Howard happy at SMU, still rooting for Illini

In his first season at SMU, Jerrance Howard says he will always be an Illinois fan. Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.com

Coaching at Southern Methodist hasn't stopped Jerrance Howard from rooting for Illinois.

Howard put 800-plus miles between himself and Champaign, Ill., when he left the Illini's coaching staff after last season and took a position with Larry Brown at Southern Methodist in Texas. It was a difficult decision because Howard grew up an Illini fan in Peoria, Ill. before played for them and then coaching under Bruce Weber.

Howard has no regrets because he believes he did what was best for his career. But Howard has realized that his heart and mind will never fully leave Illinois.

"To be honest, it was hard at first," Howard said. "I was an Illinois fan. I'll always be. That's my school. I'm going to root for them."

As hard as leaving Illinois was for the 32-year-old Howard, he knew joining Brown at Southern Methodist would give him an opportunity to learn from a coaching legend.

When Brown was hired in April 2012 at Southern Methodist, he was told it would be wise to hire Howard.

"Bill Self and I are real close, and Billy Gillispie and I are real close," Brown said. "When I got the job at SMU, I had those guys call me and recommend him right away. They said he was the best, and I would be wise to meet him and think about hiring him.

"I met him and they were right. He's a phenomenal kid. He's a great young kid. He's a tremendous human being. My whole life I've been surrounded by great coaches, and he's fit that mold."

Howard has tried to soak in all he can from Brown this season and said sees the game differently because of what Brown has taught him.

Howard is also going about his career differently. He didn't recognize it before, but he was often obsessed about when he would get his own program. Joining Brown and stepping away from Illinois helped him worry about that less.

"I used to be caught up in being a head coach and what jobs and what people were talking about jobs," Howard said. "Now I'm more excited about the process of being a head coach and doing the necessary things to grow. That's, of course, studying the game and getting away from the recruiting label.

"I guess you feel pressure being at the state school and getting the best kids in the state. I wanted to prove people wrong. I thought about that a lot."

Brown has utilized Howard's recruiting touch, especially in the Chicago area. Howard's relationships helped lead Crandall Head to transfer from Illinois to Southern Methodist and the Mustangs to receive commitments from Chicago-area high school seniors Sterling Brown and Ben Moore.

But Brown doesn't look at Howard as simply a recruiter.

"He's a head coach now in my mind," Brown said. "He has everything you want in a head coach. He had a tremendous background with coach Weber, Bill Self, Billy Gillispie. He loves basketball. He loves coaching.

"If you look at everywhere I've been, everyone has become a head coach. I look at Jerrance the same way. If someone had a coaching opening, I would recommend him in a minute. He has the whole package."

Southern Methodist (15-16) faces UAB in the Conference USA tournament on Wednesday.

Despite the busy times, Howard and his four-year-old son, Jay Jay, remain aboard the Illini bandwagon.

"I haven't missed a game," Howard said. "Even if I wanted to, my son wouldn't let me. His favorite player is still (Illinois senior guard) D.J. Richardson.

"I really want those players, especially those seniors, to go out with a bang. They've proven they can beat anybody. The NCAA tournament is about matchups. I think they're going to make a run here. I hope they do."