HELENA — For 20 years Nick Howlett stood on the sidelines during Carroll College football Saturdays, helping guide the Saints to unprecedented success from 1999 to 2018. An offensive coordinator and assistant head coach, Howlett enjoyed the ride of six NAIA national championships and 14 Frontier Conference titles, including 12 consecutive from 2000-11, in one of college football’s greatest runs.
Howlett, along with former Carroll head coach Mike Van Diest and fellow assistant head coach Jim Hogan, made the Fighting Saints one of the top college football programs in the nation, boasting No. 1 rankings, national players of the year and coaches of the year, including Howlett’s 2004 NAIA assistant coach of the year and 2012 Victory Sports Network assistant coach of the year honors.
Hogan retired in 2017 and has since joined the staff at Helena Capital, while Van Diest announced his retirement in November, leading to a new coaching regime at Carroll.
Howlett now works at First Interstate Bank in Helena, but recently sat down with MTN Sports to reflect on his playing days, coaching at Carroll College and how he enjoys more personal time with his wife, Sandy, and daughter, Brooke.
MTN Sports: For those that aren’t familiar, maybe with how you got into football to begin with, (discuss) your high school career transitioning into a collegiate career as well.
Nick Howlett: “Sure. My very first experience with football was Small Fry and I had an uncle that actually had to convince my dad to let me go out for football. My dad was a little bit worried we were all going to get hurt, so I guess I have (my uncle) Dennis to thank, a family friend. Throughout high school I always wanted to play college football, and as I got into looking around for schools, Western (Montana College, now Montana Western) was probably the school that recruited me the most. I had quite a few friends going down there, I liked to hunt and fish, so it fit. I was going to be a high school history teacher and football coach until (former Western Montana College football coach Bobby Beers) got a hold of me and started making me go to quarterback meetings. I think part of that was to babysit Jason Truman, who was an unbelievable player, not always the most studious of characters, so I had to follow him around to class a little bit, as well as to go to the quarterback meetings, so I kind of got the bug there. Coach Beers said, ‘You need to come because you’ll bring (Truman) and because you’re going to coach college football.’ That was kind of the first time I had ever even thought about it, so Coach Beers was the one who steered me in that direction, and like I said, he’s a great influence on me as a player to this day.”
MTN Sports: With you coaches, I picture Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting staring at a chalkboard, for you guys it’s staring at a screen and seeing the Xs and Os piece together. I’m sure that’s not completely accurate, but when did that start to piece itself together for you in realizing, ‘Whoa. I can kind of do some things here,’?”
Howlett: “It was fun and that was one of the things Coach Beers was great at, he always included us to the why. As a player, you start to see, not only your job, but how we’re going to start to manipulate the other guys, this is going to be their adjustment. That was one of the most fun things for me, so the only reason I stayed on the field is because I could stay on the same page as Coach Beers. I wasn’t the most talented guy out there, but I had that opportunity and that gift that Coach Beers gave me to actually see a couple plays down the line. That was the fun part for me, too, when I was coaching is saying, ‘OK, this is what they’re going to do,’ and you tell a player what’s going to happen and then when it does happen, the look on their face like, ‘How did you know that?’ That’s the same way I looked at Coach Beers. That was really a fun part of it for me, for sure.”
MTN Sports: Carroll College, was that a phone call or an email? Was this horse and buggy to get you the message that, ‘Hey, we want you to come here and join this staff,’?”
Howlett: “It was funny, I actually came to Carroll because I ran into Coach Van Diest and the guy I was working for at Western retired, so I actually called Coach Van Diest and asked him to be a reference for me for a couple other jobs. He said sure and asked for the phone numbers and then he said, ‘Hey are you going to be in Helena?’ I think it was divisional track, so I said, ‘Yeah I’m going to be in town,’ and he said, ‘Catch me at the track.’ I caught him there and he said, ‘Come by the office on Monday,’ and I never left. I was there for 20 years and it was a great time.”
MTN Sports: Two decades is a long time at one spot, but two decades is a long time in anything. Talk about those years and what kept the big three of you (Van Diest, Jim Hogan and yourself) coming back year after year after year.
Howlett: “I think we talked about it a little bit, the loyalty to Coach Van Diest, obviously he gave me a tremendous opportunity, the loyalty to the program, as well as the players. Honesty is a big thing for me and sitting in a prospective athlete’s home and saying, ‘Yeah I’m going to be here,’ I truly meant it and held true to it as much as I could.”
MTN Sports: Was there a surprise to you guys as a staff that, man that success came quick?
