Former Notre Dame tailback Terrance Howard recently spoke with us about playing for the Fighting Irish, his career as a coach, his future plans and more.
A South Jersey native, Terrance Howard suited up for Notre Dame from 1998-2001. His career in South Bend corresponded with an interesting time in program history. He spoke to us about his Division I career and much more.
The Spun: You were recruited out of Rancocas Valley High School in South Jersey in the late 1990s. What was the recruiting process like for you?
TH: I think my sophomore year, I got my first offer from Central Michigan. I was all excited. It’s kind of like that moment where you say ‘I must be good because a college wants to give me a full ride.’ Duke came in after my sophomore year. Then, my junior year, it kind of blew up. For me it was different because I didn’t rush for 1,000 yards until my senior year in high school. My sophomore and junior year, I shared time in the backfield. I think I only had 900 yards rushing my junior year. Schools would come in; you name the school, they were there. David Riley was my high school coach at the time. He played at West Virginia under Bobby Bowden, so obviously Florida State recruited me. He also played for the USFL’s Philadelphia Stars, so he had a lot of contacts. A lot of these schools were coming to watch me practice, and it kind of got a little overwhelming, because at the end of my junior year, I couldn’t name a school that hadn’t offered me for either running back or defensive back.
The Spun: Sounds like you had a lot of options. What made you ultimately decide on Notre Dame?
TH: I broke my list down to Miami, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Florida State and the University of Kentucky. Back then, Tim Couch was the big thing down there [Kentucky]…The one thing that caught my eye with the whole Notre Dame thing was coach [Urban] Meyer was there. He recruited New Jersey then. I remember the University of Florida was at my house and Coach Meyer was sitting outside. I said ‘Coach Meyer, Florida is here,’ because he had just showed up. He had no appointment. He just said he was coming to the house. I asked if he could wait a little bit, and he said ‘Are you freakin’ kidding me? Tell them Notre freakin’ Dame is here. Who is the University of Florida?’ It’s ironic because he ended up coaching at Florida too.
“I took a visit to Miami and Ohio State. Kentucky was actually my first visit, during the season. They actually beat Alabama on my visit, for the first time in like 75 years. I actually canceled my Florida State visit. I think with Notre Dame, when I look back at it, I didn’t play football until my freshman year of high school. So I had to think about what I really wanted to go to school for. My whole thing was academics. I wanted to own my own company, run my own business. I had to put that on the paper too. Notre Dame said, hey you can compete against the best kids in the classroom Monday through Friday and then compete against the best players on the field on Saturdays. Going on that visit, the guys I was on that visit with, Jarious Jackson and Bobby Brown (who was my host), they kind of talked about the same things. They talked about things outside of football and after football. It made me feel like I was like them.
The Spun: Were you a Lou Holtz recruit or a Bob Davie recruit?
TH: I was part of Coach Davie’s first class. It was me, David Givens, Anthony Weaver who coaches for the Houston Texans now, Rocky Boiman who played a bunch of years [in the NFL], Javin Hunter, Tony Fisher, Arnaz Battle. My whole class, if I named them all, like 80 percent of them played in the NFL. When we came in, we were either No. 1 or No. 2. It was between us and Michigan for the top class in the country. In fact, the first game of my freshman year (1998), they came to South Bend as the No. 5 team in the country and the defending champs. They had Anthony Thomas and Tom Brady and those guys and we beat them.
The Spun: When you were at Notre Dame from 1998-2001, it was a transition period. Bob Davie was the first coach after Lou Holtz, you guys were good your freshman and junior year and struggled your sophomore and senior year. Was there any extra pressure to live up to what some of those past teams have done?
TH: When I got there as a freshman, Notre Dame is a very small school. It’s like a high school almost, all over again. The seniors and juniors, they all played for Lou Holtz. Coach Davie was the defensive coordinator under Lou Holtz prior to becoming the new coach. You would hear the stories of Lou Holtz’s famous line “Don’t Flinch.” Davie wanted to pave his own way, but there were guys there like Autry Denson, Jarious Jackson, Luke Petitgout, Mike Rosenthal, their whole work ethic and the way they went about their business was so professional. It was a true professional environment. Whether it was in the weight room, the classroom, the practice field, you wanted to live up to that. The stories I heard about guys at other schools leaving practice or not working hard, that didn’t happen when I was at Notre Dame. There was a standard that was set that you lived by.
