Making An Impact: Celebrating Cornell Athletics’ Most Unsung Hero

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Updated: May 4, 2015

Athletic competition and the process leading up to it brings out the qualities, characteristics, and traits necessary to live a better and more fulfilling life. Few coaches have the ability to affect players in this way. These influential mentors place overall life success as the ultimate goal, not just winning and achieving triumph on the field. One example of these extraordinary people exists here at Cornell, and his name is Tom Howley.

Howley, the strength and conditioning coach and assistant director of athletics for the Big Red, will reach his 20th year working at Cornell in July, during which he has influenced the lives of hundreds of student-athletes in immeasurable ways.

Coach Howley truly deserves to be addressed as “Coach” because he does so much more than just train Cornell athletes to be stronger, faster, and more powerful. Coaches who impact the lives of their players are not only the head coaches or their assistants, but, in the case of Howley, this effect widens to other outlets of inspiration and guidance.

“Besides my coaches, he was the most important person in developing me for a long career in hockey,” explained former men’s hockey captain John McCarron. “There are far too many things to list that I have learned from Coach, but an important lesson that stuck with me was that you’re only as strong as your weakest link, so try to help others before yourself.”

“From the day I stepped on campus as a freshman, Coach Howley transformed me as an athlete and as a person,” said lacrosse star Max Seibald. “He pushed me mentally and physically to limits I did not know I could reach.”

Howley has helped Big Red athletes to a much greater extent than improving their 40-yard dash time or setting a new personal high for bench press because he focuses on more than individual achievement in strength and conditioning. “We try to keep an eye on the big picture,” explained Coach Howley. “We try to motivate them and get them excited to contribute in their lives in terms of discipline, detail, and those characteristics that are going to benefit them, not just in their athletic careers, yet in their lives beyond. This is about setting them up for success for the rest of their lives.”

Coach Howley attended Tulane University, where he played football and then served as a graduate assistant coach for a year. After deciding against pursuing a career in football coaching, Howley secured a graduate assistantship at Auburn University in the strength and conditioning department. He received his master’s degree from Auburn and relocated to East Carolina University, where he was thrown into the fire with only two staff members and about 16 varsity sports.

“I got a lot of experience working with a pretty wide variety of sports, and I think that was one of those things that actually helped me when I interviewed for the position here at Cornell,” remarked Howley.

With an additional four years under his belt at East Carolina, Howley moved on to Cornell following a recommendation from a coworker and an interview with head athletic trainer, Bernie DePalma and associate head athletic trainer, Jim Case.

Ever since arriving in Ithaca in the summer of 1995, Coach Howley has continuously been committed to the student-athletes that he trains and is one of the most respected and well-liked individuals by Big Red athletics alumni because he has helped them grow immensely as people on and off the field.

One of his close friends, current head football coach David Archer, can attest to Coach Howley’s excellence and positive impact on those around him.

“He’s invested in the teams that he works with and in the lives of the student athletes,” said Coach Archer. “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, and Coach Howley makes sure that happens, and he shows the student-athletes that he cares about them as people and that he’s deeply invested in their success.”

Coach Archer has gained incredible trust and respect for Howley after working with him not only as a player for the Big Red, but now as a coach, which makes their relationship unique since it has allowed Archer to have experiences with him on two separate levels. Archer’s time with Coach Howley has taught him about preparation, motivation, and endurance – important qualities that have been crucial to his success.

“From the time I was 18 years old and arrived on campus, I knew Coach Howley was a man of integrity. I knew he had an incredible passion for the student-athlete, and I knew that he was excellent at what he did, which really resonated with me,” stated Coach Archer.

Coach Howley gets to know each individual and creates a different approach that becomes athlete-specific because people are motivated in different ways. Some require him to be more aggressive and respond well when he gets on them, yet others just need support and benefit from positive attention. “You don’t treat everybody the same. You try to accommodate who they are as individuals, and you try to find out what works for each person,” described Howley.

Howley implements universal techniques for all athletic teams, yet also creates certain exercises for specific sports. He does some form of squatting, press, and Olympic lift with nearly every team, but he also tailors every workout so that it meets the specific metabolic needs of each individual sport. He forms separate programs for different teams in order to make each athlete successful in their own respective sports.

