Rebuilding a once powerful sports program that has fallen into disrepair can be one of the most difficult jobs in all of sports.
Doing so in only three seasons is only that much harder.
But that is just what coach Rick Howard has done to the boys soccer program at Gainesville High.
After winning the state championship in 1998, the Red Elephants went 12 years without winning the big game until this year, when they defeated Woodward Academy 3-2 (5-4 on penalty kicks) on May 14 to take home the Class AAA championship.
For this achievement, Howard is The Times 2010 Soccer Coach of the Year.
“I’m very privileged to even be nominated for something like this,” Howard said. “But to be honest, I look at this as more of an award for our whole team.
“I’ll take responsibility when we don’t play well, but when we do play well, I am a very little part of it.”
Howard credits his assistants with most of the success Gainesville enjoyed this season.
“They are the reason why we did so well,” he said. “I really feel fortunate that I got to work with the people that I worked with this year because they made it so much easier.”
Those three assistants, Ellie Biviant, Renee Alvarez and Phillip Vincent, all specialized in different aspects of running the team this season, allowing Howard to pay special attention to his duties as head coach.
“They took so much off of me so I could focus on what I had to focus on,” Howard said. “Each of us brought a different strength to make sure we put the players in the best place to have the best chance of winning.
“I had a role in it, but I had no bigger or smaller role than anyone else.”
Despite his humility, Howard has been there for the revitalization that the Gainesville program needed in order to return to the powerhouse status that it had once enjoyed.
“When I took over the job, things weren’t going really good with the soccer program,” Howard said. “They had gone through just a period of bad luck. It’s nobody’s fault, it was just a period of bad luck with some players and some stuff that had happened. One of the things that I talked to players about was that we needed to re-establish ourselves as one of the quality programs in the state.
“It took a while, and it took some players buying in and some luck and a lot of hard work to put the program back to where it was. Everybody had a part.”
Now that the Red Elephants are back at the top of the Georgia soccer heap, Howard plans to keep them there.
“We’re back where we were and now the next step is going to keep it here,” he said. “In order to do that, we have to start building a little bit more community support and keep it where it is right now.”
As to how the team was so successful this year, Howard recalls a meeting that the team had before the season started.
At that meeting, Howard told his team the season’s goal was to win the Region 7-AAA championship and he asked them, “how do we have to play in order to achieve that?”
And so the team gathered around a white board with a black marker and made a list.
On that list were statements such as “we’ve got to work hard in practice, got to have good work ethic. We’ve got to play good possession soccer. We’ve got to finish and score goals. We’ve got to prevent goals.”
“We wrote this on the white board and during the preseason we would refer to it,” Howard said.
“If we didn’t have a good practice or a good session, we would look and say ‘this is what we said at the beginning of the year and we aren’t getting what we wanted.’”
Once the team began to fulfill all of their self-imposed requirements during practice, the wins began to mount.
“About the middle of the season, when we realized that if we played together and stuck to our statements that we could keep winning, we started to put our goals in order,” Howard said.
The goals that the team set themselves were hardly easy to achieve: make the playoffs, host a playoff game, win the region championship, go undefeated and win the state championship.
Five goals proposed, five goals achieved.
Not bad for only his third season as head coach.