Craig Howard is fond of a quote by legendary football coach Bear Bryant:
—…When Mama calls, then you just have to come running."
To Howard, Mama called Wednesday morning and the former Grants Pass Caver soon will be hustling home from Florida to be the next head football coach at Southern Oregon University.
Southern Oregon announced Wednesday that Howard, 58, has accepted the job, culminating an extensive search that began in November and included 103 applicants. He succeeds Steve Helminiak to become SOU's 15th head coach.
"I'm very humbled and very honored to be the next football coach at Southern Oregon University," Howard said in a phone interview from Lake City, Fla., where he's been a high school football coach for the past four years. "I've had a great career, and to have an opportunity to come home and finish my career in southern Oregon 38 miles from the place where I grew up is just a great feeling for me right now."
Howard, who also has had stops at Oregon Tech, Livingston University and Portland State, among others, beat out Ashland High head coach Charlie Hall, Arizona Cardinals quarterbacks coach Chris Miller and Central Washington positions coach Stacy Collins.
Southern Oregon athletic director Matt Sayre said it came down to Howard and Hall, with Howard getting the nod on the strength of a chemistry-forging meeting with a group of current players during his on-campus visit two weeks ago.
"Really, the deciding factor was that (Howard) had an instant rapport with the football players," Sayre said. "They really liked the other candidates, but they loved Craig and they wanted to play for him after the meeting.
"They all [the finalists] did a great job and the players said any one of them they would play for, but their eyes were aglow when they talked about Craig, and that really was the deciding factor."
Sayre added that when he gathered the players to break the news, they "erupted" into applause when Howard's name was announced.
"And that's what this was really about," Sayre said. "We went into this with a theme that was directed by the players for the most part. They really wanted a coach that they could have a great relationship with and believe in and play for. We did the search based on that theme and we came out with four stellar guys that each of the players liked and responded to. And coach Howard was just elevated, in that respect."
Howard, a charismatic speaker who's picked up a southern drawl in his 18 years down south (one year in Alabama followed by 17 in Florida), has already made his first move as a Raider, adding offensive line coach Chris Fisk. Now living in Medford, Fisk formerly coached at the University of Mary, a NCAA Division II school in Bismark, N.D.
Howard also said he will retain SOU defensive coordinator Berk Brown and running backs coach Greg Stewart.
Besides solid credentials — he's earned five coach of the year awards, and his current team has set 30 school records on offense — the hiring of Howard appears to satisfy another need established by Sayre early on: creativity. Howard has established himself as an offensive guru by implementing a system that Oregon Ducks fans may recognize. The results have been impressive.
At Nease High School in Ponte Vedra, Fla., Howard guided the Panthers to the Class 4A state championship game three years in a row. In Howard's five years at Nease High, the Panthers averaged 37.6 points in 18 playoff games. Along the way he coached Tim Tebow, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Florida.
"Offensively, we're a no-huddle, spread offense," Howard said. "We want to go as fast as we can possibly go. We've been in a tempo-oriented offense for 10 years, and we want to be balanced, with different players touching the ball. ... A lot of times the officials have had to take a time out because they can't keep up with us.
"And defensively, we're going to be an attacking, swarming defense. You can't be a bend-but-don't-break defense and be as aggressive as we are on offense."
Howard will be tasked with turning around a program that's gone 15-32 in the last five seasons with Helminiak at the helm. The Raiders finished above .500 once in that span and haven't qualified for the NAIA playoffs since 2002.
"I want to come back and win the NAIA National Championship at Southern Oregon, and I think we can," Howard said.
The Raiders may have taken a positive step in that direction hours before Howard was offered the job. On Tuesday, Southern Oregon was invited to join the Frontier Conference, giving the Raiders a league home for the first time since the Columbia Football Association disbanded following the 1998 season. They will join as a football-only member starting in the 2012-13 school year, while the rest of SOU's intercollegiate sports continue to compete in the Cascade Conference.
Howard hopes to arrive in Ashland early next week and says he already has a recruiting trip planned for the following Saturday. Since most high school seniors have by now committed to their college of choice, Howard will have some catching up to do.
He doesn't seem to be worried about it.
"We were hired today and we're going to work today," he said. "I just look at the positives, and Southern Oregon is a great place. We won't have problems attracting players there.
"We can't control the fact that we weren't there in January. There are still kids out there. There are ball players that are dying to play for a good program."