Not long after Mike London accepted the head coaching job at Howard University — leaving the college football big-time as a University of Maryland assistant to take over a program that had won three games in two years — he coined a phrase for his first season. “Mission Possible” would be the team’s slogan this fall, even if the mission didn’t actually seem possible.
“That’s all we talk about,” London said Sunday afternoon. “We break every huddle down with that. We break every meeting with that. People are moved by the way you make them feel.”
What feels possible for Howard suddenly looks quite a bit different than it had before this weekend began. The Bison went to UNLV as 45-point underdogs late Saturday night. They left with a 43-40 win that goes down as one of the biggest upsets in college football history.
A $100 moneyline bet on Howard to win would have paid more than $50,000. And Howard was actually paid $600,000 for the honor of beating UNLV, according to USA Today, which reported that “Howard had to arrange for its band and cheerleaders to arrive in Las Vegas by noon the day before the game to participate in various events” to receive the full guarantee. The Bison had never beaten a team in college football’s top level — now called the Bowl Subdivision — and every game against a lower-division team may not have a printed point spread. In an opening weekend that saw plenty of stupefying surprises — Maryland winning at Texas, Liberty upending Baylor — Howard’s was perhaps the most stunning.
“It’s a very humbling experience to be a part of something that you can talk about forever,” London said, between responding to “a gazillion text messages” and breaking down the win with his mother. (“And you know when your mom calls, you can’t get off the phone real quick,” the coach added.)
“My players, the guys, I’m telling you, they are sky high right now in terms of confidence, in terms of belonging,” London went on. “We talked about how this was a business trip. This wasn’t the old typical I-AA, it’s your money game, and we’re going to be cannon fodder for this team. We came here to win the game, and that’s what happened.”
It might sound easy to have such confidence the day after that historic upset. (Or the day of, really; Howard’s win came at about 12:35 a.m. on Sunday.) But within the first few days of preseason practice, the Bison already were speaking London’s language.
“I mean, coming to Howard, it’s not a football school right now,” Caylin Newton said last month. “It will be.”
The undersized freshman quarterback — whose brother happens to be a former NFL MVP, guy named Cam — wasn’t trying to make headlines. He was speaking matter-of-factly about his decision to attend a school that had recorded just one winning football season since 2005. He hadn’t been named the school’s starter, although he was confident that moment would arrive. But Newton seemed absurdly certain that his new school — which he selected after not getting offers from any Power Five programs — was ready to take off — and soon.
Newton later became the starter, and his first game went far beyond any rational preseason rhetoric. The Associated Press said it was the largest upset of any game with a point spread in college football history, topping Stanford’s win over USC as a 40-point underdog in 2007.
The result was especially shocking in light of Howard’s recent forays against teams from the Bowl Subdivision. In 2016, the Bison lost to Maryland by 39, and to Rutgers by 38. The year before, the Bison played Boston College and Appalachian State, losing by a combined 125-0. (The Boston College game was shortened after the Bison trailed 62-0 at halftime.) The year before that included a 41-0 drubbing at Akron. The Bison went 3-19 over the past two seasons, which is why they were more than six-touchdown underdogs in their first-ever game against UNLV, and why the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted in its preview that “there also has been little news out of Howard because the school website hasn’t provided much information, and the program is barely covered by the Washington media.”
But the Bison — a historically black university and member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference — sure looked comfortable Saturday night. They forced three turnovers, including a 75-yard fumble return for a touchdown from linebacker Devin Rollins that gave them a double-digit first-half lead. They didn’t go away, even after UNLV scored 24 straight points to take a 33-21 second-half lead. And they rode Newton during a back-and-forth second half. The 5-foot-11 quarterback carried the ball 21 times for 190 yards and two touchdowns, threw for 140 yards and a touchdown, and converted a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter to give Howard a 36-33 lead. UNLV went back ahead with a Lexington Thomas touchdown, but Newton scored midway through the final period, the game’s final points.
Howard was stopped on fourth and one at the UNLV 2-yard line in the final three minutes, but the Rebels fumbled after a long completion on the next play, and Howard recovered. UNLV eventually got the ball back, but ran out of time as Bison players ran onto the field in celebration.
“One of the best sights that I’ve ever seen — for young men, people involved with the program, to have a sense of satisfaction and a smile of accomplishment on their face,” London said. “Because for so long, Howard football has kind of toiled below mediocrity. And now this could be a start of something, a catalyst toward having that mind-set, creating that culture and the desire to want to win.”
London, the longtime Virginia head coach who was most recently the associate head coach and defensive line coach at Maryland, took over at Howard in January, promising to revive a program that hadn’t made the NCAA playoffs since an 11-1 season in 1993. Newton had already committed to the school by that point, and his father, Cecil, insisted that the coaching change would not affect their plans. Caylin said he had never heard of London before he became the head coach, but both Newtons were thrilled by the hire.
“I mean, Mike London has a long-standing reputation,” Cecil Newton said. “So that in and of itself was a credit to the decision we had made, premature to knowing that he was going to be the coach.”
“It was a leap of faith. It was a trust walk,” Caylin Newton said last month. “Me and my dad had a plan, and he said we’re going to go anyway. … You know, everything happens for a reason. Who would have ever thought we would have a coach like this?”
In 2008, London led Richmond to a Football Championship Series title — the second tier of NCAA college football, at which Howard competes — and the Spiders upset Duke early in the 2009 season. His tenure at Virginia was uneven, but back at the FCS level this season, London started with an even more stunning ambush.
Then the team took a red-eye flight home from Vegas, landing early Sunday morning. London said he hadn’t slept in 48 hours, and was still trying to process what had happened. “Running on fumes,” he said with a laugh, and he guessed his players were in the same place. That’s why the plane ride home was less a party than a decompression.
“Oh my goodness,” London said. “I’ll tell you what, it’s euphoric during the game. And then when it’s over, you take a deep exhale, and it’s like, ‘Did we really just do this? Did we really just shock the world?’ And so on the plane ride home, you could have heard a pin drop.”
As the players slept, just about every national sports outlet was suddenly paying attention to Howard and its historic upset. By Sunday afternoon the athletic department had launched a “Mission Possible” gift campaign, asking for donations of $43.40 — as in, 43-40, the final score. It called to mind Newton’s comments before a preseason practice, when he was trying to make a couple of visitors understand his college choice.
“I had to say, you know what, this is my Auburn, this is my Alabama,” Newton said then. “It will get there.”
Saturday night wasn’t a bad start.
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