Howard Coach Gary Harrell, left, returned to his alma mater to revive a football program that went 4-29 over the previous three seasons. (John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST)

For the past several years there’s really been only one reason to show up at Greene Stadium on a fall afternoon to watch a Howard football game.

The band.

That’s what Gary Harrell is trying to change. Not that he wants the band to stop being great. He just wants his alma mater’s football team to be considerably better than 4-29, which was Howard’s record in the three seasons prior to his arrival as head coach this fall.

“We’re still putting the pieces together,” Harrell said late Saturday afternoon, after Georgetown had worn his team down in the fourth quarter en route to a 21-3 victory on a gorgeous, windy afternoon. “Right now, [the Hoyas] are a little bit further down the road than we are as a program. But we’ll get there. We need to get some more experience and some more depth. It takes time.”

If anyone can empathize with Harrell, it is Georgetown Coach Kevin Kelly. He’s in his sixth season and is just starting to see a little bit of light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel — one that included a winless 2009. Saturday’s victory made the Hoyas 5-2, putting them one victory away from their first winning season since 1999.

Kelly won five games in his first four seasons at Georgetown. In some ways, his job may be more difficult than Harrell’s because at least Howard has recent history — an 11-1 record in 1993, when a 5-foot-7 wide receiver named Gary “Flea” Harrell was a senior; and a 10-2 record three years later. Georgetown didn’t even play football from 1951 to 1970.

“We really did hit bottom two years ago,” Kelly said. “It was a combination of things that went wrong. Now, though, I think we’ve got some experience and we’re learning how to win. That’s where you have to start and then you go from there.”

The key thing for Howard is wanting to win. For a long time, there just weren’t many people in charge at the school who cared about athletics. Howard’s legacy as an academic school is extraordinary. Ralph Bunche, the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, was once chairman of the political science department. Thurgood Marshall got his law degree there after being told he couldn’t attend the University of Maryland’s law school because he was black.

The list of distinguished alumni is lengthy, including Andrew Young, Vernon Jordan, Toni Morrison and Ossie Davis. The school’s role in the civil rights movement is a major part of American history. It was a Howard philosophy student named Stokely Carmichael who coined the phrase “black power.”

But the school, like the athletic department, fell on hard times in the past few years. In 2007, the faculty senate called for the ouster of President H. Patrick Swygert, citing “an intolerable condition of incompetence and dysfunction at the highest level” of the university.

Swygert resigned and was replaced by Sidney Ribeau, who had seen what athletic success could do for a school while he was president of Bowling Green.

“He gets it,” Athletic Director Skip Perkins said at halftime on Saturday. “He knows it’s okay to have beauty and brains and what a successful athletic program can do for the entire university.”

Perkins and Harrell— who was his first hire after getting the job last December — and basketball Coach Kevin Nickelberry are all intense and aggressive. Perkins had success as athletic director at Arkansas-Pine Bluff; Nickelberry did the same at Hampton and Harrell has always said coming back to Howard as coach was his dream.

Harrell’s presence has already made a difference in the football program. Even with Saturday’s loss, the Bison are 3-4, including a stunning 29-28 victory two Saturdays ago at Florida A&M in which they scored all 29 points in the fourth quarter. Greg McGhee, the 6-foot-3 inch freshman quarterback, is the kind of player Harrell can build around.

“There’s a different aura on the campus now, especially since we’ve won some games,” said junior linebacker Keith Pough. “When we win, everybody’s congratulating us and that feels nice. We all feel like we can walk across campus with our heads held high.”

Saturday’s game was anything but pretty, even for the winners. There were 19 penalties — 12 of them by Howard — and the wind and the defensive lines played havoc with the offenses. But it was a game between two schools that both appear headed in the right direction. It was played for the Mayor’s Cup, and it would have been nice if D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray had shown up to present the trophy.

“This is a game that should be played every year,” Kelly said. “The schools are three miles apart. We have similar goals for our programs. I told Gary before the game we should make sure we keep playing.”

Perhaps sometime down the road, the mayor will show up. The Howard band is as good now as it has ever been. It may not be long before the football team is worthy of the band.

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