By Dennis Grall
Special for Second Half
ESCANABA – When school ended in early June, Dave Howes took a vacation trip to Florida and began thinking about his upcoming fourth season as junior varsity football coach at Escanaba High School.
Within a month he had become the school's varsity head coach, a position he had never thought about taking on.
"To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a head football coach," Howes said in the Eskymos’ lockerroom before the start of a recent practice. "It just kind of fell in my lap."
Escanaba had a 10-17 record over the last three seasons under previous coach Jim Hansen, who was dismissed in June, but opened this fall with a 21-7 win over Alpena on Thursday. The Eskymos travel to Petoskey on Friday.
When Howes was contacted about moving up from the jayvees, he said, "I had to make up my mind. Do I want it? It happened real fast. I wasn't expecting it. It just happened."
He was encouraged to apply by several people, including an Escanaba High School administrator, and was given the blessing of his wife, Holly, to pursue the position. He is the second coach in four years to direct the Eskymos, who during the previous 50 years had just two head coaches, Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Cvengros and Dan Flynn.
When Howes first joined the Eskymos’ coaching staff in 2005, he said Flynn asked if he ever wanted to become the school's head coach. "I said, I don't know," said Howes. "I didn't envision it. Now I'm more than happy."
Howes said he has received excellent support from family, friends, players, coaches and the community during the short time he has been in charge.
"I want our fans to know that our kids are going to be competitive, and they are going to work hard. They will see there will be an edge about them," he said.
About 100 students came out for the three football levels, with 48 on varsity. Howes didn't have any preseason contact until after July 4, about a month behind the normal period. A big plus in the transition was all the previous assistant coaches stuck with the program, and they have all moved up a level in the process.
"They have all the kids they had in previous years, and we're running the same system," Howes said. "It has been an easy transition. Knowing the kids and knowing the coaches was easy. We had the same kids, the same coaches, the same philosophies. It's made practice easier."
Athletic director Nick Nolde brought the coaches and players together and provided the introductions, which weren't really necessary because of the carry over. "It's been smooth sailing ever since," said Howes of the best-case scenario coming together.
Nolde said given the way "everything went down, it has been a seamless transition. He is familiar with the kids, and he is familiar with the program."
Howes is a native of neighboring Gladstone, graduating in 1993 and playing against Escanaba teams in football, basketball and baseball. "It's weird. As a kid, I hated Escanaba with a passion. Now, here I am," said Howes, whose older brother Dave is an assistant varsity coach with former Escanaba player Don Koish and former Gladstone athlete Jason Micheau.
"It is so funny how things happen," said Howes, who also coached subvarsity football in Gladstone and Beal City following his 1998 graduation from Northern Michigan University and before coming to Escanaba in 2005.
He does not feel any pressure taking over the tradition-laden, highly-respected program spotlighted by the MHSAA Class A championship in 1981 and 1979 runner-up finish.
"To me, it is just a game and we're going to be competitive and try our hardest," Howes said. "We are moving forward. Every day we come in here and see the (old) pictures. It is a great tradition with great pride. But the focus is now. Everything is about the present."
He already has noticed the difference of being in charge of the whole program, from dealing with the news media to handling financial situations and MHSAA rules and regulations. "There is a lot more on my plate. Instead of being in charge of 30 kids, you are the boss of the whole program grades 7-12," he said.
He has also installed his own touch, starting with practice sessions. "The last couple of years we have had super-paced practices. This year we're doing more teaching in our practices," he said. "We are keeping it as simple as possible and putting kids in position to succeed. We're getting more done in a shorter amount of time."
He is not worried about matching X's and O's against such legendary Upper Peninsula coaches as Chris Hofer at Kingsford or Joe Noha from Menominee, nor is he concerned about the imprint made by Cvengros and Flynn, or even his high school coach, the highly-regarded John Mileski.
"I can't follow in their footsteps," he said. "They are irreplaceable. We've just got to move on."
Denny Grall retired in 2012 after 39 years at the Escanaba Daily Press and four at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, plus 15 months for WLST radio in Escanaba; he served as the Daily Press sports editor from 1970-80 and again from 1984-2012. Grall was inducted into the Upper Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and serves as its executive secretary. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Upper Peninsula.
PHOTOS: (Top) Escanaba High School football coach Dave Howes makes a point to members of the Eskymos recently at Escanaba Athletic Field. Howes took over the tradition-laden program in July and is the second head coach in the past four years, after the late Jerry Cvengros and Dan Flynn served as the only head coaches during the previous 50 years. (Middle) Howes encourages his football team during a practice session.