Lady Vols academic chief closes book

InsideTennessee sportswriter
Posted Jul 10, 2011


After more than a quarter of a century at Tennessee during which time she spearheaded the academic support system for the Lady Vols, Kerry Howland has decided to retire and return to what brought her to campus in the first place – swimming.

That’s not all, of course. Kerry Howland will also catch up on reading – perhaps even write her own book, which would be rich with anecdotes – gardening, golfing and spending time with her two dogs.

“I am going to get back in the pool – finally,” Howland said. “I am looking forward to really getting in shape. Gardening, getting in shape, yoga, getting back in the word (Bible), that’s a big deal to me, and reading and writing. I’ve got some real good stories. I was the one and only academic person for all the Lady Vols (in every sport) for years.”

Howland arrived at Tennessee from Chicago to swim for the Lady Vols – she jokes with longtime media relations chief Debby Jennings that their parents dropped them off at campus and never came back – earned her degree and became a high school teacher at the age of 21 in nearby Lenoir City, Tenn., and then Karns, a suburb community of Knoxville.

She had the foresight to carry those years into the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System, which, added to her 26 years at the university, gave Howland over 30 in the system and the ability to retain her health insurance at current cost until she reaches the age of 65, a milestone still a decade away. That meant early retirement was feasible, and she could leave on her terms.

“I feel very strongly that I have been part of some real glory years,” Howland said. “Through these years I have been through eight (basketball) championships and the (perfect) graduation rate, and I feel so very blessed that I can get out at this young and healthy stage of my life and switch gears and do something where maybe I am giving back.”

The hundreds of student-athletes that Howland shepherded through the degree process would argue the giving back has already occurred. Howland created the support system for the basketball team at the behest of Athletics Director Joan Cronan and it spread to encompass all Lady Vol sports.

“I think she did her job, and she did her job well,” said senior basketball forward Glory Johnson, who completed her degree in three years and will be in graduate school this fall. “She was a happy person while she was there and being able to retire after doing something that she loved I am sure she is happy, so I am happy for her.”

Johnson, a product of the prestigious and academically rigorous Webb School of Knoxville, didn’t need much academic support. But Howland always offered more than that to her charges – she was the one the players went to when they needed a buffer between them and Head Coach Pat Summitt.

“It’s hard to tell Pat, ‘OK, practice needs to be short because we have homework,’ ” Johnson said. “We could go tell her and she would go handle it.”

If Howland told Summitt that the players were covered up academically, then the practice schedule would change – an extra day off that week or a shorter session.

“They knew that I knew the details, what’s due and what’s coming up,” Howland said.

Howland also was a sounding board for the Lady Vols for matters off the court, and junior guard Kamiko Williams said she was going to miss that.

“Of course I am happy for her. She can retire early and enjoy life and doesn’t have to be around us all the time,” Williams said with a smile. “I was happy for her, but I am going to miss her. We built this relationship.

“Faith and I, we used to always go and eat lunch in her office, and she won’t be there to do that with so I guess I will just have to try and build another relationship with somebody else for my last two years.”

Faith Dupree, who has since transferred to Tennessee-Chattanooga, Williams and junior guard/forward Taber Spani entered in the same class, and the trio became known as the three sheep because they were always in Howland’s office.

“She called us her little sheep,” Williams said.

It really stuck when Williams took a summer class about the history of rock ’n’ roll and heard a song called “Sheep, Sheep, Don’tcha Know the Road,” by Southern Journey.

“First I called them my three little sheep and then they started studying all this stuff,” Howland said. “They were always together, and they ate lunch in my office between classes every day. They were just my little sheep.”

Howland loaded her car with an assortment of stuff accumulated from nearly three decades on the job, and it included an item from the “sheep.”

“We got her a gift from Faith’s garage,” Williams said. “It was a little shepherd’s staff. It was that kind of relationship. Faith found it in her Halloween bucket. She loved it.”

Sophomore guard Meighan Simmons had just one season with Howland and said she made an immediate impact on the way Simmons approached school.

“She was hard on me all the time, and she made sure that I was on point with everything as far as being to class on time and maintaining my grades and being able to manage my time as far as basketball and academics and having tutors and mentors to help me out, too,” Simmons said.

