In 2016, Rick Howard made a career move not many high school coaches with his resume would undergo.
Howard at that point already had a state championship with the Gainesville High boys soccer team and more than 250 career wins under his belt. Yet the Red Elephants’ head man resigned his position to focus on bettering himself as a teacher by pursuing a master’s degree.
With that goal now on the horizon, Howard is leaping back into the coaching world.
Gainesville High announced this week that Howard will serve as the school’s new girls soccer coach, a position he held from 2004-05. He spent the most recent season as an assistant to boys coach Elie Viviant, his former assistant-turned-successor, but now Howard gets to lead a program of his own again.
“I originally left because I needed to stop and finish my masters and work on becoming a better teacher,” he said. “But (Red Elephants athletic director Adam) Lindsey gave me a great chance to take over the girls, and I’m very fortunate for the opportunity.”
Howard is taking over for three-year coach Shelly Garner, whose 2018 Lady Red Elephants squad went 6-11-1 and was knocked out in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs.
This isn’t the first time Howard has returned to coaching following a two-year absence.
The 27-year coach took some time off after leading Gainesville’s girls program in the mid-2000s, only to be named boys coach in the 2007-08 school year. Over the next nine seasons, his Red Elephants teams were consistent contenders and playoff mainstays.
Howard guided Gainesville to a pair of state title games, beating Woodward on penalty kicks in 2010 for the program’s second championship before losing a rematch in 2012. He also oversaw multiple region champions, and his 2014 squad advanced to the state quarterfinals.
Yet Howard still believed he had room for improvement in the classroom, prompting him to enter an online master’s program in history at Arizona State.
“There’s an emphasis on world history, and that’s what I was looking for,” said Howard, who teaches social studies, AP world history and AP research at Gainesville High. “I was just cruising on the internet, and it popped up. I compared it to a couple others and decided it was the best for me.”
During the 2017 season, he coached club soccer but primarily focused on his studies. Then Viviant offered Howard a spot on his staff the following season, which was feasible because Howard was nearing the end of his master’s courses.
“I basically just helped coach Viviant in practice. I did some training, things along those lines — what any assistant coach would do,” he said. “And I didn’t mind being assistant at all. In fact, I was just fortunate for the opportunity.”
Now Howard has an even greater opportunity with the Lady Red Elephants, with whom he plans to “honor the history and build on the foundation of past coaches.”
He was once among them, having taken over the program after Amy Berbary — now head coach at the University of Indiana — left to enter the college coaching ranks. Howard was eventually succeeded by Mark Wade, who won more than 100 games over nine years preceding his move to Lumpkin County, before Garner took over in 2015.
“I’m just trying to take what they did and take it to the next step,” Howard said. “I want to make sure to give my team the opportunity to be competitive in every match.
“I also want to kind of use soccer to give them an opportunity to do what they want to in life, whether that’s possibly an athletic scholarship or guiding them to a career choice.”
Howard has made plenty of career choices over the last few years, but now the longtime Gainesville High fixture is ready to resume his role as a coach.
“I just want to thank Adam Lindsey and coach Viviant for giving me the opportunities to get back into it,” Howard said. “I’m very grateful.”