Butch Beard has been around basketball long enough to be able to quickly assess a situation -- and face its realities.

Hired in July to take over a Howard University program that had flourished for 13 years under A.B. Williamson, but floundered for the past two seasons, Beard has not exactly stepped into the ideal spot.

The Bison were a combined 17-39 the last two years. Beard was hired too late to recruit for this season. He does not have a big man. He will begin practice Monday having seen his players perform only on tape. And before he can do anything on the court, he must solve the discipline and dissension problems that accompanied Williamson's downfall.

"I am not a genius. It may take a year or two or three, and I am prepared to take my bumps and bruises," said Beard, an NBA assistant for six seasons. "I know what these kids have gone through because I know what losing is all about. After all, I have been with the New Jersey Nets the past two years."

Beard, 43, also knows about winning.

At Louisville, he was a teammate of Bullets Coach Wes Unseld. After becoming a No. 1 draft choice of the Atlanta Hawks in 1969, he played nine seasons in the NBA. He was an all-star in 1972.

Beard was a member of 1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors. He gives Howard the rare distinction of having a basketball coach and a football coach {Steve Wilson} who each played in professional sports championships. Wilson went to two Super Bowls with the Denver Broncos.

Wilson was hired at Howard immediately after he retired as a player. His success also was immediate and his stature has been a major boost to Howard's athletic program.

The school was flooded with big-name applicants for its basketball job, many with major college coaching experience. Beard emerged with the job because there was a feeling around Howard that he could do for the basketball program what Wilson did for football.

But the situations are not comparable, and those who expect Beard to quickly produce results similar to those of Wilson (13-3 in his career) might be disappointed.

Wilson inherited a happy group with considerable talent. The 1989-90 basketball season ended in chaos, with Williamson rumored to be a lame duck for several months.

"It is a down period for Howard basketball right now," said Beard, who for the past 10 days has traveled from New York to Georgia trying to make recruiting contacts. "I don't know where we will be. I have to think everything was unraveling last year and nobody likes to lose. What I am hoping we can do is put out a team that plays hard and is competitive every night."

He is unsure whether that is possible.

"I have seen some good things on film, but I think this was a group of underachievers last year," he said. "I really won't know what I have until we get out onto the court, but I think we will have to become overachievers in order to have a big year."

The Nets taught Beard more about underachieving than he cares to remember. But he started as an NBA assistant with the New York Knicks, where he learned a little about getting the most out of athletes from someone who built a career out of it.

"If it wasn't for Red Holtzman," he says of the former Knicks coach, "I probably wouldn't even be in this. I always wanted to be a coach, but I thought it was going to be at the high school level. Now it came time that I had to see if I could be a success as a head coach, whether it was at the pro level or college level. I liked the idea of coming to Howard because after talking with {new Howard president} Dr. {Franklyn} Jenifer, I believed in what he was trying to do by raising the program to a new level. I would like to think I can help do that."

Beard will start that quest with 13 returning players, including all the starters, but inconsistent is the best way to describe 6-foot-8 forward-center Tyrone Powell (10.3 points, 7.0 rebounds), 6-5 forward Keith Kirven (10.7 points, 6.7 rebounds), sophomore guard Milan Brown (35.1 field goal percentage) and junior guard Martin Huckaby (team-leading 11.9 points on 34.9 shooting).

Perhaps no one suffered as much last season as Huckaby. And no one is as enthused about Beard as Huckaby, who by the middle of last season was considering transferring.

"Last year, as a captain, it was really frustrating for me because I came from a high school {Bristol Central in Connecticut} that was 90-7 in my four years," said Huckaby. "I knew it would be difficult last year, but I thought we would come around in the second half. But {we} never did. No one knew their roles. There was dissension. Coming to practice day to day wasn't fun. I was 21, and it was the first time in my life I had lost the feeling for something I loved."

Huckaby said Beard has rekindled the feeling.

"We are excited because the man knows his game," Huckaby said. "He has been there. What he says is not from a book and is not from a clinic. My vision is alive again. My flame is burning again. He brings a fire to the game."

Huckaby says the team needed discipline and said Beard has instilled it. Nightly study halls are mandatory. He has warned players he will not tolerate a replay of last season.

"I think the whole thing is discipline," said Jerry Eaves, 30, who played at Louisville, spent four seasons in the NBA and left an insurance job in Dallas to assist Beard at Howard. "I think they just need a whole lot of discipline.

"When I came here, everyone had their story, but everyone who doesn't succeed in life has their story. I tell them we can be 8-20 with all walk-ons. They will start doing things our way or they can just go to school and graduate. There will be no debate."

On the court, Beard's major change will be an uptempo game as opposed to the deliberate style preferred by Williamson last year.

"I look for him to have a good season in three years, but it would not surprise me if Butch has them in contention the first year," said Steve Favors, Howard vice president of student affairs. "But I think if he plays exciting ball, the fans have a way of coming to your rescue even when you don't win."

Beard is ready for whatever comes his way at Howard. He learned that pleasing everyone is impossible from his NBA days -- many thought he did not live up to his potential as a No. 1 selection despite his nine-year longevity.

"A lot of people look at me and say, 'You were a journeyman,' " said Beard. "But I have no problem with my playing days. I have a championship ring. There a lot of guys out there who did a lot of things, and they don't have one."

Four new major college basketball coaches in the area are getting ready for their first practices next week. Next: Jeff Jones of Virginia.