Former Cornell hockey standout Colin Greening recognized Coach Howley’s knowledge and appreciated his ability to obtain maximum effort from each one of the student-athletes.

“Everyone thinks they train hard when they arrive as a freshman at Cornell. However, they don’t truly know work until they train with Coach Howley,” remarked Greening. “When I arrived, I worked as hard as I could every workout, and he respected me for it.”

Greening served as a two-year captain for the Big Red and never missed a single game in four years, tallying 118 career points, which ranks 33rd all-time in program history. As a 2005 Ottawa Senators draft pick, Greening went on to play professional hockey following his time at Cornell, where he has moved between the NHL and the Senator’s minor league AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Dedicating much of his success to Coach Howley, Greening believes he was instrumental to both his career and the Big Red hockey program.

“He taught us hard work, but his appreciation of our effort taught us about respect for one another. He was a great leader and has been a wonderful friend of mine,” said Greening. “He taught me the importance of appreciating your job, but also being there for your family. He’s truly a remarkable man.”

John McCarron, currently finishing his senior year at Cornell, has been a key leader for the Big Red’s hockey team over the past few seasons, serving as a two-year captain. McCarron agreed with the sentiments of Greening, and praised Coach Howley for his ability to bring teams together.

McCarron, a 2012 NHL draft pick of the Edmonton Oilers, will look to continue his hockey career beyond Cornell, and said he owed much of his success to Coach Howley’s guidance. “Off the ice, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes program is run by Coach Howley, and it allowed me to grow spiritually as well. Coach has taught me many life lessons through his workouts and FCA readings, and I am forever grateful for that,” stated McCarron.

In addition to guidance, former men’s lacrosse midfielder Max Seibald remarked that Coach Howley built relationships of mutual respect. Seibald described Howley as a constant source of advice, yet, more importantly, one of passion, knowledge, and motivation.

Seibald led the Big Red to an NCAA championship game in his final year in 2009, in which he also earned the Tewaaraton Trophy, the Heisman Trophy of college lacrosse, and the Lowe’s Senior Class Award. Seibald held the program record for the most career points by a midfielder, until it was broken this year by senior Connor Buczek.

Now playing professional lacrosse in the MLL for the Boston Cannons, Seibald said, “He set high standards and had high expectations, but he showed me a path of how to achieve success. He always expected me to lead by example, even as an underclassman. His passion and drive to make you want to be better is something I have taken and tried to share with others both on and off the lacrosse field.”

Rob Pannell, also a Tewaaraton Trophy winner in 2013 and now the second leading scorer in NCAA lacrosse history, expressed a similar relationship with Coach Howley of mutual respect and said the ultimate compliment was his approval after a workout, comparing this feeling to winning a game.

“He taught us life lessons, such as holding yourself accountable and holding your teammates accountable,” described Pannell. “He taught us to fight through adversity and increased each player’s mental toughness. These were lessons that he knew would make us the best team we could be, but, more importantly, would make us better people and more suited for life after lacrosse.”

Pannell holds the Cornell and Ivy League all-time scoring records, became the first ever three-time Player of the Year recipient from the Ivy League, and was a two-time winner of the USILA Lt. Raymond Enners Award, another recognition of the NCAA’s most outstanding lacrosse player. He currently plays for the Long Island Lizards of the MLL, but looking back on his time with the Big Red, Pannell owes a lot to Howley.

“Coach Howley is a special person, and, without him, I would not have had the career that I did while at Cornell and wouldn’t be the young man I am today,” stated Pannell.

For every bit of advice and support that Coach Howley has given to the Big Red student-athletes, they have given just as much back to him. Although he has immensely affected many of the great athletes who have come and gone since July of 1995, nearly all of them have positively impacted him during his time with the Big Red.

“I’ve really learned a lot in terms of the discipline and the work ethic of the kids I’ve been in contact with. They’ve taught me a lot about team building because I’ve seen some incredible individuals come through here – not just as athletes, but as people – and they’ve impacted my life, I think, just as much as I’ve impacted their lives.”

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