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Meet NEPSAC President Bob Howe

2/5/18
By BOB YORK

Bob Howe’s cellphone is ringing a lot more frequently these days than it use to, and his email is beginning to stack up as well.

“I guess once you become president, everyone thinks you have all the answers,” quipped Howe, who took his place atop the New England Prep School Athletic Council hierarchy in November and although the 10-year veteran of NEPSAC board meetings is able to answer many of those queries directed at the council, he doesn’t have the solutions to all of them. He’s not worried about it though; he’s been around long enough to realize that if he doesn’t know the answer, he knows there’s an excellent chance someone else on the board will.

“One of the great things about serving on the NEPSAC board has been that you learn to rely on each other,” said Howe, Deerfield Academy’s athletic director. “Everyone’s got your back and everyone’s willing to chip in and help the next guy because we’re all here for the same reason … to do what’s best for our student athletes.”

With little pomp and circumstance and a lot of optimism, Howe became the 45th president to take the oath of office during NEPSAC’s storied 76-year history on Nov. 17, at the DCU Center in Worcester. That pledge, just like those of his 44 predecessors, is to serve the student/athletes who consider NEPSAC’s athletic arenas as home.

It's no easy task, however. Back in 1942, when Martin Souders was sworn in as NEPSAC’s first president, the council’s membership consisted of 28 schools and hundreds of athletes, the majority of which were scattered in and around the Boston area. Today, Howe heads up an organization whose affiliation has grown to 167 schools, plus 17 associate members that are scattered throughout New England and New York. The combined rosters of these schools now list names in the thousands – and let us not forget that back in the 40s, there was no Title IX. That’s the federal law that in short, ensures a place for girls in the athletic arena as well.

Its founding fathers created NEPSAC as a way to bring stability, competition, sportsmanship and most importantly, fair play to athletic programs that back in the 1940s, were pretty much making up their own leagues, their own schedules and quite likely, their own rules, too. Today, as NEPSAC nears its eighth decade of service, preserving those protections is still “Job One” for its board members.

“The experience I’ve gained from working on the board throughout the years has proven to be invaluable,” said Howe, who currently sits atop a roster of executive board members that includes Vice-President George Tahan of Belmont Hill, Secretary Leslie Guenther of Hebron Academy and Treasurer Jim Smucker of Berwick Academy. “In fact, I’d have to say that serving in NEPSAC has been the highlight of my professional development as an athletic director.”

Since joining the executive board in 2013, Howe has followed the very same footsteps that all his predecessors have taken – from secretary to vice-president to president. While serving as secretary, he did so under the presidency of John Mackay (St. George’s School), who is Howe’s cousin.

“It gave us a chance to catch up on things,” quipped Mackay. “With me at St. George’s, in Rhode Island and Bob at Loomis Chaffee in western Connecticut, our schools very rarely overlapped as far as sports schedules were concerned, so we really didn’t converse all that much.”

Both Mackay and Howe talked plenty once the two became entrenched on the executive board, but once Mackay hammered the gavel to convene the meetings, the talk turned to business and Howe is quite proud of a number of policies he and his colleagues have brought to fruition.

“Having been the hockey coach at Loomis Chaffee, I know Bob was particularly happy in helping create a new format for NEPSAC’s boys hockey tournament,” said Mackay. “The format put all teams into the same division, while it split the teams into three separate tournaments.

“One tournament was to serve as a super tournament, which the best of the best would play in,” explained Mackay. “The other two tournaments, meanwhile, were based entirely on enrollment numbers. I think what Bob liked most about the new format was that it allowed 24 teams to play in the postseason, rather than 16 teams under the old format.”

During Howe’s first four years on the executive board, the last two of which were spent as vice-president under Jamie Arsenault (New Hampton School) he has consistently helped push for a policy of more transparency when it comes to the selection process as well as the overseeing of all postseason tournaments. He has also been a force behind a movement that created an athletic director to serve as a liaison for all coaches’ associations, “which has greatly helped in the communication process between the council and the coaches and has helped keep everyone on the same page,” explained Howe.

Howe has also assisted in scripting a transgender policy for NEPSAC and has helped ensure that Title IX, which entitles girls all the same athletic benefits boys receive, is being strictly enforced by all member schools.

“The NEPSAC executive board will be in good hands with Bob Howe as its president,” said Arsenault. “Everything he does is well thought out … he never rushes into a decision … he always does his homework. We’ve worked very closely together and I know he’ll do an outstanding job.”