Howlett: “To be honest, I really thought when I first came to Carroll, knowing Coach Van Diest’s reputation, I truly thought it would be about a three- or four-year reign and then we would move on. When things started to flow it was like, ‘We don’t need to go anywhere else. This is neat and this is special. We’ve got a special group of players and their families are pretty special.’ We hoped it would never truly end. When the phone calls came and people reached out, I often asked myself, ‘Is it better than what I have here?’ The paycheck may have been bigger and the stage may have been bigger, but the actual football and the kids and the guys you get to hang out with every day, I don’t think it was better anywhere.”
MTN Sports: What was it like walking onto the national championship field the first time? You guys got used to it after a while, the fans got used to it. Spoiled may even be an adjective people would use to describe it because it happened so often. But that first time?
Howlett: “The first time, and I can remember being in pre-game, being at the stadium and thinking, ‘This is pretty amazing.’ Then ultimately, as the game progresses, ‘We have a chance to win this thing,’ and then, ‘OK, we are going to win this thing,’ it was a pretty incredible feeling. To do it the way we did it and the Rob Latrell story that everybody knows well —didn’t start until the semifinal game — was unbelievable. That’s a tribute to Rob and how much his teammates meant to him. Obviously there were other people besides Rob, we were still throwing to (Mark) Gallik and (Casey Fitzsimmons) and those guys, but that was a pretty special day.”
MTN Sports: A lot of those big games fans know — Tyler Emmert, Casey Fitzsimmons — we’ve talked about national players of the year on each side of the ball, which is incredible, but there were a lot of unsung heroes over a two-decade period that certainly played their part in national championships and Frontier Conference championships.
Howlett: “One of my favorite unsung heroes, a guy that’s never going to get the credit he deserves, is D.J. Dearcorn. He was a guy that did everything for us. I remember one game Casey Fitzsimmons didn’t play, I walked up to D.J. and said, ‘Hey, you’re going to play tight end this week.’ He had 12 catches, I think, that week. The next week he went back to playing running back. He made the offensive line calls one week because Kyle Baker had a cold and couldn’t talk. Kyle Baker coughed something up in pre-game and D.J. didn’t have to make the calls, but D.J. could do it all. He could have played on the defensive side, probably three positions over there. We were fortunate enough to arm wrestle him away from Coach Van Diest, much like Casey Fitzsimmons and probably Mark Gallik, but those guys are incredible. The Lat Wipplingers, the Kip Curtises that did so much as total players — blocking and things that don’t show up in stat sheets, especially for wide receivers, even little Corey Peterson got a touchdown block in the national championship game to spring Gary Wagner — so the list of names and the guys that did everything we ever asked is unbelievable, and that’s part of what made it so special and part of why you wanted to stay around.”
MTN Sports: As far as just looking back, when you sit back and think 200-plus wins, six national championships, appearances in national championships, all the Frontier Conference championships in a row, a dozen or whatever it was, in your wildest dreams was this feasible?
Howlett: “No and I said this a couple weeks ago, too, I don’t think it will ever be duplicated at any level. It was a tremendous run and again, that’s part of why, you mentioned it earlier, winning is contagious and it keeps you around. It opened a lot of other doors, but that specialness we had, and like you said, it was year after year, 12 years in a row, it was unbelievable. It was truly special and like I said, I don’t think it will ever be done again.”
MTN Sports: We know a little more about Nick Howlett the player now, we know about the coach, your family, though, pretty good athletes in their own right. (Your wife) Sandy was soccer and (your daughter) Brooke is killing gymnastics, so that’s pretty exciting to sit back, back then being a fan for Sandy and now watching Brooke taking names.
Howlett: “It’s unbelievable. Part of this transition, I got to see every gymnastics meet (Brooke) had and that was pretty special. Being around a lot more has been pretty neat, and I don’t mind being the third fiddle in the house.”
MTN Sports: Twenty years, there are a lot of people to thank that have had your back and support, what do you say to those people that, if there was ever anything, they were a call away for you?
Howlett: “Right. That’s the thing and that’s what was so great and has been so great, the people that have reached out to me via email or text, it’s just a big thank you to everybody. The parents and players, especially, and those relationships are lifelong.”
MTN Sports: Anything about what you’re doing now (at First Interstate Bank)?
Howlett: “Yeah, it’s been a neat transition and it’s like being a freshman football player again. You have no idea what’s going on, there’s a whole bunch of, 21 other players out there that are going in different directions. Corey Crum and Guy Almquist and Jana Garza, those guys have been great to me. It’s an exciting transition because you do have that excitement of being a freshman again. A lot to learn, every day is, wow, you start at ground zero again, but they’re great people and I’m really excited about the future.”