Keeping players at Howard University academically eligible, a big problem when Coach Floyd Keith arrived three years ago, remains the major worry for the Bison as they struggle to reach parity with the powers of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Keith, in the third year of a five-year contract, directed the Bison to a 6-2-2 record last year. A victory at Western Illinois Saturday or against Morgan State Nov. 21 would guarantee the school's first back-to-back winning seasons since 1974-75. Two victories would give Howard (5-3) its most wins since the 1975 team went 8-3 under Keith's predecessor, Doug Porter. All three losses this year, and both last year, came against MEAC opponents.

The eligibility problem was here before Keith and there has been some improvement.

"I don't think we knew how to win on or off the field when we came here," said Keith, who said he believes the Bison are two or three players away from competing evenly with the MEAC's best. "My biggest concern has been turnover. That (grades) takes up all of my spring. It's frustrating, but that's part of coaching."

Every year, Howard fields a young football team. The freshmen and sophomores often do not reach their potential because they fall victim to their grade-point averages before becoming upperclassmen. Only six seniors, out of a freshman class that included 15 players, are currently on the team. All are on schedule to graduate on time this spring.

In Porter's last season -- he was at Howard five years, compiling a 30-21-2 record before being fired -- 18 players were academically ineligible. The following summer, more than 40 players had to attend summer classes just to meet minimum eligibility requirements. Fewer than 20 survived to start practice for the 1980 season.

Under Keith, the problem has lessened. Five players became academically ineligible this season; all five, including three on the offensive line, were key performers. By the third week of the season, three members of the defensive line had been converted to offensive linemen.

Senior quarterback Raymond Gray says both Porter and Keith emphasized academics, but took different approaches in getting the players to do their schoolwork. Gray said Porter expected his players to be mature enough to do it on their own. Keith, a disciplinarian, has mandatory study halls for freshmen and is constantly stressing the importance of academics.

"This year, I thought we would have been on an equal basis (with South Carolina State and Florida A&M) except for the people who were ineligible," said Gray. "We were depending on these people. They were our core from last year, but instead of having these players back, we had to depend on freshmen. Until we get players like that back, we'll be a notch below."

Keith's first two years were full of controversy. Players charged that they were not given enough to eat. Allegations were made, and supported by a university task-force report, that players were physically and verbally abused. Several former players said they were not given proper medical treatment, and one, Ricky Tripplet, said he was dismissed from the team when he tried to spend more time studying at the expense of football.

Last April, 60 football players boycotted the school's annual sports banquet in April, demanding 18 conditions be met. Two key demands -- the dismissal of Athletic Director Leo Miles and the removal of Carl Anderson, the vice president for university affairs, from control of the athletic program -- were quickly dropped. This fall, however, some of the lesser demands have been met and the players seem more content.

The spring protest has brought about a reorganization of the tutoring program for players. Keith has always had his mandatory study hall for freshmen, but now the number of tutors and special tutors has been increased to 25. Control of the tutoring program for athletes was switched from the athletic department to the university's counseling service. Keith says he also is actively seeking more academically oriented players.

The banquet protest also brought about other changes. The athletes are now given larger portions of food at each meal, although they still do not have a "training table" with unlimited portions. The university is preparing to advertise for a full-time certified medical trainer. The football team has been staying in hotels on the road this year rather than on the campus of the teams it plays. At home, all the players now live in one dorm, and they feel that move has brought a closeness that carries over onto the field.

Most concerned with the advancement of Howard football say the winning records are fine, but that program will not be a success until the Bison become competitive with MEAC opponents South Carolina State and Florida A&M. Howard is 2-9 against S.C. State, having lost the last seven meetings. The A&M Rattlers have beaten the Bison eight of nine times, losing only in 1975.

"I guess 7-3 would be okay," said senior wide receiver Robert Artisst, "but it bothers me personally that we never beat those teams while I was here."

It bothers other players that Keith demoted several of the seniors recruited by Porter. Starting quarterback Gray, tailback Bufus Outlaw and defensive end Reggie Johnson lost their starting positions by the fourth week of the season.

Artisst became a part-time player after coming back from a shoulder separation. After the fourth game, the schedule got easier, a factor in Howard's current four-game winning streak, accomplished with those Keith recruited.

No one will say so publicly, but there is some concern among the younger players that the same fate awaits them when they are seniors.

Keith denies it. "I only play my best people," Keith said. "Now, if there was a circumstance where a senior and another player were equal in ability, but the senior gave us a quality of leadership, I would play the senior. But that wasn't the case, so I just went with the best I had."

The consensus from interviews with athletic officials, players and several alumni is that Keith has done a more-than-creditable job, considering the circumstances. The players talk about his dedication and knowledge of the game. Anderson and Miles also seem satisfied.

"I'm always cautious; I always have cautious optimism all the time," Miles said. "I can't necessarily hold the coach responsible if the youngster doesn't go to class or won't study. All I can say is some of the things Keith has done have been successful. We've seen fewer and fewer kids ineligible."

Added Anderson: "I think Coach Keith has done an excellent job. If he can keep the talent eligible, he can continue to do it."

Even Ewart Brown, a Los Angeles physician who heads "Alumni to Save Howard Athletics" and has been a frequent critic of the football program, says he's satisfied with Keith. "If he's winning and his players are more settled, I have to be satisfied," he said.