Howard University's football program, which was revived in the late 1980s by then-coach Willie Jeffries and has been taken to another level the past two years by his successor, Steve Wilson, is embarking on plans that would make the Bison nationally known in Division I-AA.

Howard hopes to make a major upgrade in its schedule and to expand Greene Stadium by 6,000 seats for the 1991 season. Within the next three years the Bison hope to add a Division I-A school to their schedule.

The key to Howard's plans is becoming a major participant on the growing "classics" circuit of black college football. Last year Howard defeated Grambling, 6-0, in the Whitney Young Classic, which drew 33,000 at Giants Stadium. This year, Howard opened its season with a 26-21 victory over Southern University of Baton Rouge, La., in the Los Angeles Football Classic. That game drew 46,000 at the Los Angeles Coliseum and netted each school $100,000.

"We hope to play in at least two classics a year, mainly for the exposure and to let the rest of America know we have a team capable of playing anywhere and being victorious," said Howard Athletic Director William Moultrie. "Beating Southern in Los Angeles was a prime example, but we are still the new kid on the block."

Before playing in the Meadowlands and in Los Angeles, the Bison rarely played out of the East Coast corridor between Delaware and northern Florida. Most of its nonleague games were against Division II and NAIA opponents, reflecting ties Howard had with smaller schools from its days in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference before it joined the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in 1971.

Although Howard has wanted to maintain some alliances with smaller historically black colleges, the continued nonleague meetings with those schools has hurt Howard. In 1987, the Bison were 9-1, but were not selected for the 16-team Division I-AA postseason tournament. The selection committee cited a weak schedule as reason to not invite the team with the second-best I-AA record in the country.

Lack of national athletic recognition, and a schedule this year that includes Division II schools such as Morris Brown, Morehouse College and Virginia State, are hurting the Bison once again. They have won 19 of their last 20 against non-I-AA opponents.

Howard enters Saturday's game in Atlanta against Morehouse with the nation's longest I-AA winning streak, seven games, including three this season. Last year, in Wilson's first season, Howard ranked No. 1 in I-AA total defense. This season, despite losing eight defensive starters, the Bison are No. 8 in total defense and No. 1 in passing efficiency defense.

Yet in this week's Division I-AA poll, the Bison are unranked, although they received a few votes. Much of the problem is that the school remains little known when it comes to football, at which the Bison reached a low during a 3-22 stretch from 1983-85.

But Howard has always maintained significant national prominence in other areas. It is one of the nation's three largest black universities. A study in 1988 showed 60 percent of all practicing black doctors and dentists in the country attended Howard as either an undergraduate or for medical school.

"In the early days of Howard, athletics was downplayed because they were afraid academics and athletics wouldn't mix," said Ricky Clemons, Howard's assistant athletic director for promotions and marketing. "But it is definitely time for a change."

Moultrie said a contract has been signed for an appearance next year in the Circuit City Classic in the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome against Alcorn State, which like Southern and Grambling is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the nation's most prestigious black league.

Howard is negotiating with organizers of the Whitney Young Classic for a meeting with Grambling. It is hoping for a return invitation to the Los Angeles Classic. If both games are arranged, Howard will make every schedule accommodation possible to play in all three classics.

Wilson called this year's Los Angeles Classic "our bowl game. The only difference for us is that other teams play in bowl games at the end of the season and we are playing in ours at the beginning of the season."

This year, there are 23 classics scheduled. Many match traditional rivals at neutral sites in major stadiums. They are beginning to take precedence over league competition and the Division I-AA playoffs, in which most first-round teams barely break even financially.

"The classic concept has entered as a means of marketing for black schools," said MEAC Commissioner Ken Free. "The games have {monetary} guarantees. They can be the financial salvation of {athletics at} black colleges."

Howard feels it must join in now before it is left out of classics that rotate the invited participants. Wilson sees classics as means of expanding Howard's recruiting base. Clemons said the games that interest Howard are in major metropolitan areas where the school has considerable alumni.

Howard's readiness to step into the spotlight has spurred the plans to renovate Greene Stadium, which three years ago was fitted with a new artificial surface and new bleachers. Clemons said the plans are funded and await a final approval.

The stadium addition would enclose the stadium's north end, forming seating horseshoe. The scoreboard would move to the south end. The addition would give Howard a total of 14,000 seats.

The expansion is important, Clemons said, because it would create new seating for students and open the best seats for potential season ticket holders. The school does not sell season tickets now, but Clemons said he thinks Howard could sell 3,000-5,000 season tickets for next season if it could guarantee preferential seating through the expansion.

The additional seating gives Howard the potential to set up home-and-home series with new opponents.

"We want to play schools like the James Madisons, the Navys, the Northeasterns and some SWAC opponents," said Clemons.

Moultrie and Wilson are also looking toward adding one or two Division I-A opponents in the near future. But Wilson said he would not schedule I-A opponents just to be fodder for a gate guarantee.

"A great deal of money comes with those situations, and you must think about that, but we will not do it unless we can also be competitive," he said. "You must build your program to get to that point, and it takes a few years. We are not there yet. We are still in the mud -- the cement hasn't dried yet. We are working on it."