La Salle coach Ashley Howard was back in the Daskalakis Athletic Center. The setting was similar, but it felt different.
He was walking up and down the bench and encouraging players-- like he did as a player and assistant coach at Drexel.
But this time, he was on the opposite bench.
“It’s really cool to see how we’ve advanced here at Drexel,” Howard said. “I love this place, and I’m happy that it’s in good hands with coach [Zach] Spiker.
You wouldn’t be able to tell if there was extra motivation or not. Howard seemed to approach it like any other game. His hands remained in his pockets as he paced up and down in the coaching box until it was time for a teachable moment.
His calming presence was the opposite of La Salle’s playing style. The Explorers were tenacious, aggressive and disruptive in their 71-63 win over Howard’s alma mater. They pride themselves on mugging up the games and turning them into a “street fight.”
“I’m working my hardest to be that calming presence, because it’s not natural for me,” Howard said. “The most important thing that I talk to our team about is poise and composure.”
Howard played two seasons at Drexel before being diagnosed with a heart condition. He averaged 8.9 points and a team-leading 4.9 assists his sophomore season.
He was an assistant coach at Drexel for four seasons (2008-2012), and he spent his final two collegiate years as a student assistant after his injury.
The arena looked different, but all the memories started to resurface. As a kid, Howard would sneak into Drexel’s gym to play basketball until he’d be kicked out by an equipment manager. He vividly remembers when he visited Drexel on his college official visit, the same equipment manager tried to kick him out because he thought Howard was sneaking in again.
Howard also recalls the early morning workouts with teammate and roommate, Robert Battle. Battle would wake him up an hour before his alarm clock went off.
And of course, the memories with his former head coach, Bruiser Flint. Flint won 245 games in his 15 seasons (2001-2016) and was named CAA coach of the year four times.
“Being diagnosed with my heart condition and having that uncertainty in my life, Bruiser Flint just took me under his wing and developed me as a young coach,” Howard said. “The thing that people don’t understand about Bruiser is that dude has the heart of gold. There’s a lot of us that wouldn’t be in the position we are in without him."
The Explorers are forming their identity. They’re a tough, gritty team, and many of those traits trace back to Howard’s time at Drexel.
There was no sugarcoating it. Being back at Drexel was a different feeling. It was special.
“I’ve learned so much here,” Howard said. “Drexel is home. It’ll always be home.”