“She really did her job and the harder she was on us, the more successful we were in the classroom. Even when we were on trips she made sure we got out work done. She was a big help for me. It is a major adjustment from high school to college as far as academics, but I think with her being by our side, especially for me, she was a really, really big help.”

Howland noted, “Meighan gets it now. She totally gets it. She is a real student-athlete.”

Howland will remain active with the Lady Vols in some capacity, as Cronan told her she could never just walk away and not look back. Howland may do some work for nonprofits or consulting.

“She made me feel so good. She said, ‘Look what you built and look at your legacy.’ It was really emotional,” Howland said of her conversation with Cronan before she left. “Both she and Pat have said, ‘You’re a (permanent) part of the Lady Vol program. There is nothing you can do about it.’ ”

The impetus for Howland’s position – her eventual title was assistant director of the Thornton Center, the edifice that cemented her work – was a conversation among Summitt, then Assistant Coach Nancy Darsch and Cronan about the need for academic support for the women.

“We were kind of behind in the area of academic support,” Howland said. “The men already had something in place. (Cronan) said, ‘Well, I could hire somebody, but I am not in position to do that full-time, maybe a graduate assistant.’ ”

Howland found out Knox County schools allowed a one-year leave of absence for maternity leave or to pursue an advanced degree, so she enrolled in a master’s program at Tennessee.

“I said I’ll go ahead and live in poverty and pioneer this thing,” Howland said. “As soon as I started Joan said, ‘How quick can you finish your master’s degree? I need you full-time.’ ”

The rest is history, and the legacy now left by Howland in academic support is a major component of all Lady Vol sports – Howland even later picked up men’s golf as an adviser – with the staff now falling not under the Athletics Department but the Provost office.

Williams has sometimes confided in Howland that she is not certain what her future holds when basketball is done.

“I can just go in there and talk to her, ‘I am so stressed. I don’t know what I am going to do in life,’ ” Williams said. “She’s like, ‘Miko, it’s OK. It’s going to work out.’ She told me about her life experiences and put things in perspective for me.”

Howland uses her own life trajectory as an example.

“That is what I tell my girls all the time,” Howland said. “If you stay connected as a Lady Vol and work really, really, really hard then miracles can happen like they did for me. I feel like miracles have happened.”

Howland became an educator to make a difference in the lives of young people, and that daily interaction will be what she most misses in retirement.

“I told one of my coaches last week that I was sad to leave UT, and she said – and I so glad she said this – she said, ‘Don’t you feel blessed to be able to feel sad to leave UT instead of leaving mad or leaving bitter or leaving overjoyed?’ ” Howland said. “Pat pointed out you’re on the top of your game, you’re on your own terms and it’s an ideal situation.

“But that’s a very emotional thing to think about not being a part of that daily thing. But I have no doubt that the next opportunity will be an opportunity to help young people in that way. I think that is my gift, and I am not giving up on it completely.”

Howland was a lifer in a position that now seems to be a steppingstone to other campus administrative positions as staffers make the crossover from provost to athletics.

“I had the luxury of establishing real relationships,” Howland said. “Some of the former basketball players are like family to me.”

One of the best success stories is former Lady Vol point guard Shannon Bobbitt, who arrived from juco with a weaker academic background. Despite having no need for electives and instead having to load up on upper level coursework in psychology, Bobbitt insisted on finishing her degree in two years, even taking 22 credit hours one semester during the season. She graduated on time and with academic honors.

“She became a woman obsessed with graduating on time,” Howland said. “We tried to talk her into lightening her load, but she was absolutely determined. Shannon became to me a major inspiration. She inspired me big time.”

When Bobbitt needed to take a test on the same day as a road game, she stayed behind the night before, took the exam and then flew on a private plane on game day with Howland and Cronan to make tipoff.

Summitt also allowed Kelley Cain to stay behind on a road trip because she had missed nearly 75 percent of her Thursday classes one month and needed to catch up in a senior-level logistics class.

“How many people keep their 6’6 center out of game?” Howland said.

Howland also has struck a balance between being the sounding board for the players and “cracking the whip” when needed.

