When Anita Howard got the call from Georgia Southern Athletic Director Tom Kleinlein that she would be named the new head coach of the women’s basketball team, she knew she was continuing the streak of breaking down barriers in the game of basketball.
She was the first African American head coach at her previous two schools, and this is the first time she’s been given the opportunity to be a head coach at this level.
“There’s not that many Division I female coaches,” she said. “I definitely know I was blessed and favored, so I was super excited…I do think young girls need to see women that look like them, that have been where they’ve been, doing things that I’m doing.”
Her main goal as the head of the organization is to change the way that women’s basketball is viewed by others. The program has not had a winning record since the 2009-10 season when GS was still a part of the SoCon conference.
One of the first things she noticed when she walked on campus were the traditions that GS continues to carry out. With Chad Lunsford revamping the football program on the field and through social media, she feels inspired to do the same thing in Hanner Fieldhouse.
“Everyone wants a winning culture,” she said. “But, there’s so much more to life after your sport, life after basketball…One of the things we’re working with is changing their mindsets to let them know that they are great and they can be good…Basketball is our job but it’s also second nature when you’re building that culture, the championship building mindset.”
Howard played point guard and adapted a coaching mindset very early on in her life. Her teammates nicknamed her ‘The General’ because she was always orchestrating plays on her own time and trying to improve the team from her perspective. The nickname was fitting, considering she was a military brat, but she always had a leadership position on the court. When she graduated from college, she thought she wanted to be a photographer… coaching really wasn’t in the front of her mind.
“I love art, I’m an artist by trade,” she said. “There was something that was missing… so I started coaching competitive AAU basketball in the state of Georgia. One of the college coaches saw me and asked me to come be an assistant coach and then that first year of being an assistant coach at the Division I level, I realized that this is what I wanted to do.”
Before GS, the Savannah native most recently coached at Columbus State where she accumulated a 45-18 conference record over three seasons, two Division II Championships and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance.
In her first season with the Cougars, she led the team to a Peach Belt title, and a 31-2 record. Her career also extends to Salem College and Livingstone College, where the latter school holds the record for the longest winning streak in HBCU history, at 23 wins.
She has several awards up her sleeve, including the 2013 Great South Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, the John “Whack” Hyder Georgia College Women’s Coach of the Year in 2017 and the 2017-18 Peach Belt Conference Coach of the Year.
Since taking over, she has also largely been focusing on recruiting. With this being the last season for standout guard Alexis Brown, she has made it a point to start bringing in her own recruits and personnel. She has already swept the entire coaching staff and brought in two African American assistant coaches, also the most in GS history.
Howard relocated to Statesboro with her husband and as the mother of three children, she has been looking forward to starting fresh in a new place. She’s enjoying the college-town atmosphere and feels that the community has become her family in just the little time she’s been here. Her two oldest children are out of the house already in college, and her youngest son is currently in Atlanta finishing up his senior year and training with the Atlanta United Development Academy.
“I haven’t won one game yet and they are making me feel extremely welcome,” she said. “I’ve come to the realization, it’s kind of just the southern hospitality…The people really care about Georgia Southern Athletics and although women’s basketball hadn’t been as successful as they would like, they still come out and they’re still buying season tickets and stuff like that.”
The team embraced Howard with open arms and they took to her fun personality very quickly. They know that she has no problem having fun, but there is a time and a place to be serious… and that is when it comes to the fundamentals on the court.
Howard has a specific game plan for the Eagles, which includes raising the effort level and energy. Last year, the team won two conference games and she emphasizes that they must do better than that.
She sets small goals for the team and preaches that each practice and game means something. She is a strong believer in speaking things into existence and says that they will “Shock the Sun Belt”.
“Our phrase for this year is to ‘Take Flight’,” she said. “Our program has been, kind of, at the bottom of our conference so it’s time for us to ‘take flight’ and get some respect…I’m serious about them getting better.”
Amanda Arnold, The George-Anne Sports Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org