Remembering Howie

On Sunday morning, I was in my basement riding my stationary bike while watching SportsCenter. I had not read the news, and this was the first I heard of the passing of Dean Smith, legendary coach of the North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team. He led the team to national titles, coached Michael Jordan, among other greats, and was one of the winningest coaches in all of sports. I was always an SEC fan, so I usually rooted against the Tar Heels, but he was the kind of guy I secretly wished was coaching my team.

I rode for nearly an hour, and during the entire ride, one former Tar Heel player after another was interviewed – including Jordan. Most of the players interviewed went on to make millions in the NBA, and they could have viewed UNC as just a layover on their road to greatness. Certainly, most of these players had the skill to play anywhere and likely would have been great in the NBA without the mentorship and coaching of Dean Smith. Yet, here they all were, paying their respects and talking about this man as more than just a coach.

I didn’t hear any of them talk about how he helped them with their jumper, defense, or ball handling – though he most likely did so. I didn’t hear them talk about how he was the reason they were drafted so high and helped them cash in on a massive NBA contract. Instead, they talked about his leadership, ethics, determination, and competitiveness. They spoke of his will to win and his creation of a team environment. Many players mentioned that Coach Smith made them better men. It was obvious to me that his impact was more than just showing more wins than losses for the UNC faithful. He made each of his players a better person.

I was a four-year NCAA athlete at Furman University, but in swimming. In my sport, few if any could make millions, and I would not have been one of them anyway. I swam because I loved the competition, and I received a scholarship. In swimming, there was no hope or plan of “going pro” for me. However, my coach, Howard Wheeler, had a profound impact on my life just as Coach Smith had on the lives of his players. Yet, unlike Dean Smith, who died at age 83, Howard Wheeler contracted a brain tumor and died at only 36 years of age, leaving a wife and two small children, and leaving a swimming program that would not recover and would be dropped within a year. Thankfully, I was able to enjoy all four of my college years with “Howie,” as he died a year after I graduated in November 1987. He would be 63 years old today.  We miss you, Howie!

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Looking back at my years at Furman University, most of my best memories are of my time swimming, and nearly all of these memories involve Howie. I remember him talking to me about my classes, my girlfriends, beer, and breaststroke. I remember him dancing on the pool deck while singing to “Rosanna.” I remember him holding kangaroo court before each Monday morning practice. I remember him taking the entire team to the dog track on one annual trip and advising me on which dog I should place my $2. I remember him traveling with me to Austin, Texas for the NCAA Championships. It was just the two of us on that trip; no one else from my team qualified, and my parents didn’t come. While there, I remember him helping me pick out some cowboy boots – which were stolen the next day. I have so many memories of Howie laughing, yelling, mentoring, counseling, singing, and coaching.

Howard Wheeler helped me become a man. I started at Furman not knowing a single person, as a shy, unheralded, barely recruited, average swimmer. Howard not only helped me come out of my shell, but he saw what no other coach had ever seen. He recognized a fire in my belly that he stoked weekly, bringing out the best in me emotionally and physically. I dropped nearly six seconds in my 100m breaststroke under Howard and became the first male Olympic Trials qualifier from our team. Under Howard, I felt like I always had something I needed to prove. The will to win despite the odds or naysayers has helped me immensely as an entrepreneur. For that, I know I owe much of my business success to Howard Wheeler.

To those who remember Howie—do you have a favorite story?

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5 comments

  1. Howard Wheeler – “Coach” to many, I remember swimming with Howie; a mentor and friend he certainly made a positive impact on many – ripples far beyond just those years at Furman. When I walked on the team he said swim with us for a week if you can keep up we have a spot for you – what an awesome 4 years with “Coach” and our team – great swimming, great memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mark – what a great tribute. Howard was one of those special people who had a way of making life fun. I’ve told my girls so many stories about my swimming years at Furman and about Howard and the “larger than life” presence he possessed.
    If I close my eyes, I can SEE him: slamming that kick board on the table to start our weekly Kangaroo Court session, leaning on the broomstick, belting out songs, standing with his back to us and writing “SEOSITIVE” on the blackboard, and jumping over chairs lined up on the deck. Although I hated those dreaded Thursday afternoon “get-out” swims, I realize how much they contributed to a steady improvement in my 200 fly. Thinking back now, I understand the significance of his little antics as the distraction we needed to push through the exhaustion we felt at 5 am or at the end of the 2nd practice of the day.

    His untimely death never made sense to me. I’m honored to have been a part of his life,but saddened that more people didn’t have the same opportunity.

    On a different note, thought I’d share that my youngest daughter, Ashley (just turned 14), has broken 2 NC state records in breaststroke (1 set in 1994 by Jilan Siroky). Her 200 M breast (2:35.59) is just shy of the 2016 Olympic Trial cut (2:34.99). She is so much fun to watch and has a good head on her shoulders. Like you, she loves to compete but realizes that fame and fortune aren’t the reasons to commit your life to the pool. I wish I could say she’s had a Howard in her life, but not as of yet. In the meantime, at least I can share parts of him with her, and my other girls, Erin & Sara. And when I do, I always smile, and am filled with a genuine appreciation for who he was and what he did for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Celia forwarded this to me. What a wonderful, moving a, rticle you have written. Being in Raleigh, we watched him closely. My husband,, Gordon, having grown up in Chapel Hill was a big UNC fan. Both Dean Smith and Howard Wheeler were so special, as they took a personal interest in their athletes. Both men will always be remembered and missed.
    Ceil Blackwell

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Awesome great post for all of us hope all is well. 8 inches of snow here in DC. All powder though. How’s the incubator coming? Any cool new ideas trickling in? I think it’s a GREAT idea and should be a lot of fun!

      Lon Southerland Sr. Vice President American Blue Ribbon Holdings Sent from my iPhone. I apologize for any typing issues in advance.

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  4. Great tribute, Mark. I remember deciding that FUrman was MY school when Eli got on the phone with me and told me that we could call him Howie, and that he used the flag pole as a microphone.

    I remember Howie as a father figure, although ALL my swimming times improved under him. I could write for hours on all the little things (hooking goggles on the flags to get out of practice, his singing, naming his goldfish Christie, Thanksgiving at his house when Megan cut Her own bangs… I could go on and on) but what amazed me most was that he could be screaming at me (us) in practice and then still give me a hug afterward. I never knew that my performance could be separated from me as a person. It was a great lesson in life for me and it helped me tremendously as a Mom and as a manager. I am forever grateful.

    I will think a little more so I can add some specific memories – but why oh why dear teammates was I the one that always had to talk to him first when he was mad?!?! 😊 Love you Howie! I know you are smiling at us all from heaven!

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