“They feel like they can cry on my shoulder, but they also know that Pat holds my feet to the fire, and she wants to know everything,” Howland said. “It is a balance that you have to achieve.”

Summitt initially told Howland she was too young to retire.

“But then she was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Howland said. “I think she is happy for me.”

Howland’s official last day was June 30, but a reception will be held later in July that will be attended by university officials, coaches and student-athletes.

Howland just returned last month from Marco Island, Fla., where Jennings, who has been at Tennessee for 34 years, was honored with the 2011 CoSIDA Trailblazer Award, recognition by the College Sports Information Directors of America Convention to an individual who is a pioneer in the profession.

“She got up to get this really prestigious award and she introduced those of us who were there as her guests, her parents, her friends, Dara (Worrell) and Jenny (Moshak), and she kept me until last,” Howland said. “I am sitting right behind (ESPN personality) Lee Corso, and he is getting some big award.

“She makes me stand up and says she is going to retire in three days and she has a lot to do with Coach Summitt’s 100 percent graduation rate. After the whole thing I said, ‘Debby, you are the only person who can get Lee Corso to turn around and congratulate me for retiring when he is there to get this humongous award.’ It was really cool.

“Overall it’s a really, really good feeling. It’s an awesome feeling having a legacy of pioneering and of relationship building and of watching young women who are that level of (athlete) also become college graduates and career women and mothers and wives.

“People ask me if I have kids. I have a golden and a lab. I have lots of Lady Vols.”

The lab is also in the Lady Vol family – Gracie is a puppy of Sally Sue Summitt, the coach’s beloved lab and the one she was protecting from a raccoon when she dislocated her shoulder in 2008. Murphy is Howland’s golden retriever.

“Gracie is Pat’s granddaughter,” Howland said.

Howland will have more time with her dogs now, along with her books, gardening, swimming and golf. Williams will miss her and summed up Howland in the present tense, the notion of her retirement now having fully sunk in yet.

“Her door is always open, and she is always willing to listen and hear what we have to say or what we have to complain about,” Williams said. “She is a wonderful lady.”

Kerry Howland’s email to announce retirement

Good morning:

As many of you know, I am going to take advantage of an opportunity to take a “young” retirement from UT, and transition into a new adventure in life. After 26 years of athletic academic advising of UT student-athletes, and as the first and only one for Women’s Basketball and Coach Pat Summitt, I have had a great run through some truly glory years, and now I’m young enough to pursue other opportunities to “give back” after having been so richly blessed.

I cam to UT from the Chicago area as a Lady Vol swimmer and never left. My very young high school teaching years right out of college added precious TCRS years to the ones I have accrued in this arena to give me the magic 30 (+) to afford me this wonderful option.

Extra special thanks to Joan Cronan, who hired me all those years ago as a Graduate Assistant to pioneer the academic support program for the Women’s Athletic Department from scratch. Little did I know the magical things that would come out of that hard work and perseverance, such things as being a part of eight national championships, and having a hand in Pat’s 100% graduation rate. When I met with Joan recently to discuss my plans with her, she reminded me of what we all built in the formative years of the Women’s Athletic Department, and the legacies that will be left forever.

Certainly, there is no way to ever adequately thank Pat for making me an integral part of the family effort that is her program. She makes us always want to be better, and she believes in recognizing work well done, especially the work of those she teaches and mentors.

I have lifelong and warm memories of hundreds of awesome Lady Vols – softball rowing, tennis, golf, track, soccer, volleyball and swimming & diving – AND men’s golf – and their coaches with whom I worked very closely – most directly and most recently with Lisa Glenn, Jim Kelson, Ralph and Karen Weekly, and Mike and Sonia Patrick. What a privilege!!!

So many of you are treasured friends and family to me and will continue to be, and I thank you for all you have meant to me and will always mean to me. I will be in touch and around. I am not riding off into the sunset (yet). Truly UT has been my home and my heart. I look forward to following all of your ongoing and future victories and successes.

Sincerely,

Kerry Howland

VIDEO COVERAGE

Kerry Howland speaks about her tenure on her last day in the Thornton Center



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