For love and coaching: Jerrance Howard

CHAMPAIGN – Steps from the beach's sand, Jerrance Howard took another step, one hand in a pocket, the other holding a cell phone to an ear. His wife was on the other end, thousands of miles from South Padre Island in Texas, placing their newborn in his crib.

"I hadn't seen him in nine, 10 days," Jerrance says. "It was the first time I'd been away from him for that long. It was hard. I can't even tell you."

Two days later, he got another call. It was Jessica Howard again. She was flying back from Virginia, where she was visiting family for the Thanksgiving holiday.

"We had a layover in Atlanta," she says. "And Jerrance goes, 'I'll be in Atlanta, too!' "

"I was going recruiting in Houston," he adds.

The couple reunited at the Atlanta airport. Two hours of baby faces, rocking Jerrance Jr. to sleep and munching Popeye's chicken.

"I almost lost it when I saw him," Dad says. "Seriously. I almost cried."

Jerrance Jr. turned 2 months old Dec. 4. In three days, the three Howards will celebrate their first Christmas as a family.

Don't tell him, but Jerrance Jr. will unwrap his eighth pair of baby Air Jordans, size 2C.

*****

Ah, the celebrity existence of an Illinois basketball coach. (You coach games for a living!) The high profile, the snazzy suits, the 16,618-seat office.

There's another side to it, a side that isn't publicized on the Big Ten Network or hollered about by Dick Vitale, a side coaches don't like to voice because it can sound like complaining, even if they're not. It's just the truth, remembered at Christmas, a rare time during the basketball season when family time takes precedence over scouting reports.

There are the weeks of travel. ("Months, if you're talking about July, because of recruiting," says UI assistant Wayne McClain.)

The missed dinners. ("My wife always figures a minimum of a half an hour after whatever time that I say I'll be home," Bruce Weber says. "And probably an hour.")

The empty seat at school plays, diving meets and parent-teacher conferences. ("There were times when I was in town and I wouldn't see my daughter for a week," assistant Jay Price says.)

It's not all paychecks and seashells, you know. But it's the profession they chose. And for Jerrance and Jessica Howard, who celebrated their one-year anniversary in August, the journey is just getting started.

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Jerrance was 24 when he was hired as an administrative assistant at Texas A&M. Jessica joined him on the drive from Champaign-Urbana to College Station, packed tight with moving boxes in a '98 Monte Carlo.

"No air conditioning and no radio," he says. "Somebody stole my radio before we left."

"Then we blew out a tire on the road," Jessica adds.

"Coach (Billy) Gillispie met us at a gas station," Jerrance says. "I'll never forget that."

Nor will they forget the Texas A&M dorm room where Jerrance lived, with Jessica visiting when she could. The couple learned quickly what Weber, Price and McClain have experienced throughout their careers: You rarely know when the next move might happen, and family life usually is dictated by the tides of coaching.

In the past 21 months, the Howards have lived in three states, with three coaching jobs, were married and had their first child. They had an August wedding, the most popular time for coaches' weddings, for the same reason Jay and Beth Price celebrate their anniversary Sept. 6: it's a recruiting quiet period.

"We've been married now, whatever it is, 27 or 28 years. So we've been through it," Weber says of his wife Megan. "It's all new to them (the Howards). The big part for him is communicating with your wife."

And for Jerrance, a new coach, new husband and new father, the rest is a daily lesson.

He's grateful to have McClain, whom he looks up to, and Weber, who's been known to "kick them (the coaches) out of the office" when their kids have games or events, he said.

"I went through it with three kids," Weber says. "At that time, I was scouting, when you could scout in person. I was recruiting, I was doing tickets, I was doing camps and you still have to get it all done.

"What I tried to do, when you do go home, you better be focused. I didn't have cell phones at that time, so it was easier."

This fall, Weber made it a priority to attend "five or six" of his daughter Emily's high school diving meets.

"It's my last girl," says Weber, whose elder daughters, Hannah and Christy, are students at Purdue and Illinois. "You have to do that. You don't get another chance."

There are rare occasions when family time dictates coaching matters, and not vice versa. Such was the case with Wayne McClain, a longtime high school coach in Peoria before he arrived at Illinois, and his son Sergio, a UI player from 1998 to 2001.

"I've been fortunate because I had opportunities to go to college (to coach) back in the '80s. But I never wanted to do that while my kids were growing up," Wayne McClain said. "The commitment is so different on this level than any other level. And I wasn't ready to do that with Sergio."

*****

In a telling indication of a coach's mind-set, they often use sporting events to bookmark events in their lives.

Asked when he proposed to Jessica, Jerrance says, "It was right after we (Texas A&M) beat Auburn."

And when was Jerrance Jr. born? "Oct. 4," he says. "I was holding him while I was watching Juice (Williams) tear it up at Michigan."

Their children are a part of their coaching lives, as well. Since Jerrance Jr. was born, his dad has made countless recruiting trips to Chicago. ("Jay Jay has gone with me every time," Jerrance says.)

At the Shootout at the Hall last week, UI recruit Jereme Richmond approached Jerrance and said, "Where's my nephew?" in reference to Jerrance Jr.

There are every-day instances of coaching overlapping with family. Gary Nottingham's son, Quin, dribbled a ball against Chester Frazier's defense on Thursday at the team's practice facility. McClain's grandson, Sergio Jr., is a regular at the basketball offices. The tiny 7-year-old likes to wear Sergio's XXL-sized gym shorts, but they cover the length of his body, so he rolls them down.

"You can't describe what that means to see him every day," McClain says of his grandson. "As you get older, you appreciate that."

"The older I'm getting, the more important it is for me to take that time to be with my daughter (Katherine)," Price says.

And the moments that define their coaching careers are also moments shared with their wives and kids.

"They're a part of it. When you get to the pinnacle, a Final Four (in 2005) or something like that, it's very special," Price says. "They have to have the dinners alone. They have to go to the school plays alone.

"But then to enjoy something magical and special like that, they are a part of it."

For Jerrance and Jessica, Saturday night didn't end when Illinois beat Detroit at the Assembly Hall. On most nights when he's at home, Jerrance takes Jerrance Jr. down to the basement to watch Illinois game film or NBA highlights.

"Watch his eyes," Jerrance says, as his son takes in a Celtics-Hawks game from a perch on his father's lap. "He follows the ball. He's got it. He's gonna be a point guard."

Then Jerrance refers to close friend Luther Head, whose first son, Luther Jr., was born four months before Jerrance Jr.

"Lu's always telling me, 'Have your son get my son the ball,' " Jerrance says. "He says, 'My son's the power forward.' "

And, perhaps, another coach.

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