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It’s not all about the X’s and O’s
Anita Howard
Georgia Southern head women’s basketball coach Anita Howard. - photo by Scott Bryant

She led Columbus State University women’s basketball to two NCAA Division II championship appearances and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance. She led Livingstone to a Top 5 national ranking and a record 23-game winning streak. Under her leadership, Salem College’s program turned around to boast winning seasons and earn her the Great South Athletic Conference Coach of the Year. 

Since she became the first African-American female head coach in the history of athletics at Georgia Southern University, she’s led the Eagles to a 10-20 overall record in her first season and a 7-11 Sun Belt Conference mark. 

And she’s only been a head coach for seven seasons. 

Now headed into her second season with the Eagles, Anita Howard is looking forward to even greater things, both on and off the court. 

Howard was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and played basketball at A.A. Beach High School in Savannah, under the watchful eye of legendary hoops coach Ronald Booker. The high school standout played for three seasons at Fort Valley State University, and transferred to Armstrong State, where she helped the Pirates compile a 27-4 record during the 2002-03 season capturing the Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament title, while leading the team to its first NCAA Championships appearance. 

Planning a career in the creative arts, Howard graduated magna cum laude from Armstrong in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts design. But she found her calling was not in the design studio, but in coaching.

“I think basketball chose me,” she said, adding that she had planned to own her own creative firm, and had wanted to be in a “creative environment, doing creative things.” Getting that first coaching job showed Howard that basketball would be the avenue that would allow her to help young women to pursue their dreams. It ended up being a ministry for her.

“I have literally done it all,” she said, laughing. Howard started her career as a junior varsity head coach, then worked her way up through the ranks as an assistant head coach, working in the top AAU program in Georgia. 

Howard thought she’d be “this legendary high school coach,” she said, and was content to be the best where she was.

“I was going to win state championship after state championship. And when the collegiate opportunity came, I realized that I’m able to travel, and the recruiting thing is so much different than the high school level, and so I fell in love with the process of each step where I was,” she said. 

Howard said she thought she’d be a great assistant coach, and a great recruiting coordinator. 

“I never dreamed of being a great head coach. I always dreamed of being great where I was at,” she said. 

Being a self-described military brat, Howard says that basketball gave her the opportunity to travel and meet people. “Everything that I love to do, basketball has afforded me the opportunity to do,” she said. 

Eventually, Howard came back to Georgia as she took a coaching job at Columbus State University. The team there had been pretty good, she said, but under her leadership, they won a conference championship, a region championship and went to the Elite Eight. 

Then came the call to come to Georgia Southern, Howard’s first Division I position.

“It’s a program that was at the bottom of the conference. We’re looking to do the same thing, take it from the bottom and bring us to the top. In year one, we broke a lot of records,” she said. “It was a losing record, but a winning season for this program.”

Howard was excited for the opportunity to come to Georgia Southern, as it put her near her family. She says she never takes a job based on the money. She feels, as a religious person, that “whatever God has for me is for me.”  An artist at heart, Howard was excited for the blank canvas that the GSU program was for her. 

“I want to put Georgia Southern’s women’s basketball program back on the map. We have a really solid football program, men’s basketball has done really well, and of course, our baseball. I want to kind of piggyback on what they’re doing and bring our program to a respectable level. In doing that, right now, we say we are a culture under construction,” she said, adding that they are working on building a strong foundation. 

The GSU women’s basketball team was 12th in the conference during Howard’s first year as head coach, and they made it to the tournament for the first time and finished eighth in the conference — and Howard says this is a sure sign they are earning that respect that was needed.  She talks about building a winning culture in the program.

“Some people think winning is with the record. The winning culture for me starts with the person. It’s still about making them believe they’re better or they can always do more. They can always achieve more,” she said. “Basketball is 90 percent mental. We definitely have to get the athletes to get us some wins in the win column, but it’s about competitive greatness, and not just on the court.”

Howard tells her players that they need to compete in everything they do, whether it’s on the court or in the classroom.

“Compete in every single thing that you do, because you don’t want mediocrity,” she said. “That’s what we teach. Don’t be mediocre.”

