Billy Coward wore a broad smile when he walked into Burr Gymnasium yesterday nearly two hours before his first game as the interim coach of the Howard University men's basketball team. Coward, the kicking coach on the Bison's football team, took over after Howard fired coach Kirk Saulny and his coaching staff Friday for violating NCAA and university rules. Coward brushed off suggestions that a complex task awaited him.
"What's hard about it?" Coward asked, with a laugh. "I'm going to learn everybody's name. I'm not going to change anything. We're just going to get going."
His presence made an immediate impact. Howard ended a 22-game losing streak by stunning North Carolina A&T, 69-62, in the Bison's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference opener.
Senior guard Antonio Michell led an 11-point run in the final minute that gave Howard (1-9, 1-0) the victory, its first since Jan. 11, 1999. Michell credited the team's former coaches for the Bison's ability to secure the win.
"They're the reason why we got this victory," Michell said after scoring a team-high 14 points. "This was definitely for the whole coaching staff, but Coach Coward came in and kept everybody under control."
Howard administrators dismissed Saulny and his two paid assistants, Darryl Bruce and Lamont Franklin, and told volunteer assistant coach Eric Saulny that he wouldn't be needed. The university also declared junior forward Donte Lincoln and sophomore forward Darren Kennedy ineligible for the rest of the season.
Howard Athletic Director Hank Ford named Coward the interim coach, and yesterday refused to comment on all matters regarding the Bison basketball team.
The university said in a statement released Friday that it "cannot and will not tolerate conduct inconsistent with NCAA bylaws and our own conduct." Rules violations were found during an internal investigation of the program that began this past summer after the NCAA's enforcement staff asked university officials to review allegations it had received.
Coward hadn't coached a basketball game since he ran the team at Bell Vocational High School in the early 1970s. Bell made the city finals twice in four years with him at the helm, but Coward kept a low profile yesterday, opting mostly to sit on the bench with his trusty clipboard.
"I'm elated and happy things turned out this way," Coward said. "Coach Saulny did a very good job [and you] can see the results of his teachings."
Coward worked alone on the bench but said he has started looking for two assistants.
The Bison kept the game under control against a taller North Carolina A&T (2-10, 1-3) team. Early in the second half, Howard blew a 12-point lead, but Michell, Jonathan Stokes (13 points) and others helped the Bison play strong half-court basketball and rally for the win.
"We didn't really feel pressure out there," Michell said. "This is something to me."