Howard University is known for a lot of things, but not much positive in the field of athletics.
The famed school in northwest D.C. has produced more African-American Ph.D.’s, lawyers and architects than any other institution. Equally impressive is the number of black doctors, dentists, engineers and other professionals who graduated from “The Mecca.”
And the list of former students who enjoy big-time careers in business, politics and entertainment is unsurpassed, especially among historically black colleges and universities. The history dates to Howard’s founding in 1867 and the current wave includes TV stars Taraji P. Henson and Anthony Anderson, mayors Kasim Reed and Ras Baraka, and entrepreneurs Cathy Hughes and Sean Combs.
Unfortunately, my alma mater’s athletic department has failed to keep up, particularly in the marquee sports. Howard has just two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference football titles (1987 and 1993) since joining the league in 1970. Success on the hardwood has been similarly infrequent, with a mere three tournament crowns in men’s basketball (1980, 1981 and 1993).
But the university took a step in the right direction last week when it hired Mike London as football coach. London, who won a Division 1-AA national title at Richmond (2008) and was named Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year at Virginia (2011), gives the Bison a level of credibility they haven’t enjoyed since alum and 10-year NFL veteran Steve Wilson patrolled the sidelines.
“I think with his leadership and his reputation, it immediately makes Howard’s football program relevant,” University of Michigan assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Pep Hamilton said during a phone interview. Hamilton played quarterback and won the Bison football team’s scholar-athlete award in 1995 and 1996.
“Talk about being excited about new leadership of the program,” Hamilton said. “You have to give credit to our athletic director for not only the ability to acquire a high-caliber coach like Mike London, but the ability to articulate his vision to a coach who easily could be a head coach at a (Football Bowl Subdivision) school.”
Alums have long complained about the imbalance between Howard’s academic and athletic profiles. Kery Davis, the athletic director hired in 2015 after serving as an executive at HBO Sports for 17 years, wants to bridge the divide. Davis sees no reason that Howard can’t have the best of both, like Harvard basketball or Stanford football.
“They’re like that because the athletics and the academics help each other,” Davis said in his office last fall. “They support each other. They feed off each other and we have the opportunity to do that. I want to build our program like an Ivy League or Patriot League program, schools where they emphasize academics and athletics is a big part of the overall student experience.”
Homecoming weekends and the Showtime Marching Band have been athletics’ most significant contribution to the student experience. London experienced another facet of campus life while strolling on the quadrangle last week – January 9 to be exact.
“I’m a member of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity and (that day) happened to be our anniversary,” London said during a phone interview. “I walked through the middle of campus and ran into about 200 Sigmas. We sang songs and held hands. It reminded me of when I was in college as a freshman, getting involved with the frat and playing football.”
London spent last season at Maryland as associate head coach/defensive line coach, where his recruiting prowess helped the Terrapins land a Top 20 class. The Hampton (Va.) native’s roots and relationships in the fertile District-Maryland-Virginia region hold great promise for Howard, which plans to highlight the value of its degrees and vast alumni network.
In the 15 seasons since Wilson left, Howard has posted just one winning record, going 7-4 in 2012 under Gary “Flea” Harrell, whose contract was not renewed last November. The Bison went 3-19 combined the last two seasons, a repeat of the dismal 2009-2010 stretch under Carey Bailey that prompted Harrell’s hiring.
Before London would sign, he needed commitments from Davis and university president Wayne A. Frederick. Howard has never made the type of investment – i.e., spent money – in coaching staffs, facilities and amenities that’s associated with competitive athletic programs. Hamilton said the place looks pretty much the same “as when I stepped on campus in 1992 as an 18-year-old out of Charlotte.”
But Wilson proved that success was possible, regardless, leading Howard to black national championships in 1993 and 1996. Hamilton’s predecessor as well as his successor at quarterback – Jay Walker and Ted White, respectively – each played professionally, with New England making Walker a seventh-round pick in 1994. Howard also has produced several NFL players, including Pro Bowl safety Antoine Bethea, who won a Super Bowl with Indianapolis.
London has coached his share of NFL talents, too, among them 2008 first-round pick Chris Long at Virginia. The percentage of his players who advance to the next level likely will be lower than if he stayed at in the FBS, but London is embracing a greater mission at Howard.
“Now is my chance to be at a university that really talks about values and things that are interesting and important to me,” he said. “That’s becoming an educated man in the 21st century. I see Howard as an opportunity to share a clear vision on being successful not only in sports, but definitely after football. I just think it’s the right time.”
Also the right time for football to carry its weight.