BILLINGS — Change can be a good thing. Bobby Howard certainly hopes it will be.
Only this came out of nowhere.
Howard spent six years as an assistant basketball coach under Mick Durham, first at the University of Alaska and then at Montana State Billings the past two seasons, but an “out of the blue” opportunity has persuaded Howard to leave the bench and enter a new facet of his career.
Two weeks ago, MSUB announced Howard had resigned to join the global company Synergy Sports Technology as an account executive. Synergy provides statistical and analytic data and video tools to help coaches scout opponents, recruit players, devise game plans and improve the overall efficiency of their teams.
Howard will handle Synergy’s accounts with men’s and women’s basketball teams across the Division II landscape, including at MSUB and the larger Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Brian Priebe, vice president of sales at Synergy and a former assistant coach at Montana State during the Brad Huse era, reached out to Howard with a job offer toward the end of MSUB’s season in late February.
Priebe was an assistant at MSU during Howard’s time there. Howard said Priebe was his “rock” when he was with the Bobcats, hence the connection.
“I never knew a job like this existed,” said Howard, who was a 1,300-point scorer at Montana State from 2007-11. “That’s kind of the exciting thing about it. It’s something I never thought I’d be doing. It’s a good situation for me, working for a guy I know and trust. I wouldn’t have left a guy that I trust and respect as much as coach Durham if it wasn’t for an opportunity like this.”
“Just knowing who Bobby is and what he’s about as far as a person, work ethic and skill set, it made it a really natural thing to reach out and see if he’d have interest,” said Priebe, who also is a color analyst for MSU’s home men’s basketball radio broadcasts.
As part of its company description, Synergy says it analyzes and dissects more than 50,000 basketball games (above the high school level) world wide.
Priebe said Synergy’s services, particularly on the video side, can help coaching staffs save and repurpose between 300-500 hours per season.
“It’s pretty impactful,” Priebe said. “There’s a reason why every D-I, D-II, almost every D-II, almost every NAIA college, men’s and women’s, use Synergy.”
Howard’s job will be to find ways for the coaches and programs he deals with to strategically utilize the database in ways that will benefit them the most, be it from statistical breakdowns to video scouting.
“I grew up around coaching my whole life,” he said. “I know the stress and the pressure they’re under. And if I can help them in any way alleviate that, I want to. That’s why this company has been so good. It’s helped a lot of coaches stay in the game.”
It marks the end of an era for Howard and Durham, a connection that began when the latter was the head coach at Montana State.
Howard, who starred at Great Falls High under the tutelage of his dad, Bob, said he plans to work remotely from Billings as a way to stay connected with his younger brother Brendan, an all-conference performer for Durham at MSUB who just wrapped up his sophomore season.
But that will also be a difficult reality of moving on: Howard won’t be able to coach his brother in an official capacity any longer.
“The tough part is him leaving Brendan. But I think it will work out,” Durham said. “At Montana State I coached my own son, and then the toughest part when I left was that Casey still had two years left. I guess I kind of equate it to that a little bit. I think that’s where Bobby was torn the most. He was with his brother every day. They’re best friends.”
Previously, Howard said he had aspirations to one day become a head coach. But that is on the backburner, at least for now.
“That’s a pretty hard dream to give up on, and I don’t necessarily see me taking this job as giving up on that,” he said. “It may detour it, but I’ll never say no to opportunities. I don’t make decisions on a whim and this came as a surprise, but it was definitely thought out.”
As for Durham, he now must fill Howard’s void on the bench and hire a new assistant. But there’s one catch: Due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, Durham said, the Montana University System has instituted a temporary hiring freeze.
Along those same lines, recruiting across NCAA Divisions I and II has been suspended until at least April 15.
“Coaches come and go in a hurry in this profession,” Durham said. “You’ve got to be able to move on. You lose games, you lose recruits … you’ve just got to keep moving forward. So that’s what we’re doing now.
“Once the hiring freeze is over the job needs to be posted for two weeks and then I can look to move on. We’re getting quite a bit of interest on it and we’re sorting through that. I kind of have some ideas in mind.
“I’m a Montana guy. I like to take care of our own. If there’s someone that I think is qualified in the state of Montana, they’re going to get a really good look.”