by Dillon Meehan
It’s Wednesday, February 24, three days before Howie Dickenman will be coaching his final collegiate game against Fairleigh Dickenson. Dickenman sitting in his spacious office in Kaiser Hall overlooking the library and student center has a massive whiteboard just a few feet from his chair. The board has a half-court offense set on it. Even with only a few practices left; the coach is taking any days off.
“I’ve got what, three days left?” the coach pauses squinting his eyes to think. “Yeah three days, three practices, every time I walk out of the locker room downstairs and head up to the gym and think, well I’m not gonna be doing this much longer.”
It’s tough for the 69-year old coach, who after 45 years of coaching is still just as determined to be a great coach despite the lack of results.
“Howie’s done a masterful job here, it’s not easy, it’s never easy at every place. Things hadn’t gone quite as well as he had wanted and he figured maybe it’s time for a change.” Said Jim Calhoun, who Dickenman reached out for advice about retiring.
It’s a fire that may have finally been put out. Dickenman has been coaching for the last 45 years; he started after his playing days at CCSU. After being cut from the Phoenix Suns, the team who drafted him, he turned to coaching. Going from the New Britain High School JV team, to his first Division I opportunity at Canisius, then UConn, before finally landing a job as a head coach here at CCSU. For four and a half decades, that fire was what kept him going.
“Howie is pretty unique, he was a blue-collar guy, from a blue-collar family, who worked hard enough and was tough enough to make it in athletics,” said Mike Anthony, a journalist for the Hartford Courant who has spent the last 5 years covering CCSU and the other smaller colleges in the state. “I was doing this feature piece and I spent two days behind the scenes a few seasons ago, the team was on a road trip and I was in the locker room for pregame speeches, the halftime speeches…everything. They had were down big at halftime, they were getting clobbered and he comes in and gives this speech that made me want to run through a brick wall. I mean he really laid it into them. And then all of a sudden they go on to come back and win.”
Coaching has always been a part of Dickenman’s life. His father, the late Howie Dickenman Sr. coached at Norwich Free Academy for almost 30 years.
“Well my father was a coach, there’s his picture right there.” said Dickenman as he turned around to point at a black and white photo hanging on his windowsill. “He was quite revered, and those aren’t words coming from me. They called him a legend. He was very humble. I grew up in a coaching family, so it kind of rubbed off on me.”
On Saturday, sporting a bright red bow tie, Dickenman spoke of his late father, who passed while he was junior at CCSU.
“He always wore bow ties, and his favorite was red,” said Dickenman, who paused, fighting back tears. “This is the first time I wore a red bow tie. They buried him in a red bow tie. So I dedicated this afternoon to my father, who used to come to all the games here when I was a player.”
The tie was handmade by his mother, Elizabeth, who made all of his father’s bow ties the same exact way.
It began right here in New Britain, where Dickenman started out as the coach for New Britain High’s junior varsity men’s basketball team.
From there Dickenman slowly crawled through the ranks, moving to an assistant coach at the college level. In 1982, Dickenman became an assistant for the University of Connecticut men’s team.
However four years into his career as a coach for Huskies, Jim Calhoun came over from Northeastern. Generally when a new coach arrives, he guts the former staff, but Calhoun was different.
“Hardest working guy I’ve ever met, best recruiter I’ve ever had and one of the toughest guy’s I’ve ever had. All of that factors in.” Calhoun said of his former assistant coach. “He could take whatever visions I had and I could give it to Howie and I knew that it was going to be implemented correctly, because as you know, he’s an incredibly passionate guy.”
“He kept me as his assistant and I loved it. If it wasn’t for Jim retaining me, we would not be sitting here talking,” he said of his former colleague Jim Calhoun.
Through his 14-year career as an assistant coach for UConn, Dickenman learned under the tutelage of Calhoun. He believes that his time in Storrs helped pave the way for him to become a head coach.
“We had quite a number of things in common… I did a lot of my practice planning myself, or cooperated with Jim. I would also watch Geno’s practices and saw how he handled the women and people in general. I think that those things were helpful,” said Dickenman.
Dickenman doesn’t only look at Calhoun and Auriemma as colleagues, but as friends as well. He insists that both coaches are only a phone call away; Dickenman is even the godfather of Auriemma’s only son Michael. Those 14 years in Storrs are felt from the moment you step into his office in Kaiser Hall.
Once you walk through the door, there is a group of photos. Front and center is a picture of Dickenman and a young Ray Allen, whom Dickenman recruited to play for UConn over 20 years ago. One picture over is Dickenman and UConn player-turned-coach Kevin Ollie sharing a bear hug on the court while coaching against each other last season. Much like Allen, Ollie also was recruited and played under Dickenman, before enjoying a long spell in the NBA.
“He means everything to me for believing in me,” said Ollie to a slew of reporters during Dickenman’s final game. “He gave me a great opportunity. Ever since then, I’ve been in love with the man. There’s only one Howie, and he recruited me very hard. He was so passionate about UConn and so passionate about what he could do for me, not just as a basketball player but as a man.”
In front of those two pictures rests a massive ring, with the Celtics logo. It’s a replica of the championship rings the Celtics received after winning their 2008 title. Allen, who was a part of the Celtics’ “Big Three” that season, decided to give it to Dickenman as a thank you for everything he had taught him.
While at UConn, Dickenman was approached by then CCSU Athletic Director Charles “CJ” Jones to take the job as head coach. Jones had known Dickenman for years, having been teammates together in the late 1960’s, he also asked Dickenman to be his best man. At first, Dickenman was unsure due to CCSU playing in the Mid-Continent conference, but after being reassured that they would join the NEC, Dickenman finally agreed. In over 8o years CCSU had jumped around from Division II to NAIA, before finally settling in Division I, the top tier of collegiate sports, in 1986. Ten years later, once Dickenmann took over, he led them to three NCAA tournament appearances, something that had never been done before at CCSU.
Five years ago when Dickenman signed his extension, he had yet to make a decision if his 20thyear would be his last. He is unsure as to how the story got out, questioning where the Hartford Courant got their information.
“I did not want the announcement to leak out. I did not want it to be a distraction,” said Dickenman of his team and the breaking news. He was also surprised about how much traction the news was garnering. “Well, it was above the fold, in the Courant. And gee, I’m not sure if my story was above the fold, or that big of a story. But it appears it’s a little bigger than I thought it would be.”
Throughout his 20 years, Dickenman has always pushed his players to not only succeed on the court but off as well. He wants his players to be humble, appreciative and thankful — he refers to it as H.A.T. It’s something he looks for in every player he recruits.
“As a student Coach D always taught us to be humble, appreciative and thankful. A motto that he’s etched into the program for as long as he’s been here. As long as I’ve been here I’ve become more responsible, more conscious about my future after basketball and just a better man overall,” said Brandon Peel, a senior who is one of the all-time greats at CCSU.
Apart from that, he also wants his students to not only play all four years at CCSU, but to finish with a degree as well.
“I’ve gone to every graduation, I’m proud to say that from all the players that have played here and stayed here after their four year career that only one has not graduated, everyone else has graduated. I am really proud of that, really proud.”
With his career as a coach now over, Dickenman isn’t quite sure how to take retirement.
“What am I going to miss most?” Dickenman paused and then flashed a smile. “I’m not sure, because I haven’t missed anything yet.”