Ron Prince’s journey to Howard University was lengthy and — almost literally — circular. He grew up in Junction City, Kan., and was recruited to play football at Dodge City Community College. He was good enough to receive attention from a number of Football Championship Series-level programs and wanted to go to Howard as a midyear transfer in December 1989.
“Two of the women at our church who were friends with my mom kept telling her when I was younger, ‘You need to send that boy to Howard,’ ” he said, smiling at the memory. “I think one of them went to Howard, but a lot of people in the black community knew that Thurgood Marshall went there and knew about his involvement” in the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
Sitting in his office as the football program’s new head coach shortly before its season opener Saturday at Maryland, Prince has high expectations for his players, too.
“I honestly believe we can build a program here that is the FCS equivalent of what David Shaw has built at Stanford,” he said. “A team that consistently wins on the field but also produces kids who graduate and go on to do important things when they’re done playing football.
“When I meet with my players, I tell them, ‘At least one member of the Senate should come out of this room — and so should an investigative reporter who will make sure he doesn’t abuse the office; that a Goldman Sachs CEO should come out of this room and so should someone from CNBC who will jump all over him if he doesn’t stay on the straight and narrow.’ ”
Prince smiled. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think all of that was possible.”
The truth is, it took Prince nearly 30 years to get here. He was set to visit the school as a potential transfer student in 1989, but there was a snag with the plane ticket to Washington. “They finally said they wanted me to commit without making a visit,” Prince said. “My coach at Dodge City [Jerry Cullen] handed me a plane ticket to go visit Appalachian State. He said, ‘If they offer you a scholarship, take it.’ That’s what happened.”
After graduating from Appalachian, Prince took the LSAT and thought about applying to law school. But Cullen offered him the chance to come back to Dodge City as a volunteer assistant, and he decided to give it a try.
That began a journey during which he worked for 12 teams over more than 25 years. His previous experience as a head coach was the almost impossible job of succeeding Bill Snyder at Kansas State in 2006. The Wildcats beat fourth-ranked Texas in that first season and went 7-6, going to the Texas Bowl. Two 5-7 seasons later, Prince was fired.
“I like to tell people that the only thing better than being hired at a school 12 miles from where you grew up is being fired at that school,” he said. “The support I got from the community was great.” He paused. “And I do still have the best first three years on the job record in the history of the school. I’ve always been completely at peace with what happened there, for good and for bad.”
Two years ago, when Prince was fired from the Detroit Lions along with head coach Jim Caldwell, he thought perhaps it was time to get out of coaching. He and his wife, Sarah, had invested in a number of farms in Indiana, and they thought about going to live full time on one of them and manage the others from there.
Then Jim Harbaugh called with an offer to become Michigan’s offensive analyst. It was one of those jobs coaches create to get around NCAA coaching limits. Prince took it, and even though he didn’t coach on the field during practice, he spent hours breaking down film on Michigan’s players and their opponents and reporting to Harbaugh on strengths and weaknesses. He loved it.
“Really reminded me of how much I love coaching,” he said. “The thing about Jim is he’s a pure football coach. I mean, he’s all-in. He’ll talk to you about football all day long. I had a great time working for him.”
And then he got another call from Howard. The time it was from Athletic Director Kery Davis, who needed a coach to replace Mike London after London left last November to take the job at William & Mary. This time, Prince, 49, did get a plane ticket — to Atlanta to meet with Davis and Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick.
“If not for what Mike accomplished here in his two years, no way would I have touched the job with a 10-foot pole,” Prince said. “It isn’t just that they started to have success on the field. It’s the improvements he made in terms of academics and organization. We have a young team right now, but we aren’t starting on square one.”
Howard went 7-4 in London’s first season, including a stunning upset of UNLV as a 45-point underdog , and was 4-6 a year ago. That was clear progress after the team had gone 3-19 the previous two seasons. Just as important, the team’s GPA improved to 2.79. In Prince’s first semester in charge, it was 3.08.
“We haven’t played a game yet, but I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress already,” Prince said. “We’ve got 20 players committed for next year, and all of them have GPAs of at least 3.0 entering their senior year of high school. Six were recruited by Ivy League schools and chose Howard. We have an advantage there because we can offer them an athletic scholarship; the Ivies can’t.”
When Howard takes the field for its season opener at Maryland on Saturday, only six seniors will be on the two-deep depth chart, the most important being quarterback Caylin Newton. Another is Marcellos Allison, who was an all-conference linebacker a year ago. With the defense going from a 3-4 to a 4-3, he will play defensive end. But he also will start at tight end.
“He can do it,” Prince said. “He’ll enjoy playing tight end and not just mucking it up on the D-line. He’s got great hands, and he’s a terrific athlete. So why not?”
There also will be 15 freshmen on the two deep. One of them is Prince’s son James III, who will start at center — one of two true freshmen who will start on the offensive line.
Prince is convinced he can run a football program that will make fans proud, as well as a faculty that is often skeptical about athletics. Howard hasn’t won a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title since 1993. Prince believes that can — and should — change soon.
“I know what Howard is and what it’s not,” he said. “I know what it can be and what it can’t be. But I think I’m different from a lot of guys who have experience at big-time programs or in the NFL and come to an HBCU school and think they’re missionaries, doing everyone a favor by being there.
“I know there’s a long way to go here, but I believe we can do great things. I can’t wait to see what happens.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.