When Gary Harrell was named head football coach at Howard University in January, he viewed it as an opportunity to lead his Washington, D.C.-based alma mater back to prominence. As one of the greatest players to don the Bison blue and white, the man affectionately called "The Flea" still ranks in the school's top five for receiving and punt returns. The former four-year letter winner helped Howard win the MEAC and a black college national championship in 1993, with quarterback Jay Walker at the helm.
But that was then. Howard's football team has fallen on hard times since Harrell and Walker were big men on campus; the school has only produced two winning seasons since 1999. But Harrell has been working toward this moment, having had coaching jobs at Bowie State, Morgan State, Florida A&M, Texas Southern and Team Michigan, a member of the All-American Football League.
It's fitting that Harrell is back at HU. After all, not only was he a star there, Howard gave him his first-ever taste of coaching from 2002 to 2004, when he coached wide receivers. The task now is 10 times bigger, and he knows it.
"The thing I admire about him is that you rarely have a star go back to his alma mater to be a head coach," notes Jay Walker, still HU's single-season leader in pass completions (223) and passing yards (3,508). "It is a big challenge, but Harrell is ready to turn the program around."
We recently caught up with Harrell to find out how he plans to turn the Bison's fortunes around.
Q: Now that the program is yours to fix, where do you start?
A: I watched the team perform the last two or three years. When I got the job in January, I wanted to see what type of men I'm dealing with. In 1993 and 1996 we had talent, but the thing that got us through was the heart of the players. I didn't know what kind of young men I had. I've watched them throughout the years. They would start strong, but find a way to lose. That tells me that they weren't disciplined and weren't mentally strong. They didn't play as a team. My focus was to start mentally strong; they can trust me. I believe in them. I told them there's nowhere for this program to go but up.
Q: What is it like to coach at your alma mater?
A: This is the job I've always wanted ever since I started coaching. I always wanted to be the head coach at Howard University. I'm just blessed to be chosen to be in this position, where I'm trying to bring energy and passion. It's been a long ride coming from spring ball to where we are right now.
Q: How much have the alumni helped you? Have any former Howard players provided support or encouragement?
A: Ron Bartell [ St. Louis Rams] visited in the spring, and gave some experience to the young guys. It was good to see him. Antoine Bethea [Indianapolis Colts] has been one of my biggest supporters. He's a guy who played at the university and has a Super Bowl ring. He was one of the guys I called to help me get the job. We're trying to push out more guys to represent Howard on that level. I think we have them [now] with [linebacker] Keith Pough, [wide receiver] Willie Carter and [quarterback] Greg McGhee down the road. We have a great group of guys -- starting with McGhee. That's one thing about Howard University -- we were great when we had good quarterbacks like Ted White and Jay Walker. We feel like Greg McGhee can be mentioned in those conversations.
Q: What do you want to accomplish in your first year?
A: We want to win. That's the bottom line. I'm not looking at numbers as far as 6-5. I'm not really concerned about those things. When I say winning, I'm talking about getting better from Game 1 to Game 2. We're building character. We're building mind, body and soul. We want to play with a lot of pride and energy my first year. We're going to let the chips fall. In Year 2 and 3, we're going for a MEAC title. We're not using this year as an excuse. We want to win right now.
Q: Why hasn't Howard won in recent years?
A: You look at South Carolina State … every year [it is] on top. They're doing something right. We just have to recruit harder. When I was in school in 1993, the admission requirements were totally different. That's where the separation puts you on a different playing field. Stanford is able to be successful. They have great requirements as well. So, it can be done. We just have to recruit harder and build the program. We have to out-recruit Towson and Morgan State. We know we can't compete with the big ACC or SEC schools, but if we have to go to Florida or California [for players], that's what we'll do.
Q: How much has the MEAC changed since you were a player?
A: The MEAC has changed in so many ways. Back when I was in school, Bethune-Cookman wasn't the top dog; FAMU was. Now, you have Hampton, which has been very solid. In the early '90s, South Carolina State was a tough team that's now considered a favorite to win the MEAC. Now, you've added Savannah State and North Carolina Central to the MEAC to make it even more interesting. The coaches, like Buddy Pough, Joe Taylor and Donald Hill-Eley, are great. They do a great job. The conference is tough. You have to go through FAMU, South Carolina State and Bethune-Cookman if you're going to win the conference.
Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His HBCU Notebook on ESPN.com can be found here. Got a story idea for Hunt? E-mail him at email@example.com.