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Wednesday, October 12, 2011
IUPUI's Todd Howard in familiar territory

By Eamonn Brennan

The new building. The empty office. The unpacked boxes of knick-knacks and memorabilia. The awkward getting-to-know-you phase. The news conference performance. The fan-outreach efforts. The new home in the new community.

This is the life of the college coach -- as transitory and impermanent an existence as any in modern professionalism.

IUPUI coach Todd Howard didn't have to deal with any of that. Not that he's complaining.

"The number of familiar faces -- that's a huge advantage," Howard said. "I know people in the community, and they know me. And that support has allowed me to focus on the actual transition itself."

IUPUI fans know Howard, and Howard knows them. He is the rarest of college coaching breeds: the guy who doesn't jump jobs.

For the past 10 years, Howard has served as associate head coach to former IUPUI head man Ron Hunter. He was an assistant coach under Hunter for six years before that. The last time Howard held a job that wasn't at IUPUI was all the way back in 1993, when -- having just completed his playing career at Louisville -- he served as a student assistant under former Cardinals head coach Denny Crum. In many ways, IUPUI is the only program Howard, the longest-tenured associate or assistant coach in Jaguars history, has ever known.

So when Hunter left the program to take over at Georgia State this spring, the suspense that surrounds most coaching transitions was notably muted. There was some measure of intrigue: IUPUI still conducted a proper coaching search -- former Butler and Iowa coach Todd Lickliter was listed among the candidates -- but when Howard received Hunter's endorsement and widespread support from players and fans, the decision didn't take too long.

"It was kind of discussed, but with our newness, the school still wanted to go through the process," Howard said. "That was quite tough. The players held the fort down, the recruits and their families were phenomenal, and the support from the campus and the community -- that's where I was blown away. Then, when it happened, you're prepared to take that next logical step. But it's still a whirlwind, even now."

Howard's new-coach whirlwind is different from most, but he still has his work cut out for him. Nestled in Indianapolis at the nexus of Indiana's talent-rich high school basketball scene, IUPUI has some inherent institutional advantages. But it remains a young school with a young program.

Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis was established as a partnership between Indiana's two major state schools in 1969, and until 2001, the school played its basketball as a Division I independent. It has produced NBA-level talents such as George Hill, but Hunter's tenure saw the Jaguars reach the NCAA tournament only once.

IUPUI may be getting close. The Jags are coming off a 19-14 season and a third-place finish in the Summit League. The squad returns senior guard Alex Young, one of the top guards in the conference (and one who received more than a few looks from NBA scouts this spring), as well as a variety of backcourt talent. Howard is bullish on the program's ability to compete immediately, though the Jaguars still lack a true post presence, even in the context of a league that doesn't often feature talents like 7-foot former Oakland star Keith Benson.

The good news for the IUPUI fan base? Its coach doesn't need any introductions. He knows the program. The program knows him.

Coaching transition? What transition?

"I won't say some of the luster was taken off of [becoming a head coach]," Howard said. "But there wasn't that phase where you get a job and your office is empty and everything's moved out and you're just sort of basking in that newness. It was different. People know me here. Other coaches when they start may not know one person on campus.

"There's a tremendous support network here. That's a great substitute for the newness."