Another thing they said to us was that since we’re at Notre Dame, we’re under the microscope. Everything you say and do will be magnified. It doesn’t matter how you meant it, so be careful what you say and do. Somebody is always watching. Whether it is on the football field –the eye in the sky don’t lie—or whether it was in the classroom or out in public, it will get back to the coaches. You had to carry yourself a certain way. I hate to say it, but it was like being elite almost.
The Spun: You played alongside some talented guys at ND. What was that like to be out there with all those guys?
TH: It was win a national championship every year. That was the goal. Not winning nine or 10 games and going to a good bowl. It was national championship or nothing. For me, in life, it makes it somewhat easier in the business world. Because from a competition standpoint, I tell people all the time, it was Tony Fisher, Julius Jones and then eventually Ryan Grant, and myself. Then there was Autry Denson my freshman year. For me to even get a carry in practice, I mean those are the five guys you know about, and then you know there’s another five you never even hear about. Vontez Duff was a running back, Tony Driver was a running back. They moved to defense. Courtney Watson, who played linebacker for us and then the New Orleans Saints, he was a running back. From a competition standpoint, Notre Dame had the best of the best…For the season, I had the same pressure as those kids. It was ‘Win a national championship.’ The pressure is there. You hear about the championships. For us, it was [national titles in] 1966, 1977, 1988, so you guys should win it in 1999.
The Spun: What moments or plays stand out for you during your time at Notre Dame?
TH: I’ll name two. These are probably the most important for me at Notre Dame. The first one was, my freshman year, I ended up dressing like the fifth game of the season and playing on special teams. My first game, I forget who we were playing, but I’m a gunner on punt coverage. I finally get on the football field, I make sure I line up right, and I can hear the crowd. I can hear the crowd yelling, screaming and hollering. I’m running down the field and I can hear myself breathing…My first play playing big-time Division I football, I could hear everything. All the noise, my feet running against the ground, my heart beating and racing. That nervous, anxious, scared feeling.
My biggest moment would be my 81-yard touchdown run [vs. West Virginia in 2000]. They say 80 yards but I say 81. It’s my junior year. Myself and Tony Fisher are juniors and Julius Jones is a sophomore. Tony is a big back, so you know what he brings to the table. Julius comes in with some hype because his brother is Thomas Jones and he was the 7th pick in the draft and he said Julius was better than him. Me, I’m this 188-pound slashing type running back. So it’s like, how do you get your carries in this offense? I remember, we would rotate series. It was supposed to be my series and I didn’t get it. Julius got another series. So now, we’re down 14-7. And Avon Cobourne, the running back from West Virginia, we went back and forth for the county rushing title in high school. So he’s there, and I gotta show him up. So It’s 14-7, and we run an inside zone play. I knew everybody’s blocking assignments and who was supposed to be getting who. I remember when I got the ball from [quarterback] Matt LoVecchio, I came across, and I know [tight end] Jabari Holloway was coming across to block the linebacker. I trusted that. Jabari comes across and took care of him. I remember running down the field, and getting into the end zone and feeling like I finally made it. I finally made the big play I had made all the time in high school and hadn’t done yet in college. That game for me was like ‘Okay, I finally made it to college football. I belong here. I can do this.’
The Spun: You mentioned Urban Meyer before. You obviously have seen what he has done at Florida and now Ohio State. Even back then, could you see what he was capable of and going to eventually accomplish?
