The sun was shining on the Hilltop yesterday afternoon, an apt metaphor for the suddenly sunny atmosphere surrounding the long-downtrodden Howard football program.
The Bison, winners in 18 of 27 seasons from 1972-98 including Division I-AA playoff berths in 1987 and 1993 and the black national championship in 1996, were under .500 in eight of the past 10 years, never going better than 6-5. In the three years before Gary “Flea” Harrell, a star receiver on the 1993 playoff team, returned to Howard in 2011, the Bison hit rock-bottom with a combined 4-29 record.
But last Saturday’s triumph over Morgan State before a packed homecoming crowd at Greene Stadium improved Howard to 5-2, 4-1 in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference heading into Saturday’s visit to South Carolina State (2-5, 1-3). The “Road To Redemption” theme that Howard created after Harrell was hired, is already close to fruition.
“We are ahead of schedule, there’s no doubt about it,” said Harrell, who was 5-6 in his debut at his alma mater last season, including victories against North Carolina A&T and Hampton and at Florida A&M. “When we took over, we sold recruits on what we did at Howard in the classroom, on the football field and on campus. I knew it would be a tough task to get these guys to believe they could win. We hadn’t beaten those teams in years. To win those games, it kind of changed the mindset. If you’re successful at Howard, that means a lot in Washington and around the country. It helps you out down the road.”
Harrell has surrounded himself with other veterans of the good times at Howard. Offensive coordinator Ted White was the quarterback of the 1996 team. Defensive coordinator Ray Petty was an assistant on the 1993 and 1996 teams. Defensive backs coach Ron Bolton helped guide Antoine Bethea and Ron Bartell to successful NFL careers.
“We have a passion for Howard University,” said White, whose prize protégé, sophomore quarterback Greg McGhee, wears the No. 7 that he and former NFL passer Jay Walker did for the Bison.
So does the 6-3, 200-pound McGhee, a Pittsburgh native who spurned hometown schools Duquesne and Robert Morris for the chance to play right away for Harrell and White. Harrell played in the NFL while White has training camp experience as a player and as a coaching intern.
“Coach Harrell wanted to give me an opportunity to change things around here so I figured I would give him one, and when I came here on my visit, it reminded me of home,” said McGhee, one of a dozen or so players who were ineligible for some September games for violations of NCAA rules regarding funds allocated for textbook purchases.
“I didn’t know you couldn’t buy anything in the bookstore other than books with the money,” McGhee explained. “You learn from your mistakes. After I missed those games, it was going to take some time to get back to where we were last year. We’re there, but we want to win the MEAC [and a playoff berth]. My birthday falls on Thanksgiving this year and my mom keeps asking if I’m coming home. I tell her I don’t want to because that means we didn’t win the MEAC.”
While McGhee, who has been guilty of trying to do too much as a sophomore after a strong freshman year, has two more seasons at Howard, this is the last shot for senior linebacker Keith Pough, the Bison’s unquestioned leader who’s being scouted by NFL teams.
“It’s surreal to be 5-2,” said the 6-3, 235-pound Pough. “Going 2-9 and 1-10 made me stronger for this day. Had we always been winning like we did in high school [in Orangeburg, S.C.], I would never appreciate the value of winning and the struggle. The adversity made me a better teammate and a better leader. It was tough on campus when we weren’t winning. Nobody cares about you.”
That’s certainly no longer the case, but Pough still wasn’t happy last Saturday because he thought Howard, whose only losses have come at A&T and at Rutgers (18th-ranked in FBS), should’ve beaten Morgan much worse than 21-20.
Perhaps, but Harrell is happy with where his program is headed.
“To win the MEAC [in which Bethune-Cookman and North Carolina Central are unbeaten heading into their matchup on Saturday] would do so much for the guys like Keith who went through the 2-9 and 1-10 seasons to go out as MEAC champs,” Harrell said. “And it would bring so much awareness to Howard University. Before, we had to go out and beat the bushes for players. Now folks want to come to Howard. They want to play with Greg McGhee and be the next Keith Pough. Winning ballgames adds to the value of what Howard has to offer. We’re playing for a purpose.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin