Blue collar work ethic pays dividends for Rutherford High School’s Andy Howell
Andy Howell grew up in Blue Mountain, PA where he learned about “Friday Night Lights” and crowds of 9,000 people watching championship football. Howell knew that football was his passion when he was six years old but his parents made him play soccer until he was in 4th grade. He begged his parents every year until they finally gave in and he started playing football in 5th grade.
After graduating high school, Howell made the decision to attend Williams Paterson University where he starred on the football team, ranking third on the Pioneers all-time list for most solo tackles in a season with 62 in 2005. Howell credits defensive coordinator Ed Stinson and head coach Mike Miello for his success.
“I learned defense under Coach Stinson and we run the same defense today at Rutherford” said Howell. “Coach Miello is the man and like a father figure. He would rip you up and down the field when you made the mistake and at the same time put his arm around you in times of need. He was an old school type of guy, in your face and a great motivator and manager. I remember being on the committee for a new head coach at William Paterson and knew he was the right guy. A losing program for many years and he changed the culture and a step in the right direction”
After graduating William Paterson, Howell moved on to Rutherford High School where he started out as the defensive coordinator before being elevated to head coach in 2009.
“I have been a part of a team since 1991 and couldn’t imagine my life without football in the fall” Howell said. “I went from high school to college to coaching at Rutherford. I always wanted to do something with sports growing up but didn’t realize I would teach physical education until late in my career and ended up late in the process at William Paterson but it all worked out and for a reason”
Facing growing pains early on with the two worst seasons in school history, Howell turned a 3-7 squad into a 10-1 team in 2015 with the Bulldogs reaching the North 2 Group 2 state championship against Madison at Met Life Stadium where the season ended in a 27-6 defeat. Overall it was a very successful year as Rutherford captured their third NJIC(North Jersey Interscholastic Conference) Colonial Championship and Howell was named the Bergen County Football Coach of the Year and selected by the New York Giants as “The Lou Rettino High School Football Coach of the Week” presented by Chase on November 9th after blanking Lyndhurst 35-0. In addition Howell received a certificate of recognition from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Giants Head Coach Tom Coughlin and $1,000 check that was matched by Chase.
“We were very young and got beat up a little bit” said Howell. “Our 2015 and 2016 teams were really loaded, talented classes as started as freshman and sophomores and built the foundation. We lost to Madison in 2015 and in the semifinals in 2016. An honor and humbling experience to receive those accolades that year. So special that your peers voting for you but to tell you that good players make good coaches. The Giants are a class act organization and had a great ceremony”
In 2017, Rutherford surpassed expectations going undefeated for the second time in Howell’s tenure at 12-0. Along the way were a furious second half rally, scoring 35 unanswered points in a 42-27 win at New Milford and a victory in the first NJIC Championship Game 14-7 over Hasbrouck Heights. The season culminated with them capturing their first sectional title in 51 years with a 21-13 victory over Hackettstown at Met Life Stadium.
“We graduated a lot of talent and going into 2017 people had high hopes for us and pretty cool we used that as motivation for the whole season flying under the radar” Howell said. “A couple of tight wins and squeaked out a win against Glen Rock by five points and kids realized we could win tight games against quality opponents. The Heights game was a battle, we made a lot of mistakes and found a way to make the big play with the interception in overtime to win it”
“The state championship win against Hackettstown the most memorable in my coaching career being the first state championship, coming down to the last minute and needed a big defensive stop. They were on the 20-yard line and we got the pressure and forced an incomplete pass and a surreal moment”
Looking to follow up the immense success in 2017, the Bulldogs rolled through the first eight weeks of the regular season. However, they lost a rematch against Hasbrouck Heights in the NJIC Championship Game, as it proved to be a wake-up call with the Aviators winning convincingly 48-24.
“You want to win the NJIC Championship but ultimate goal is to win a state championship” said Howell. “We talked to the kids about winning state game and that is loss to Height sis going to hurt. We needed a tune-up and reality check. That week going into the state playoffs the best week of practice preparing for Newark Central”
Pounding Newark Central 35-14, Rutherford went on to slide by Mountain Lakes 26-21 and cruised past Lyndhurst 35-14 for their second consecutive North 2 Group 2 sectional championship. With the introduction of the Bowl Championship format, the Bulldogs took on Kittatinny in the North 2 Championship Game at Met Life Stadium and won in a rout 62-14 with senior running back Abellany Mendez scoring 5 touchdowns and senior quarterback Kyle Russell throwing for 316 yards and three touchdowns.