TH: I remember Coach Meyer was the receivers coach and the special teams coach. I was on special teams, so I got to know him a lot, and he recruited New Jersey so I got to know him a lot. He always wanted to be perfect: perfect in practice, perfect in games. You could see the difference. Don’t forget on that staff, Charlie Strong was the d-line coach, Greg Mattison was the defensive coordinator, Dan Mullen was the grad assistant. Steve Addazio was the offensive line coach, Kevin Rogers was the offensive coordinator. We had a lot of great coaches. Joker Phillips ended up being the wide receivers coach there. But Coach Meyer, you could tell, he was a detail-oriented guy and he coached up every kid on that team. You’ll find at other schools, position coaches won’t coach other positions really. They’ll stick to their position and that’s it. But coach Meyer, I was at running back, and he’d come up to me and say ‘Hey when am I going to see that big play,’ or ‘You need to run your routes like this or block like this.’ Then, we were juniors at the time when he was the head coach at Bowling Green, and he was winning there…You could see the passion he had for the game, but more so the love he had for the kids.
The Spun: After college, you got big into coaching at your alma mater, Rancocas Valley. How did that happen?
TH: So, my senior year [at Notre Dame], I won the starting job. First game at Nebraska, I fumble the first play of the game after Nebraska scores. So I sit for three games. And I’m married at the time, two kids at the house, so I’m thinking, ‘how am I going to make it?’ After the season, I had a workout with the Steelers and it didn’t pan out. A Canadian team offered me, but I didn’t go because I couldn’t afford to play in Canada and support my family back here. After college, I didn’t like football for like a year or two, because I was disappointed. When I eventually moved back to New Jersey in 2007, people kept telling me I should coach. I kept saying no. Then, this Little League football program in the town I grew up in broke off, and I started coaching there. It was called the RV Chiefs…I realized the impact I started to have. These kids were really taking to everything I said. I thought, I have a platform, I have to use it.
So then, my high school was doing badly. They had I think one winning season in 10 years, and two zero-win seasons. I went to the AD and said, I don’t want to be a head coach but anything I can do to help the program out, I want to do it. The new coach asked me to join his staff as the running backs coach. Now, these kids I was coaching were the sons or nephews of people I went to school with. I would have them at my house. I could talk to them about school, girls, if they had problems with each other as young men, I could talk to them about anything. When I got into it, I could see why Urban Meyer and those guys are so passionate, because I cared about coaching those kids so much more than I did about my own life. Because I saw the impact that it had on them.
The Spun: What are you up to now? I know you said you were involved with banking at Investors Bank.
TH: I finish up my executive MBA in May. I never owned my own business, but I’m a business banker for mid-sized companies. I get to sit down with business customers every day and see how I can help them. Their access to capital is me…These are 40, 50, 100-million dollar companies that are looking for lines of credit, commercial loans, things like that. I’m the guy telling them how to run their business. For me to get my MBA, it’s kind of a testament to Notre Dame. When I was at Notre Dame, I was around guys who wanted more than just going to the NFL. Guys like Bobby Brown, he has an MBA and a law degree. Malcolm Johnson has an MBA from Carnegie-Mellon. He’s doing the same thing I’m doing. Javin Hunter got his MBA years ago. For me, it’s more so I want to educate myself more, because I preach education to the kids I mentor and my own kids. And then, I want to make sure I’m as sharp as I possibly can be for my customers. I want to be able to help them out in any way possible. Come May 19th, it’s going to be a proud moment for me.
The Spun: One last thing on Notre Dame. They are going through a tough season right now. While you were at ND, you played on a couple of teams that struggled. What advice would you have for those kids on the team now?
TH: For me, I would tell them, they knew going into this that there is a target on a Notre Dame football player’s back. Whatever team you play, even if they are ranked higher than you, they want to prove a point against you. No matter what, Notre Dame players have to always bring their best. But I would tell them, keep working hard in the weight room and believing in each other. Don’t let the outside noise get in. You have to make sure you’re committed to the 85 scholarship guys or the 120 guys on the team. The coaching staff, listen to them, because you’re all in it together…It’s tough. It’s something you’re going to get through, but for me I think it is something that is going to get those guys better for next year.
Note: Terrance Howard’s interview is part of a series of Q&As we’re doing with former college standouts. You can read our recent interviews with Ron Bellamy here, Eric Devendorf here, Kenny Guiton here and Jared Zabransky here.