A brief glance at the coaching resume of Charles ‘Babe’ Howell will tell the most casual observer that his was an exceptional career. A Hall of Fame worthy career. In fact, prior to this year Babe was inducted into eleven different athletic and education Halls of Fame in Georgia and North Carolina. His selection to the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame makes twelve.
Babe had a 44-year career in athletics, 39 of those in coaching. As a baseball coach, he and his teams won 628 games. As a football coach, his victory total is 301 games. That means that on 929 occasions Babe Howell and his athletic teams left the field of battle bathed in the sweet sense of victory. Not many athletes or coaches have experienced that level of success.
Along the way, his teams at Sylva-Webster High School, now Smoky Mountain High School, won seven North Carolina state championships, five in football and two in baseball. In 1973-74 both his football and baseball teams won state titles. He retired in 1997 as the winningest high school football and baseball coach in North Carolina history.
It was at East Fannin High School, however, that Babe Howell began his coaching odyssey. He came to the school in the autumn of 1956 and stayed on to guide the Wildcats football squads for four seasons. He also coached the boys basketball team for one season.
Four seasons does not sound like a lot, but it was during the four-year tenure of Babe Howell that East Fannin High School football reached its zenith of success. The school fielded 20 football teams between 1956 and 1976 when East and West Fannin were consolidated into the new Fannin County High School. Throughout those years, East Fannin was only able to win a total of 33 football games. 16, or roughly half, of those victories came when Babe Howell was leading the teams. His 1958 and 1959 teams posted an aggregate record of 13-4-2 and won two class 4C sub-region titles. The 1958 team finished at 8-2, which was the best season record for any football team in Fannin County until 1991.
Babe Howell was born in Monroe, North Carolina in 1928. He left home at the age of 17 to join the war effort. He served in the United States Navy from 1945-1949. It was in the Navy that Babe was first introduced to organized football. After his discharge, he returned home and played on a high school championship team. He was also a standout baseball pitcher. His athletic prowess gained him a scholarship to Western Carolina College where he competed for four seasons. His high school coach, Jim Gudger, also moved from Monroe to Western Carolina at the same time and Babe considered Gudger as his greatest mentor in life.
Babe’s goal was a career in coaching and he signed on as an assistant at Sylva-Webster after graduation from Western Carolina. Shortly thereafter he moved on to Morganton and the challenge of coaching a small group of boys who had never played the game of football before. He faced a daunting task. He was met by 20 or so young men who wanted to try their luck at the game of football. Most of the boys weighed in at 120 pounds or less. Also, the school initially did not even have a football field upon which to practice and play games.
Ben Smith, one of Coach Howell’s first team members recalls that “the first time we met him was in August, 1956 at the hay field near Ralston’s Sawmill on Highway 76 near the Union County line”. It was on this hay field that Howell began his efforts at putting together a football team. An acceptable field was not ready that first season of 1956 so the Wildcats played all of their games on the road. The closest thing to a home game came in the season finale against Sprayberry High School in a game played at the West Fannin field across the county. The only victory that season was over White County, another school that had recently started a football program.
By 1958, Coach Howell had put together the finest team that would ever don East Fannin uniforms. He did have some talent with which to work. One of his players, junior end Aldon Farmer made the Georgia Class C All-State team that season. Farmer, along with running back David Turner, also a junior in 1958, would make the All-State team again in 1959. Those were the halcyon days of football at East Fannin.
In talking with men who played for Coach Howell the two words that seem to recur are ‘teacher’ and ‘respect’. Babe was not a ‘rah’ ‘rah’ type coach and he was not prone to fits of screaming at players who made mistakes. He was a very effective teacher who treated his players with respect and who, in turn earned the respect of his players. He believed in conditioning and preparation. He seemed to be able to get the very best that his players had to offer. Again, to quote Ben Smith, “Coach Howell knew what he was doing”.
Perhaps the best example of Babe Howell’s character came during the last two months of his life. The fledgling Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame selected its inaugural class of inductees in 2012 and honored those inductees at a banquet in April, 2013. Two of the inductees, Aldon Farmer and David Turner, played for Coach Howell at East Fannin some 55 years previously. Babe Howell, and several members of his family, wanted to show his respect and affection for his two ‘boys’ so he made the trek to Blue Ridge to be there when they were honored by their home county. Babe was obviously proud that evening and was beaming as a number of his former players gathered around his table.
Less than a month after that banquet, Babe Howell passed away in Asheville, North Carolina at the age of 84. He was quite a man who was devoted to his players, friends and family. He made a deeply positive impact on many lives and the Fannin County Sports Hall of Fame is fortunate to have such a man as a member.