Zionsville Community High School Welcomes Coach J.R. Howell to Its Court
One could say that basketball is in his blood and that J.R. Howell and his family are the quintessential Hoosier family. Having been practically raised on a basketball court, J.R.’s destiny to be involved in the sport—as a player and eventually as head coach—was evident when he was just a small child.
J.R. Howell was recently named the Zionsville boys basketball head coach, and I had the incredible opportunity to talk with Howell about his journey to the head coaching position after working as assistant coach for three seasons under Carmel boys basketball head coach Ryan Osborn. Howell was part of the winning formula that led the Greyhounds to a Class 4A state championship victory in 2019.
Basketball Is More Than a Sport—It’s a Tradition
Beginning his basketball career at a young age, Howell’s passion for the sport began while watching his older sisters playing and his dad, coach Jimmie Howell, coach for nearly 40 years. Jimmie Howell is fifth on the state’s active coaching victory list with an impressive 624 wins.
“There’s a home video of me on my third birthday drawing up a play,” Howell shared. “At ages 4 to 5, my dad was coaching boys and girls varsity [basketball]—at the same time—for four straight years. The only time that I could really be around him was to be at the gym, and that was something I loved. Being able to play in a state championship and being an assistant coach in two state championships all has to do with my love for basketball and my upbringing.”
The Howell family moved from the Fortville/Mount Vernon area to Brownsburg when Howell was going into the fifth grade. His dad connected with Ryan Osborn, who came on board as an assistant coach and coached Howell. Little did the two know that their relationship would grow into a lifelong friendship and eventually a friendly rivalry.
Howell’s junior year, his family moved to Lapel, Indiana. His dad was head coach and was coaching his son. That first season, the boys basketball team won the state title in 2004–05.
“At the time, I thought it was really cool because we won the state title,” Howell reflected. “Now that I’ve gotten older and have a 4-month-old son, I realize how special and rare it was than I did even 10 years ago. It’s rare to win a state title and even more remarkable that it was a father-and-son duo.”
Answering His Calling
Howell attended Marian University where he realized that his calling was to coach high school basketball.
“I knew pretty much right away,” Howell said. “But it was my junior and senior years that I realized high school basketball is where I wanted to be, where I’m more comfortable and where I could make a bigger impact on kids.”
As fate would have it, Howell was eventually hired on under Osborn at Carmel High School where his final “lessons” would be learned before advancing in rank as head coach. Howell shared what he learned from the students and from Osborn that he brings with him to Zionsville’s basketball program.
“The biggest thing I learned from the kids is that they want to be challenged,” Howell said, “They all want to be good [at their sport and at school], and it’s just a matter of making sure that you [challenge] them the right way as a coach.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around a more organized coach than Ryan,” Howell expressed. “If it wasn’t for me learning from Ryan, the way he handles himself in meetings, his demeanor—on and off the court—my first couple of weeks here [Zionsville] would’ve been more difficult. Spending all that time with Ryan has put me at ease to confidently attack the tasks that I have for the day and for this position.”
The Ultimate Dream Job
Over the last five years, Howell began setting his sights on his dream job—a head coaching position in a big program at a local area high school. Howell and his young family reside in Whitestown and have rooted themselves in the local communities. And once former head coach Shaun Busick–who resigned in early July after 14 seasons—announced his departure, Howell threw his name in the hat for consideration.
“Zionsville has been my dream job,” Howell stated. “I think it’s a good, close-knit community, a good school and the kids are fantastic. Anytime you follow a coach like Busick and their success with the program, you’re always going to have to deal with expectations. But he put down such a great foundation, and my job is to come in, review it and see how I can make this better. Keep what has worked before and make the necessary tweaks to make it better than it was.”
When I asked Howell how he thinks it will be looking across the court at coach Osborn in that first match up against the Greyhounds, he replied thoughtfully, “It’s going to be bittersweet. I have so much respect for coach Osborn. He’s been a really great mentor and friend to me. But at the end of the day, I want to win, and he wants to win. We’re going to put our [respective] teams in position to win. Once that game takes off, we’re going to be competitors, and there’s going to be no friendship at that point [on the court].”
Prepare Like You’re Going to Play
As sick as I am about writing the name as you are reading it, I had to ask Howell how he, the staff and players are preparing for a season during COVID-19.
“It’s tough, but I try to look at every situation with a positive outlook,” Howell said. “If you look at the negatives, it will bring you down, affect the people around you, and you won’t take any steps forward. We’re treating this season like we’re playing and going full steam ahead. Obviously, there’s going to be challenges. The way we work out will look a little different. But we will take all of the proper safety measures and do everything we can to keep the kids in a safe environment and to prevent the spread of [COVID-19]. We’ll take it a day at a time, but we’re going to prepare like we’re playing. There’s no other way to look at it until we’re told something different.”
On behalf of the community, welcome to Zionsville, coach Howell! We wish you, your staff and your team all the best this season!