Billy Coward is a philosophical man who's a great believer in the power of positive thinking, stress management and keeping control of his surroundings. He has needed to rely on all of those principles since he was named interim head coach of the Howard men's basketball team last Friday.
Coward, the football team's kicking coach, took over when coach Kirk Saulny and his staff were fired for violating NCAA and school regulations. Coward, 68, stepped into a chaotic situation less than 24 hours before Howard played North Carolina A&T and has fared well, coaching the Bison to a 69-62 victory over the Aggies that broke a 22-game losing streak in his first game at the helm.
"He just came in and just kind of saved the situation. We basically were on our own," senior guard Antonio Michell said. "He brings a leadership that we needed; he kept us in order. A lot of us could have gone different ways, but we didn't."
But Coward still is learning about the program he inherited. He coached his first two games with the team without assistants and hopes to hire some soon. Players helped break down film and prepare scouting reports for the Bison's second game under Coward, a 71-63 loss to South Carolina State.
His tenure as head coach is uncertain. Coward "is the interim coach until we find a permanent one," Athletic Director Hank Ford said in a statement Wednesday night. Ford has refused to elaborate on additional subjects pertaining to the team.
"I surmise that I will be the coach until the end of the season," Coward said. "Under the circumstances we're in, we just roll with the punches and do the best we can."
Those who know Coward believe his legendary control will serve him well in his new position. They will tell you, with a laugh, about his fastidiousness and the importance he places in having everything just so.
Coward may have specialized in football recently, but he does have experience coaching basketball at the high school level. He spent three years as head basketball coach at Federal City College, now the University of the District of Columbia. He coached Bell Vocational High School to two city championship games in a stint as head basketball coach from 1969 to 1973. He worked with the D.C. public school system in a variety of roles for about 28 years.
Frank Parks, the executive director of the D.C. Coaches Association and a former coach at Spingarn for 30 years, remembers how every player on Coward's football teams had his jersey tucked into his pants. The socks were the same color, type and length. The cleats also matched--and even were polished. The coaches wore matching outfits, Parks said. There was an order to the proceedings.
"Total organization, that's him," Parks said. "I wish we had a whole lot of coaches . . . like Billy Coward in the schools handling kids. Everybody knew that they had to bring it to Billy to beat him."
Bruce Bradford of H.D. Woodson still remembers how Coward's basketball players at Bell would race to him during a timeout--similar to the way John Thompson's players reacted to him at Georgetown.
"His teams, they were neat, they were impeccable, they were mannerly," Bradford said. "Teams reflect their coaches, you know."
Getting settled in as coach has been a tough situation. Coward said Tuesday that he wouldn't change much.
"At this point in time, I think it would be very foolish to change things because the fellows are accustomed to doing things a certain way," Coward said. "They're knowledgeable about the way the plays are set up, the offenses and the defense."
The players may still help on the upcoming scouting reports, a duty usually reserved for assistant coaches, but Coward will oversee everything with a more active role in games as he becomes comfortable with the team. Coward moved into Saulny's old office earlier this week and changed the voice mail. He is working on itineraries for this weekend's road trip to Hampton.
"The players like him and respect him," Michell said. "He just wants us to play hard and to play smart. I didn't know what to expect from him; I didn't know who he was before [he was named interim coach]. I like him a lot."
Coward came to Howard the year after retiring in 1980 from an administration job with D.C. public schools. In between his stint at Bell and his administration job, he had the basketball and track coaching jobs from 1973 to 1976 at Federal City College.
He worked at Howard as the director of recreational activities for students and faculty until his retirement in 1993 from that job. But Howard football coach Steve Wilson asked him to become the kicking coach several weeks later, and Coward accepted.
He plans to return to the Howard football team later this year. Coward just laughed when asked if he would like to be the permanent coach of the basketball team.
"Oh, no, no," he said. "I've already retired twice."
For now, however, Coward will focus on keeping everything moving for the team. The Bison are 1-10 overall (1-1 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) and have only nine players on the team. The Bison, because of injuries and off-the-court problems, are without point guard Ali Abdullah, last year's leading scorer, because of a back injury. The team is also without forwards Donte Lincoln and Darren Kennedy, whom Howard declared ineligible for the rest of the season for committing NCAA rules violations.
"I'm just trying to think positively," Coward said. "I haven't had time to think about goals other than persevering and picking up the pieces and getting everyone on board . . . and finishing their education. I'm enjoying what I'm doing because I wouldn't be [here] if I wasn't."
CAPTION: Billy Coward was named interim basketball coach after Kirk Saulny and his staff were fired. In his first game, Bison snapped 22-game losing streak.