The team works on mental toughness and engages in some team bonding, outside of the gym. Howard meets with each of the players individually, because she says that people will work harder when they feel you truly care about them.

“I don’t want the caring from our coaching staff to be kind of plastic. I want it to be genuine. And for it to be genuine, you have to put in the work. Because this generation, they need some love. That’s a lot of stuff we do off the court that has nothing to do with X’s and O’s. We work on the actual person,” she said. 

Georgia Southern is a university that is known to encourage students to give back to the community, both in Statesboro and beyond. Howard encourages this in her players as well, teaching them about servant leadership.

“You’ve always got to give back,” she said. “We’re trying to build this legacy in our program, and to do that, you have got to have people who believe in you and support you. So how do you garner support? You’ve got to give it,” she said. 

Howard’s team has worked with local children and the elderly, and participated in clean-up efforts in the community.  She says she wants her players to get their hands dirty, and give back to the people who support them.

This kind of participation also teaches students to not only be at the table but to have a voice at that table.

“To get that voice, you have to get out and do and serve,” she says. 

Another important lesson for the team is balance. Howard works with her players to help them balance out their lives. 

“I don’t make it all about X’s and O’s. I like them to be students. So we don’t practice a long time. We get in and we get out, because I don’t want basketball to be too consuming, that they’re not happy. I want them to miss the court. When we’re on the court, I want them to be happy and enjoy their time on the court,” she said. 

During her first year as GSU’s head coach, Howard and her team saw lots of firsts. Her first win as head coach was a whopping 44-point win, the largest road win for GSU women’s basketball in nearly 30 years. The team also hit a school record 14 three-pointers, and had a 2-0 start in Sun Belt Conference play for the first time since joining the league. Of those firsts, Howard says the one that meant the most to her was her first Division I win. 

“I never thought I would be a Division I coach. I knew I could win at the Division II and Division III levels, and it was pretty challenging to try and win at Division I level,” she said. “We won in what they call Coach Howard fashion. We blew out a really good team.”

The team poured water on her and really celebrated the win with her, which she said meant a lot to her. 

In the coming year, fans will continue to see an exciting brand of basketball. 

“It’s my first official recruiting class, and so we’re young. But we’re very talented. We have some really exciting ESPN highlight players on our roster. You’re going to see a tough-nosed team. We’re going to have fun, we’re going to dance a little, but we’re going to grind it out,” she said. 

Howard says the team knows they have to be “goons” on the court and divas off. She sets the standard for this by showing up for games in her Sunday best, and says that for her — and for her players — it’s important. 

“Sometimes female athletes get put in a box, because they always have their hair in a ponytail, or have on sweats. I want them to see, like, hey, we’re women, and women get dressed up every now and then, and so we have a different face we can put on,” she said, adding that it goes back to the team’s standard of excellence.

“If I’m telling them to be great at everything, I can’t half do my sideline outfits for the game, especially for African-

American women that look like me to see someone in my role doing really well. It’s my duty to open up doors for females so we can have more female coaches. I would love to see any women’s sports program led by a female,” she said. 

Being the first African-American female head coach at GSU is an honor and a privilege, she said. 

“In all transparency, it’s kind of sad that it’s taken this long, but I am definitely pleased to hold that title and I don’t take it lightly,” she said. She was also the first black female in two other positions as well, in North Carolina and in Columbus, Georgia. 

“It’s not my first time being a first, but being a first anywhere, I never take it lightly because I don’t want to mess it up for the next person. I want this male-dominated business to see that women can get it done,” she said.

Howard and her husband, Theo, have three children, ages 19, 21 and 23. Theo is the head basketball coach at East Georgia State College in Swainsboro, and the couple’s youngest son plays soccer at Georgia Southern, while the eldest son and their only daughter both play basketball in Ohio. 

“We are a very athletic family,” Howard says, smiling. 

But she is quick to point out that she is in touch with her feminine side, and enjoys doing makeup, hair and eyebrows. 

“I seem tough on the sidelines, but I’m a very girly girl,” she said, laughing.