HELENA – Honors and accolades seem to follow Nick Howlett.
The former three-time all-Frontier Conference standout at Montana Western has added a pair of national assistant coach of the year honors, six national titles and has mentored six league players of the year during his two decades at Carroll College, including a two-time national player of the year in former quarterback Tyler Emmert.
An Xs and Os mastermind, Howlett has feasted on defenses for years as an offensive coordinator, but no amount of success keeps him from picking the brain of his mentor.
“The number one guy that I always refer to and always call when I have a question is Bob Beers,” Howlett said of the former Montana Grizzly all-American and longtime college coach and NFL scout. “He was a mentor to me, a tremendous coach and always, no matter where I’ve been and no matter where he’s been, when he was with the Houston Texans or was in the World League or even the head coach of the Colorado Crush, I could always call him and within an hour or whenever he got a break, I would get a call back. Sometimes when he’s on the road, now that he’s retired, I better have 45 minutes to give him. Coach Beers has been great.”
Though Beers is arguably one of the top football minds among coaches with Treasure State ties, Howlett’s speed dial is a who’s who of gridiron guides.
“(Former Montana Grizzly) coach Mick Delaney recruited me out of high school. (Current Montana State coach) Jeff Choate, I played for him at Montana Western. The list is endless. I still reach out to Bill Cockhill because he’s here in town. I reach out to coach Joe Glenn, there are a million guys,” Howlett said, recalling the names of mentors. “Sometimes it’s fun to cold-call people. I’ve seen where this offensive staff is doing this or doing that, so I call them out of the blue. Sometimes those guys are great and will give you everything you ask for, but sometimes it’s ‘I can’t help you’ and you hear a click on the other end of the line. Having guys like Coach Beers to reach out to is invaluable in this profession.”
For nearly two decades, Howlett looked to fellow assistant and offensive line coach Jim Hogan to finalize the offensive schemes. But Hogan’s recent retirement brought another offensive-minded coach to the staff in longtime Helena High mentor Tony Arntson.
That’s created an in-house duo, with visions from head coach Mike Van Diest and quarterback-turned-assistant Emmert, that is tinkering with things a bit more this time of year.
“That’s what spring ball is. You go out and visit with other coaching staffs, and with Coach Arntson coming onboard there are some ideas that he has that maybe we haven’t done before and we want to add this or do it this way,” said Howlett. “It’s a great time to bounce ideas even off the defensive guys. ‘What gives you guys problems? How would you handle this route combination?’ Whatever it may be. There’s a lot of experimenting that goes on in spring ball, so ultimately, it never quite looks as polished on scrimmage days as you maybe want, but you’re always trying to find the perfect combination or you tweak the schemes for how they fit our personnel.”
Howlett’s college career spans back to the mid-1990s during his playing days at Western to his upcoming 20th season at Carroll. During that span, much has changed on the playing field, from the rule changes to spread offenses and the advent of the run-pass-option.
That’s the chess match Howlett plays each season, breaking down week by week to out-duel opposing defenses. Carroll’s skill positions are loaded with raw talent, making Howlett giddy at the possibilities.
“I think that’s the excitement. Basically, other than maybe Major Ali and Eric Dawson, and obviously you have the Shane Sipes and Troy Arntsons, but where they fit. Joe Farris, Chase Fossum, the names go on and on, and obviously the explosiveness of Ryan Arntson and what he brought as a freshman last year, so what we’re able to do, I think the ceiling is unlimited because there are a lot of different options out there,” said Howlett. “The big problem is, how do we get all these guys touches? That’s a good problem to have.”
Carroll concludes its spring on Saturday with the annual spring game inside Nelson Stadium, but the prep for fall is only beginning.
“Right now it’s spring ball, getting installs in, what we’re putting in and emphasizing day to day. In spring ball you kind of overload them because there are always things you take out when you get into June. Then it’s going out and spring recruiting, going around the state of Montana and Idaho and trying to find next year’s class. You re-establish contact with some of our incoming freshmen,” he said. “You try to earmark depth chart-wise, ‘who in the freshmen class is going to be ready to play or who do we need to play?’ One of my extra duties here is I get to be the travel planner, so I’ll be calling hotels and bus companies pretty soon to get that ironed out as well. You do the little guy camp and all that in the summer, maybe I’ll sneak away and go fishing or something with (daughter) Brooke or hang out down by the river once in a while too.”
What are the challenges, and costs, of a college football travel planner in 2018?
“The nice thing is that I don’t have to pay for it. I just have a budget I have to stay within. But that’s gone up in the 20 years I’ve been here, so things we used to think are outrageous are now screaming deals,” Howlett laughed. “That’s part of it too, at a smaller school you have to be creative with the budget once in a while. Thank goodness we’ve had the Barnetts in our corner for a number of years. They’ve given us some of the best meals we’ve had and we haven’t had to break the bank doing it.”
Bob Beers would nod in approval at a good home-cooked meal during the grind of the season.