As Howe moves into his NEPSAC presidency, he can take a great deal of pride in what he has helped to accomplish but he will also admit that there are still plenty of items he’s hoping to check off his to-do list over the next two years. Sitting atop that list is stopping the dwindling ranks of the council’s football programs. “I’m nervous about football,” admitted Howe of a sport that has seen its enrollment shrink over the past six to eight years, as schools such Northfield Mount Hermon School, Vermont Academy and Kimball Union Academy have dropped the sport – and there could be more to come.

“At this point in time, there are a few schools out there that don’t have leagues or schedules for the 2018 season,” said Howe. “We need to find a home for them and help prevent these schools from having to drop the sport. Unfortunately, some schools already have, and we need to do all we can to make sure this trend doesn’t continue. “

Another reason for a decrease in football teams has been a decrease in football players. Football is a sport that relies on lengthy rosters and thus needs to attract crossover athletes – those who consider another sport as their primary sport – in order to exist. The big problem here, however, is what has become known as specialization and is a trend Howe has been keeping an eye on.

“Specialization is the term used when athletes opt to concentrate on a single sport year-round rather than participate in two or three sports throughout the school year,” explained Howe, who was a three-sport standout – soccer, hockey and lacrosse – at Loomis-Chaffee, “and I want to continue our conversations on specialization. I want to have discussions with our athletic directors on how to best handle the out-of-season coaching situations that specialization has generated.
We’re not trying to stifle the athletes, but rather we’re trying to help protect teachers from coaching year-round.”

The entire Howe family has enjoyed a long history of prep school life.

“My dad (Glover) attended Loomis and my mom (Jane) went to Chaffee … before the two schools combined and that’s when they first began dating,” said Howe. “Later on, my father came back to Loomis Chaffee to work. He began as the head of the physical plant, then became head of admissions, then dean of boarding boy students and finally associate head of school.

“My mom, meanwhile, worked in the library and later became the school’s first dean of girls boarding students ... in total, they worked there for 39 years,” added a proud son. The Howes did a pretty good job during their nearly four-decade stay at Loomis Chaffee, too. Recently, the school thanked them for their efforts by renaming a dorm in their honor: The Howe Dorm.

It doesn’t end there, though. Howe’s brother, Ken, is the dean of boarding life at the Fessenden School, while a younger sister, Judy, is the dean of student life at Fessenden. His older sister Synthia, meanwhile, is a dean at Kimball Union Academy.

“I saw the writing on the wall,” quipped Howe, “and said to myself, they’ll never catch me working at a boarding school.” It was a promise to himself he would keep – for a while.

Following graduation from Hamilton College in 1984, where again, he participated in three sports, Howe started up his own construction business and ran it from 1984 to 1992. That’s when Drew Casertano, the headmaster at Millbrook School in Millbrook, N.Y., and a former teacher and coach at Loomis-Chaffee, invited Howe to the school.

“He wanted me to visit him because he wanted to talk with me about building a summer home for him in southern Vermont,” said Howe. Well, the summer home never got built, but Howe found himself being offered a job as head of the school’s physical plant – and later, as coach of the school’s hockey team.

During Howe’s stay at Millbrook, his rookie effort at coaching turned out to be quite a positive one, as he took over a program that had been playing a JV schedule and turned it into a Division I team. In fact, during the 2000-2001 season, his Mustangs rang up a 23-3 record, yet weren’t summoned to the NEPSAC tournament.

“It was crushing for the kids not to have been invited to the tournament,” said Howe, “and I think missing the tournament might have been the impetus to get me involved in NEPSAC.”

Howe returned to Loomis Chaffee in 2004 when he took over as the school’s athletic director, then began coaching the boys varsity team in 2006. Five seasons later, however, “I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” admitted Howe. Following four difficult seasons, during which the program had difficulty both competing and recruiting, he put on his AD’s hat, and “I fired myself as hockey coach,” he added, as a smile broke across his face. “As an athletic director, you look to get your programs as good as you can, and I knew I just couldn’t do it at that time with hockey.

“I had seen this coming for a while,” added Howe, who felt the separation from coaching would allow him to be more committed to his other duties: as athletic director as well as father of four young children. “It also gave me the opportunity to find the right guy to take over the program.” That guy was J.R. Zavisza.

“You certainly have to admire someone who would step away from a job that he loved for what he felt was the good of the school and the good of the program,” said Zavisza. “I know he really wrestled with the decision and in the end, he did what he felt was best for all concerned.

“I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Bob so closely,” added Zavisza. “He’s certainly one of the best (ADs) in the business. He pays attention to detail and everything is always in order whenever it falls under his authority. He can be hard when he has to be, but overall, he’s easy to work for. He has an open-door policy, is an outstanding communicator and is very supportive of his coaches. Best of all, though, I consider him a friend.”

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