Hornsby Howell, the first African-American to coach on the University of Georgia football team, died last Tuesday.
Howell, 90, had been in declining health for the past year, said former UGA football coach and athletic director Vince Dooley, who spoke briefly to Howell through family members shortly before Howell’s death Oct. 3.
Dooley hired Howell as a scout team coach in 1982. By the time Howell retired from UGA in 1996, his portfolio had expanded considerably, more as a counselor and mentor for UGA student-athletes than an on-field coach. His titles included administrative assistant to the athletic director, coordinator of the UGA Student-Athlete Development and Career Placement Service from 1985-1994, and after April 1994, director of the UGA Student-Athlete Development and Career Placement Service.
“He got so valuable to us,” Dooley said.
“He was their counselor and friend,” said Loran Smith, another who’s played many roles for the UGA Athletic Association and football program.
“He was a mentor of mine, a role model for me,” said Robert Miles, a former UGA football player who first met Howell when Miles was a graduate assistant coach at UGA. “He led me to believe what I was doing was beneficial to student-athletes.”
Miles is now director of the UGA Athletic Department Life Skills Program.
A native of Athens, Howell was a star football player at Athens High and Industrial School in the days when black students were excluded by law from white public schools across the South as well as colleges such as the University of Georgia.
A lineman on offense and defense, he signed with North Carolina A&T and after graduating in 1950, went on to become one of the school’s most successful head coaches. His first team went 8-1 in 1968 and won a conference championship. Howell was named National Coach of the Year that year by Atlanta’s 100 Percent Wrong Club. In nine seasons at A&T, he compiled a record of 55-34-4 and was named conference coach of the year three times before becoming an assistant athletic director at the school. He was inducted into A&T’s Hall of Fame in 1981.
Following his departure from UGA, Howell had stints as interim athletic director at his alma mater and at Savannah State College.
Along the way, he developed some notable relationships, said Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Harry Sims, who is Howell’s nephew, including a long friendship with legendary Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. When former North Carolina A&T player Elvin Bethea was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003, he chose Howell to give his introduction.
Howell would regularly visit UGA football practices when he returned to his hometown for visits. When Dooley decided it was time to hire an African-American coach, Howell immediately came to mind, he said.
“The players called him The Judge. I think that shows the respect they had for him,” Dooley said. “He was a soldier, a trooper, a good, loyal person, a good man for sure,” Dooley said.
“He was a family man, a father, and he would like to say, a God-fearing man,” Sims said. When he returned to Athens, he also returned to the church he grew up in: Athens’ East Friendship Baptist Church.
“He was a good man with a good heart,” Smith said. “He was sensitive to the needs of athletes, academically and emotionally. He was like a grandfather. He had that seasoned aura about him.”
Survivors include his wife, Claudette, of Raleigh; daughters Yoleeta Howell of Greensboro, N.C., and Ruby Howell Thomas of Jamestown, N.C.; sons Hornsby Howell Jr. of Athens and Rodney Bowens of Atlanta; and four grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled for Wednesday at noon in the Lea Funeral Home Chapel, 2500 Poole Road, in Raleigh.