Talking football over drinks, an opposing football coach once asked Southern Oregon University offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht, then a high school coach in Florida, why Craig Howard’s teams “do all that stupid Pop Warner stuff” after games, kneeling in a circle around Howard and taking turns praising teammates they “love, honor and respect.”
That love was the key to their success, Fasnacht explained, and their success went beyond the scoreboard.
“A 17-year-old kid is scared to say 'I love you' to another guy,” he said. “A 17-year-old kid is scared to say 'I love you' to his mom and his dad — doesn’t understand the power of the word. It is the most important thing that goes with your faith. It is the blind, unconditional trust that you can put in someone next to you to be successful. (Howard) relayed that to young me, 17 years old. At 36 years old, on the staff, I didn’t tell my own kids I loved them enough. On coach Howard’s staff I started it saying it every day.”
Howard was hailed as a master motivator, a dynamic leader who wasn’t afraid to take chances and, above all, a man who recognized the importance of love — even on the football field — during a memorial service at Raiders Stadium Monday, 17 days after the beloved head coach died unexpectedly in his sleep Jan. 20 in his Ashland home at age 64.
About 1,500 admirers, including hundreds of former players, braved 40-degree temperatures to pay their respects to the longtime coach during an hour-and-40 minute service that included speeches by Fasnacht, legendary Oregon Tech coach Dan Miles, former Portland Trail Blazers team chaplain Al Egg and former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
Telling stories, invoking Howard-isms and praising Howard’s zest for life and big-hearted philosophies, each of the speakers described a man who, both behind closed doors and in the public eye, lived and breathed the motto he brought to SOU when he was hired in 2011: love, honor and respect.
“God gave Craig a wonderful gift and he gave him the opportunity to use that gift,” Miles said. “And the nice thing for all of us here is he passed it onto us. Thanks for sharing, Craig.”
The service began when seven pallbearers, following bagpiper Brian Baker, carried Howard’s coffin to a spot under an awning flanked by two enormous vases. Moments later at the podium, Egg, who officiated Craig and Valerie Howards’ wedding 30 years ago, welcomed the crowd.
Following Josh Santos’ performance of the National Anthem, Ashland Christian Fellowship pastor Mark Anderson read three verses specifically chosen by Valerie Howard, including Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouth, but only such as is good for building up as fits the occasion that it may give grace to those who hear.”
Next, during an at times rousing eulogy, Fasnacht spoke of Howard’s fearless use of the word “love” and how that unorthodox approach to the gridiron proved to give Howard’s teams an edge, even if that wasn’t necessarily the entire point.
Once, after a big win while the two coached Nease High School in Florida, Fasnacht wanted to skip a postgame celebration that included boosters and family members in order to watch game film. Howard, Fasnacht said, issued a not-so-gentle reminder about keeping things in perspective.
“He talked about how hard it was to win and how important family is,” Fasnacht said, “and if you ever neglect your family over a football game you’re not doing the right thing.”
Modeling that kind of behavior mattered, Fasnacht said, because they were in the business of raising young men. Sometimes, he said, gathering the team together for something as unconventional as a bonfire not long before a huge game was just what the players needed.
“He found out that every player has insecurities and … every young man is going through this thing called life and is a little scared of how to act like a man and be a man,” Fasnacht said. “And through those moments, through communication, through relationships, because of a bonfire or a crazy idea going against the current we uncovered something that day about young men. Those young men fortified a bond that ended up lasting forever and won the first state championship for Nease High School. Again, not because of X’s and O’s, but because of the man that they had played for.”
Fasnacht introduced Tebow, who recalled the first time he and his father met Howard. Only minutes into the meeting, Tebow said, he told his dad he wanted to play for Howard.
Later, Tebow relayed a story that drew the biggest laugh of the night, about a drill Howard concocted that pitted five defensive players versus five offensive players in a no-holds-barred basketball game. Tebow was flipped in mid air during the scrum and Howard called the whole thing off, admitting that the drill didn’t work, but he’d soon come up with one that would.
“But that’s what coach Howard was about,” Tebow said. “He wasn’t afraid to do something different. He wasn’t afraid to dare to be great. And a lot of people are so afraid of being different, so afraid of having the courage and the boldness to stand out. And that wasn’t coach Howard.”
Former Oregon Tech athletic director Howard Morris, Miles and Egg followed Tebow.
Later, as Baker played “Amazing Grace” on his bag pipe as football players descended the steps of the stadium en masse and made their way out onto the field, where they formed two long rows — a human tunnel that led from the coffin to the hearse.
Fasnacht’s remarks at the end of his eulogy were heartfelt, and he choked up as he explained Howard’s penchant for giving out "atta boys."
“I think it’s important,” Fasnacht said. “It may be corny, but I don’t care, because I think it’s what he wants me to do.”
Then Fasnacht led the crowd through one last atta boy for Howard.
“Hey coach Howard,” he said, and the crowd repeated. “Go coach Howard. Atta boy. We love you.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.