Howell, who led Cherokee High School’s football team to an undefeated season in 1963, died Saturday near his home in Asheville, N.C. He was 84.
Though Cherokee was winless in its first two seasons under Howell — who spent six seasons with the Warriors — but it quickly turned things around by winning 20 games over the next three seasons. The team went 10-0 in 1963.
Between 1962 and ’65, Howell coached seven players who went on to play college football.
While his time in Cherokee County was brief, Howell left a lasting impression.
One of the coach’s former Cherokee players said that, while it might sound cliche, Howell really did mold him.
“He was more than a football coach,” said Will Heath, who went on to play football at Tennessee-Martin and is now an assistant coach at Reinhardt University. “He taught you to be ready for life. You can say that a lot of times, but, at least for me, he prepared me for everything I had to deal with all my life. Going to college and playing football, I was ready for that, along with all the other things I had to deal with. He will always be with me. He was quite the man.”
After his time at Cherokee, Howell moved back to his native North Carolina, where he went on to coach seven state high school championship teams — five in football and two in baseball. He was the first coach in state history to win state titles in baseball and football during the same school year.
Howell retired in 1997 as North Carolina’s winningest high school coach in both football (301-121-6) and baseball (628-220).
Howell was inducted into the Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame in 2005 and was expected to attend the annual ceremony last Friday. Scott Webb, the hall’s vice-chairman, said he received a phone call Friday saying that Howell and his wife, Peggy, would be unable to attend.
Howell had not missed an induction ceremony since being honored himself.
“They ended up not making it when he had to go into the hospital,” Webb said. “They were going to drive down from North Carolina to be there.”
Heath, who was looking forward to seeing his former coach that evening, knew something was wrong when he didn’t see Howell.
“He would come back every year ever since he was enshrined,” Heath said. “I was looking for him Friday, and when he didn’t show up, I knew something was up.”
Heath later heard from a relative of Howell’s about the coach’s hospitalization and subsequent death.
A memorial service will be held at the field named in Howell’s honor — Babe Howell Field at Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva, N.C. — on Saturday at 4 p.m.
Heath plans to be there, along with several of his former teammates, including another member of that unbeaten 1963 team, Ed Cochran.
Cochran said Sylva, a town in the mountains southwest of Asheville, is an appropriate place for the memorial.
“A lot of things in that town should be named after him, because he is one special individual,” said Cochran.
Cochran said Howell was the one who persuaded him to play football in high school. From there, he went to enjoy a career at Tennessee-Martin and signed a contract with the Miami Dolphins in 1969. Cochran also went on to have a successful high school coaching career of his own, spending 19 seasons at Buford.
“Coach Howell was a very kind, compassionate, hard-nosed, caring individual,” Cochran said. “He found me in a P.E. class, and I had never played football before. He got me to come out to play football and I ended up playing on the college level and coaching for 30 years. He was very influential in my life.”
Cochran said he learned mental toughness and the fundamentals of life from Howell.
“If you get knocked down, you get back up,” Cochran said. “I can’t think of all the adjectives that reflect upon this great individual.”
Heath and Cochran both kept in touch with their former coach, and Cochran he often saw Howell at coaching clinics.
Cochran said he remembers the night in 2005 when he and Howell were both inducted into the Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame.
“That was such a special night — being there with coaching and seeing him going into the hall of fame, said Cochran, who joined Heath in introducing Howell. “It was well-deserved of the job he did while he was here during that six years.”
Before his coaching career, Howell served in the U.S. Navy from 1945-49. That’s where he received his own introduction to football and developed a love of the game.
After completing his service, he returned to his hometown of Monroe, N.C., to complete high school and earned a scholarship to Western Carolina University. Howell played both football and baseball at Western Carolina — earning his nickname “Babe” as a left-handed pitcher, along the lines of fellow left-hander Babe Ruth.
After college, Howell coached at various schools in North Carolina before making his way to Cherokee.
In all, Howell served as a football coach for 44 years and a baseball coach for 38 years. He also served 33 years as an athletic director, initiating many new athletic programs at Sylva-Webster High School. He served as the first coach when many of those sports were started.
In addition to the Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame, Howell was a member of 10 other halls of fame, including the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. In 1994, he was inducted into the Jackson County (N.C.) Athletic Hall of Fame, which he founded the previous year.