When Chris Howard accepted a coaching position at Palm Springs High School last summer, he did so knowing that the man he would be replacing had the Indians on a streak of six consecutive Desert Valley League titles and had not lost more than a single league game over the last four years.
He also knew that the longtime coach who had built Palm Springs into a desert powerhouse in boys’ basketball would continue overseeing every intricate detail of the program as Howard’s new boss.
Dennis Zink was hired as the school’s athletic director and vice principal in late June after nine seasons as the boys’ basketball coach. During that time, he set a standard that would be difficult for almost any coach to follow.
“It’s good and bad for Chris,” Zink said. “On the one hand, he can use me as a resource, but then you have expectations to live up to that are sometimes unrealistic.”
But Howard sees having Zink so close through a much different lens, particularly after a 5-11 start and 3-2 record in league play.
“It’s actually been my biggest strength having this guy as my boss,” Howard said. “Our relationship isn’t normal between head coaches and ADs, I think.”
Howard has been around five different high schools with six different athletic directors during his playing and coaching career in Southern California. The dynamic of his working relationship with Zink is a resource to him that new head coaches rarely have.
It has created what Howard describes as somewhat of a mentorship. He said Zink gives him room to run his program and doesn’t interfere in the day-to-day operations, but is still there to offer advice about everything from building a successful program to tactical decision making when solicited.
Howard said the two have sat down to analyze film together and share their visions of what a successful program should be. Though Howard said he is careful not to take too much of Zink’s time away from the other sports at the school.
“I don’t ever feel judged or evaluated,” Howard said. “It’s not a boss/employee talk. It’s really open book, which I think is really unique.”
One thing that has strengthened the bond Howard has with Zink is that they both share the same philosophy when it comes to a general coaching theme. Though both admit that they want to win as badly as the next guy, they are far more concerned with the long-term process that will build sustained success.
“I don’t feel any pressure as far as from them,” Howard said. “I put pressure on myself. But it’s not about wins and losses — It’s about the process. We don’t talk keys to winning. We talk about keys to being successful. And if you’re successful, you’ll win.”
It’s a mantra that Howard has had to remind himself at times this season as the wins have not come as easily as they have in the past. Two-time league MVP Quentin Taylor is gone. Starting point guard E.J. Colomo was lost for the season with a torn ACL. The roster, while talented, is collectively young, with just two seniors.
Because of the situation Zink found himself in when he took over the basketball program, he said he’s patient and more focused on that process. He inherited a program that wasn’t overly successful and found a formula that produced sustained success.
When Zink first hired Howard, he made sure to tell him that he didn’t simply want him to reciprocate his success. No, he said he wanted to work with him to help take the program to even greater heights.
“The process is what gets you wins,” Zink said. “If everything is done right, then the winning and losing takes care of itself. The difficult thing is, in your first year, people have to buy into that process and that takes time.”
With Zink’s help, getting the kids to buy in has not been a problem this season, Howard said. He recalls that not once has one of the players said, “That’s not how Coach Zink would do it.”
“That was a fear of mine coming in,” Howard said. “But working closely with Zink has helped everybody to buy in and as we keep working closely, we believe we will be very successful.”