116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A red wave swept through Eastern Iowa on Friday.
It swept through gyms in places like Epworth and Dubuque. Iowa City. And, of course, Cedar Rapids.
Sixteen schools. One common mission:
“It’s unbelievable, the amount of gratitude I have,” said Frank Howell, former Cedar Rapids Washington girls’ basketball coach. “It has been quite energizing in a time in which I sometimes haven’t had a lot of energy.”
Howell, 52, was diagnosed in September with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.
Now the girls’ basketball coach and a social studies teacher at Central Decatur — a small school based in Leon in extreme south-central Iowa — Howell scrolled through social media Friday night as the tweets began to roll in.
Coaching staffs for all 16 Mississippi Valley Conference schools united in wearing red, Howell’s signature color — first at Audubon (where he won a state championship in 1999), then at Washington, now at Central Decatur.
“When I think of Frank, I think of that damn red sweater he always wore (at Washington),” Cedar Rapids Xavier Coach Tom Lilly said after the Saints’ win over Cedar Rapids Jefferson on Friday.
“Frank’s teams (at Washington) were extremely aggressive. They’d full-court press you all night. He had some great players, and he was responsible for their skill set.”
Howell coached at Washington for 13 successful seasons (2003-16), compiling a 224-83 record. None of his teams finished south of .500.
That included a four-year glory run of 88-14 from between 2004-05 and 2007-08 that featured three state runner-up finishes behind the trio of K.K. Armstrong, Katelin Oney and Micha Mims.
Armstrong joined Howell at Washington as an assistant, and remains there today under Chris James.
Jason Edwards was an assistant under Howell for 10 seasons before taking the head position at Cedar Rapids Jefferson.
“I call Frank my brother from another mother,” Edwards said. “I fell in love with girls’ basketball because of Frank Howell. I am where I’m at because of him.”
As was the case at six other MVC games Friday, Edwards and Lilly and their respective staffs lined up together, all in red T-shirts with Howell’s mantra (“Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together”).
Two MVC teams did not play Friday; Cedar Rapids Prairie’s staff will wear its shirts Saturday against Waterloo West, and Dubuque Wahlert’s crew will don theirs in their Class 3A regional contest at Monticello.
The idea came from Linn-Mar assistant Nikki Rowland, a former assistant under Howell at Washington.
Linn-Mar associate athletics director Tonya Moe met a representative from Lamoni’s Six Fifteen Graphics (screen printer of the shirts) in Marshalltown and transported the shirts to all 16 of the schools.
Moe said that $510 was raised for the Howell family through the project. Photos of the coaches in their shirts flooded Howell’s social media Friday.
A previous fundraiser, organized by former Washington athletics department secretary Brenda Carter in September, raised more than $26,000.
Howell left Washington in 2016 to take a shot at coaching at the collegiate level; he coached four years with the Graceland University women’s program in Lamoni.
The family still resides in Lamoni; Frank is in his second season back in the high school ranks. His wife, Sarah, is a Spanish teacher at Lamoni. His daughters are in ninth and seventh grades there.
Frank’s team at Central Decatur is 13-8; the Cardinals open Class 2A regional play Tuesday.
“I’m very fortunate in that the school has really worked with me throughout this,” Howell said. “It’s terrible that something like this happens to anybody, anywhere, any time. But our community, whether it’s here or back at Cedar Rapids, has done amazing things.”
When Lilly earned his 500th victory in 2015, Howell sent him a handwritten note. That note, along with the article of that story, are framed and hung in Lilly’s home.
“He said some of the nicest things a person could say,” Lilly said. “Things that you don’t expect someone to hear, when you compete as hard as we did.”
Despite a grim prognosis — glioblastoma patients rarely survive more than five years, and the average time is 12-18 months — Howell (372-187 as a high school coach) still has “my dream number” of 500 wins as a goal.
“I hope to be living, and coaching, a long, long time,” he said. “And some day I want to get back to Cedar Rapids and give everybody a big hug.
“I can’t thank them enough.”