“Last year going into 2018, the complete opposite we knew the bulls eye was on our chest and we’re going to see how we respond” Howell said. “Everyone is coming to knock our heads off and they have to get job done again”
“A very special time for those seniors being 40-4 and most wins in school history and at Met Life Stadium three out of four years. You could tell it was business trip for them last year the moment they stepped into that place, very motivated and knew what they had to not being distracted on the biggest stage and just another game for them. Kittatinny came around and rattled us early on with their opening drive but our kids could not have responded with 48 straight points”
“I think the world of Kyle Russell, coached him personally as the quarterbacks coach and best way to measure success as a quarterback is wins and nobody won more than guy, 21-1 in his two years as a starter and excellent manager, leader and kept the offensive unit together and distributed ball to playmakers”
“(Russell was) Smart with the ball and his play in that bowl game was the phenomenal and probably greatest performance of his career and what better time to pull it off on the biggest stage of his career and special moment for him. Going out the way he did with a second straight championship and most crucial position as quarterback. I remember hugging him on the field after the game, we’re going to miss him and tough to replace”
“Everyone knows about Johnny Mendez, led the state in scoring and a threat every time he touched the ball, experience and type of player. He lined up all over the field and we found creative ways to get him the ball because he was the guy you were looking for and when number 1 was lining up and defenses were planning to stop him and defend him he did his magic running through tackles and outrunning defenders and scored 45 touchdowns on the year. You can’t replace that type of production”
Howell points to the fact of four transfers returning back to Rutherford High from parochial schools and playing an instrumental role in the championship seasons. He says the priority is to keep the kids at home, and in order to win you have to keep everyone together because with public schools you don’t have the same population to pick from.
“These kids have been winning championships since eight grade, pee-wee and juniors” said Howell. “You may win a lot of championships at parochial schools but at the end of the day winning a championship in a small town with teammates you have grown up your entire life instead from all over the state. You win a state championship here and they will name a street after you or build a statue. That is why they had a parade for us and Rutherford is such a great community”
Helping Howell through this journey have been the support of his wife and children. “My wife is the most incredible woman in the world, putting up with me during the football season and my biggest supporter. She is like a football widow during football season, raising our daughter pretty much as I race to get home from practice at 7 o’clock to see my daughter before she goes to bed and now we had our second child, a son born five months ago and this season is going to be the biggest challenge balancing out coaching with family time”
For Howell the essential components are the preparation and life lessons the players learn on and off the field. “Crazy how much preparation goes into every single detail and every game plan and time put into one. One injury and you have to change your player because you don’t have a lot of kids”
“Legacy is not defined by championships and how many games you won but what you taught your players while coaching. Did you teach your players to become men? Did they leave Rutherford High School as better people when they came in? You will not be remembered for wins and losses but impact you had on those young men and I think our coaching staff is doing a good job based on alumni coming back and appreciate their time playing football at Rutherford High School and that is what coaching is about. The three mantras we focus on is our mental toughness, accountability and family”
“Sports made me who I am today and we talk to these kids all the time you are not going to remember the lesson you learned in the classroom but experiences on the field. You don’t go through two a days in August and practice on a Tuesday smacking each other. Football is no like other sport, you play once a week, punch your ticket and go to work with your hard hat and boots and Friday is payday and get that paycheck. Our locker room is a good 300 yards away from the field, with that cool crisp air in the autumn. The band playing the Star-Spangled Banner, crowd roaring and adrenaline is pumping, butterflies in your stomach and why you play the game”
“Hard to believe we’re talking about football already, we just celebrated the bowl championship. A year round business, obviously training pretty diligently in the weight room and speed training since January and kicking off summer practices next week and a lot of buzz in town past couple of years about Rutherford football. Despite losing 19 seniors we have that culture carrying over to seniors that have been part of two championship runs and they know how to win and their time now to step up and be leaders”
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