Floyd Keith has quickly ensconced himself in the new-look Howard University football program of his own creation. Now the first-year head coach can tell others where he intends to take it.
"There are a lot of positives that can come out of any program," Keith said yesterday on the eve of fall practice. "But there are only two places to shoot for: first place and no place."
Where Keith intends to go is to the former, if the sweeping changes he has instituted are any indication. A revamped and larger coaching staff, new facilities, more discipline and a tougher off-field conditioning regimen are novelties for veteran Bison players.
Many of those returning players looked around the practice field on team picture day yesterday and noticed fewer faces than in spring practice.
"We're going to have a lot of new faces here this year," Keith said.
Keith will have to find replacements for his top three offensive tackles from the spring, last year's starting center, a potential first-string middle guard and starting defensive secondary man. All are academically ineligible.
"I can sit back, moan and go beg a teacher to make somebody eligible again," Keith said. "Or, I can make it an example so that the others know what this program stands for. I've had it up to here with alibis and excuses. You can have a good football program and be a good student.
"Probably the biggest opponent in the past has been the habits of the players in the classroom."
To make sure that doesn't recur, the new coach began a mandatory study table for players on the academic fringe, as well as for all freshmen. Each of Keith's five assistant coaches is charged with keeping check on classroom progress.
But Keith, who came to Howard from an assistant coaching position at the University of Colorado, is not neglecting Bison physiques. An offseason weight program has more than doubled the number of players who bench press at least 300 pounds. Tom Perry - who came with Keith from Colorado and is big enough to encourage the players to pursue the strength course - oversees it as well as new endurance tests.
Depending on position, a player must run a quarter-mile under a certain time, rest 10 seconds and then run a half-mile under another time. And if they don't?
"Then they're on the dawn patrol," said Keith, referring to a 5:30 a.m. jogging session.
"I don't know exactly why, but I know they lost some key games in the fourth quarter last season. One goal of mine is to try and finish every game strong. And a sounder player is a more consistent one."
Keith's predecessor, Doug Porter, complained last season that the university didn't support the football program. Keith has had no problems obtaining what was promised him before he agreed to take the job.
All players live in the same dormitory, another first for Howard. Howard purchased $14,000 worth of exercise equipment without a whimper. That was in addition to the 20 additional four-year grants already in the works to reach the Division 1-A scholarship limit of 95. Keith's five full-time assistants are three more than Porter had last season, and he also has two part-time assistants.
"The most important thing a new, young coach can have is good assistants," said the 30-year old Keith. "These are good energetic young people."
Keith has watched films and 20 spring workouts. He still hasn't completely evaluated the 52 returning players and redshirts, and the 39 newcomers. Keith managed to recruit 29 of the new players despite assuming his job in February, very late in the recruiting season.
"I try not to have any preconceived ideas about any kids," Keith said. "The big thing I look for is character. Several are close in ability. But I want the guy who can fight adversity, to pay the price to be the best he can."