It was not exactly how Steve Wilson wanted to start his football coaching career. He was hired at Howard University in February 1989, after most of that year's top high school players had already made commitments to other colleges. Within a month he learned nine of his top seniors -- most of the starting offense -- had been declared ineligible.
If that was not enough, he quickly realized few people thought he was the right choice. He had just finished a 10-year NFL playing career, had never coached a down on any level and at 32, would be one of the youngest Division I coaches in the nation.
Even Wilson and his staff -- he brought along several of his former Denver Broncos teammates -- were not sure what to expect.
"Before the season I had each of our coaches write down how they really thought we would do," said Wilson. "Let's just say I was a lot closer to 8-3 than any of them."
Wilson may not have had an idea that the team would finish 8-3 -- and 4-2, good for second place, in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference -- culminating with a 19-14 win over MEAC champion Delaware State. But he certainly was sure of the way he wanted to accomplish things.
He scrapped the dive/option offense of previous coach Willie Jeffries and installed a pro set. The defense was changed to multiple looks out of a 3-4 alignment, which Wilson had played with the Broncos. Howard finished as the nation's No. 1 Division I-AA team in scoring defense (allowing 10.5 points per game) and total defense (allowing 225.3 yards per game).
"We thought we had one of the best game plans any college team could have," said senior inside linebacker Kenneth Newsome, who led the Bison with 101 tackles. "It was definitely the system. Not many teams we play had ever seen anything like it. At halftime, we could adjust the whole scheme. In the defense we used to play, there just wasn't that much to adjust."
This season will be a test of whether Howard has a defensive system so foolproof that new players can be plugged into it and achieve similar results. Newsome, cornerback Walter Price and nose tackle Brian Taltoan are the only returning starters.
"A lot of our success was because of the system," said Wilson. "I don't think we will necessarily match the numbers we had last year, but I think the defense will do well because a lot of the people we will have playing, even if they didn't start last year, still know how the system works."
The defensive scheme revolves around pressure from the front and encouraging players -- especially the linebackers -- to look for big plays. The results last year were 31 forced turnovers, 52 sacks and opponents limited to 25.3 percent conversion success on third downs.
Former Bronco Rubin Carter will be the defensive coordinator because Charlie West, who oversaw the defense last year, moved to the Canadian Football League. But Carter is a product of the system, so he will make only subtle changes.
He calls players like Newsome "silent assassins" because if the scheme works, individuals can do their jobs to design and still attract minimal attention. But he sees 6-foot-3, 260-pound senior defensive end Gary Willingham being a key factor.
"Gary was hurt last year, but he must have an excellent season for us," said Carter. "He gives us strength and quickness at left end and can be a super pass rusher. He is a big-play man."
Howard's defense may not be as overwhelming as last year's model, but the offense (18.6 points per game) should be improved.
Senior quarterback Donald Carr, who was pulled as the starter at midseason, returns as the starter this year with new confidence. Senior tailback James "J.J." Carpenter, who rushed for 825 yards, will be counted upon heavily.
"I don't think our offense had the will to win last year," said Carpenter. "Every little mistake became a catastrophe. I think Donald and I both tried to do too much last year. This year we don't want the defense to feel like they must do it all."
Much help should come from a stronger offensive line, led by 6-6, 320-pound junior tackle Nigel Greene. Guard Robert Carpenter is a year better, and he started last season as a freshman. Also, Howard is eager to see the benefits of an offseason training program that reduced 6-2 senior center Paul Ramseur from a bloated 320 pounds to a streamlined 270.
Sophomore Mike Caswell (18.9 yards per catch) and senior Handy Miles (13.5) lead a dependable corps of receivers. The star of the crew may turn out to be 5-7 freshman Gary Harrell, who comes from Miami with speed, excellent hands and an unlimited array of moves.
"We didn't blow people out last year, but we played well enough to win most of the games," said Wilson. "I think we will do the same this year, and I don't really care how we do it, because when the season is over, no one ever remembers the score. They only remember how many you won and how many you lost."
1989 RECORD: 8-3 overall, 4-2 in MEAC.
COACH: Steve Wilson (second year, 8-3).
OFFENSE: Multiple pro-set.
TOP PLAYERS LOST: CB Sean Vanhorse (now with Miami Dolphins); S James Moses (now with Chicago Bears); DE David Westbrooks (now with Bears); WR Troy Kyles (now with New York Giants); LB Charles Gibbs (had team-high 12 sacks); NT James Moore (83 tackles, eight sacks).
PLAYERS TO WATCH: RB James Carpenter (825 yards rushing), Sr.; QB Donald Carr (5 TD passes, 5 TDs rushing), Sr.; WR Mike Caswell (13 catches), So.; WR Handy Miles (19 catches), Sr.; LB Kenneth Newsome (team-high 101 tackles), Sr.; CB Walter Price, Jr; NT Brian Taltoan, Sr.; DE Gary Willingham, Sr.; K Gary Mossop (12 of 15 FGAs, including final eight), Sr.; P Cedric Rawls (all-MEAC with 36.8-yard average), So.
TOP NEWCOMERS: WR Gary Harrell (Miami, Fla), Fr.; QB Chris Dubose (Lynchburg, Va.), Fr.; QB Jim Wilkins (Kennedy High School), Fr.; RB Phil Simpson (Bullis High School).
PROJECTION: The Bison will quickly see how they stand in the season opener against a good Southern University team. Likely to be immediately evident is that Howard's defense will not be as strong as last season, but the offense will be better, particularly because of a stronger offensive line. The Bison should be strong enough to contend for the MEAC title, but matching last year's 8-3 record could be a difficult feat. -- Neil H. Greenberger