility that his teams now enjoy, one of the finest in the region.
In his first season as a Head Coach, Howard led the Bulldogs to an 8-10-2 record, one of only two losing seasons in his coaching career. Things began to change quickly. In 1992 Rolla improved it’s record to 13-5-1, but still failed to win a district game.
The 1993 season caught everybody by surprise. The Bulldogs won a district game for the first time. They didn’t stop there though. In the District Final, Rolla squared off against their rival, the Waynesville Tigers. The Bulldogs prevailed 5-1 to capture their first District Title. In the State Sectional Match, Rolla dispatched of the Joplin Eagles 3-1 and advanced to face the Jefferson City Jays in the Quarterfinals. It took Four Overtimes, but the victory went to the Bulldogs 2-1, and Rolla was on to the Final Four.
In the State Semifinal, Rolla met up with the DeSmet Spartans, a team that included current LA Galaxy player Chris Klein. The Spartans prevailed 1-0, but the Bulldogs showed very well. In the 3rd Place Game, Rolla faced off against Parkway South. Parkway South won 1-0. The Bulldogs had nothing to hang their heads about. Making it to the Final Four is an awesome feat for a program in just it’s fourth year.
One of Coach Howard’s top memories is: “Going to the Final Four obviously, in 1993 in my third year of coaching. Pretty much just dumb luck. We had some great kids, very good athletes and they were very mentally tough. They probably went to the Final Four in spite of me, I would say, to be honest with you.”
One of the stars of that team was All-State Forward, Mike Kiefer. Kiefer would later serve as an assistant coach at Rolla under Mike Howard. Mike Kiefer offered these thoughts on Coach Howard:
First of all I would like to congratulate Coach Howard on reaching the milestone. It says a ton about his dedication to remain at one school and to accumulate such an accomplishment. However, like all great coaches, Coach Howard’s success goes above and beyond the wins and losses that are achieved on the field.
I had the privilege of playing for Mike during his first three seasons at Rolla. Like many young coaches getting their first head coaching opportunity, he inherited a program that was not an ideal situation to say the least. Throughout the years he overcame the great challenge of building and molding a successful program that had only been in existence one year prior to his arrival. Like any coach that lacks head coaching experience, there were tough times early and mistakes that were made along the way (one of which was not playing me enough as a sophomore:)). In reality, our disappointing seasons in Mike’s first two years were not a reflection of his abilities as a coach. The problem was we were not a very talented or disciplined group. However to Coach’s credit he persevered, instilled some discipline into the program, and became a highly successful coach.
Like all outstanding coaches, Mike Howard leaves an impression on his players that often extends beyond the field of play.
The Bulldog program under Mike Howard has been very successful. In 17 seasons as Head Coach, Howard has compiled a record of 264-124-34, including a Team record 22 wins in 2002. During his tenure the Bulldogs have made it to the District Final 14 times (every year since 1993, except 2000) – coming out victorious ten times, made four State Quarterfinal appearances and one trip to the Final Four.
But that is only half of the story. In 1996, Rolla started a girls soccer program. That first year, the Lady Bulldogs posted a record of 14-6-0. It is the only season the they haven’t reach the District Final. In 1997, RHS made their first District Final appearance, losing in Overtime to Kickapoo.
The 1998 season was the beginning of a great streak for the Lady Bulldogs. Led by Three-time All-State selection, KC Williams (now KC Curler), and a Freshman named Anne Felts, Coach Howard and the RHS team won their first District title and reached the State Quarterfinals, something they would accomplish for four straight seasons. KC Curler not only played for Coach Howard during that time, but would later become an assistant under Howard. KC (pictured with current senior captain Kaitlyn Bramel following the Quarterfinal loss to Nerinx Hall in 2005) had this to say about him:
Coach Howard, is a superb coach. I have been fortunate to have played for him and coach with him. He takes pride in what he does and works hard and that shows in his teams. Congratulations Coach.
Top memories? “Coaching Anne Felts would have to be pretty high up there on my list.”
And Coach Howard is up there on her list to. Anne’s thoughts on her former Coach:
One of the reasons I think Coach Howard is such a great coach, is because he can dissect the game and make it understandable and doable for anyone. He has such a unique challenge in Rolla, where he coaches beginning players, three-sport athletes, and year-round soccer players, and he has the ability to form them into a successful team. He has something to offer to every player.
I find it really difficult to pick his best quality as a coach. He can gauge what his team needs, he knows what to bring to the team in all different situations.
For me, he helped me define myself as a player. He helped me realize my strengths, and taught me how I could exploit other team’s weaknesses. We always had fun – you play better when you’re having fun. Somehow he made running fitness fun…
It’s really hard for me to convey the magnitude of the impact he has had on me. He and his family are wonderful people to be around and be associated with. His players are incredibly lucky to have him for their coach.
NS: “Anything that we haven’t covered?”
MH: “My nice wife (Angie Howard). She’s been with me the whole time I’ve been here.”
Angie is pictured with Mike, again following the Quarterfinal game in 2005 at Waynesville.
I first met Mike Howard in the Fall of 1996 at our All-District meeting when I the Assistant Coach at West Plains. The next year I became the Head Coach at the ripe old age of 24. Over the years I have learned a lot from Mike Howard both directly and indirectly. He is humble in victory and gracious in defeat. We have shared some good times off the field and had some great games on the field. I am proud to call Mike Howard a friend. Congratulations Howie! I hope I have done you justice.