Late Sunday morning, about 11 hours after its historic victory, the Howard football team returned to campus, exited a bus and walked to church. There was no hero’s welcome, just worship. At a chapel a touchdown pass from Greene Stadium, the Bison slipped back into holy anonymity.
Soon enough, the players, coaches and staff would roam through the community and encounter frequent outbursts of affection. But in this moment, cloaked in solemn praise, they were where they belonged. An impromptu parade would have been nice, but for a program that had won three of its previous 22 games, it was most appropriate to return not to overflowing fanfare, but to a building made for believers.
On Saturday, the players awoke in Las Vegas as 45-point underdogs to UNLV. By early Sunday morning, they were dancing in the visiting locker room after a 43-40 triumph, with Coach Mike London bouncing in the middle and making movements that seemed to intertwine the dab and an old Madonna-style vogue.
“Oh, no you didn’t,” London said Tuesday, laughing at being reminded of a performance that has become viral video fodder. “No you didn’t. You know, I got caught up in the moment of celebration with the players. It’s just so great to see the elation, the smiles on their faces. I didn’t do any Michael Jackson moves or anything like that, but I got caught up with the players. That was a great moment, minus the dance moves.”
So, what now? The music has stopped. London will not entertain any requests for a groove reenactment. Howard has 10 games left, starting with a trip to Kent State, another member of the sport’s upper-crust Football Bowl Subdivision. The Bison have inspired more than a season’s worth of enthusiasm and appreciation in one game, but this was only the first stroke of the new coach’s paintbrush. At least now more people will care to know what he is trying to create.
In January, Howard Athletic Director Kery Davis pulled off a stunning coup by hiring London, the former Maryland associate head coach who was previously the head coach at Virginia and Richmond, where he won a Football Championship Subdivision national title. He arrived asking “Why not?” of the possibilities for a downcast program. Once he learned of the many difficulties, he adopted a slogan for the season: “Mission Possible.”
It’s not all that original. Google the phrase, and 521,000 results are produced. It’s rather corny, without belief and substance behind it. London possesses oodles of both. Now that he is away from supposed big-time football — where fame and pressure and the pursuit of money complicate all intentions — it’s easier to tone down skepticism, hear his message and trust his faith-infused leadership style.
Howard went 2-9 last season and lost five games by at least 27 points. It opened the year playing guarantee games against big-conference foes Maryland and Rutgers and was outscored 104-27. It hadn’t won a season opener since 2012. Before Saturday, it had been outscored 176-37 in its four previous openers.
Those weren’t just 0-1 starts. Those were oh-no-and-1. As in, “Will this season be glorious? Oh, no. Did you see that score in the first game?” Now, after the biggest point-spread upset in modern college football history, Howard football isn’t just a doormat with a great band.
“That was just the surface on Saturday, seeing how that happened, how that went down,” said linebacker Devin Rollins, who returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown against UNLV. “It was a big moment, but it’s going to get bigger.”
After practice Tuesday, the players walked through campus wearing blue team attire and responded to greetings with shy acknowledgment.
“Mission Impossible!” one woman declared before correcting herself. “I mean, Mission Possible! Every time I see you guys, I’m going to scream that.”
“Congrats on that dub!” a student yelled.
“Y’all was lit!” another exclaimed.
Rollins went to a grocery store in Columbia Heights. A woman noticed him and asked if he played football. He nodded. She smiled and replied, “The alumni all over are so proud.”
The program that developed Jay Walker, Leonard Stephens and Antoine Bethea is still alive. The UNLV triumph restored some pride. This week, as the players look forward, they find inspiration in making a connection to a past that includes three conference championships, five black college national titles and a 1993 Division I-AA playoff appearance.
“We wanted to do it for the school,” Rollins said. “We wanted to give Howard a good name.”
Running back Anthony Philyaw, a Los Angeles native who rushed for 1,230 yards last season, tried to hold his tongue when talking about low expectations and the embarrassment of past losing. It has been an emotional struggle, he conceded, working so hard for so little and hearing insults. Asked how he has stayed committed, he pointed to a tattoo across his chest. It referenced Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
“Coming from Howard, everybody expects us to lose because that’s, you know, the way it’s been,” Philyaw said. “We work too hard just for people to be saying we’re going to lose every game. That’s kind of disrespectful in a way. Everybody here has been here three, four years, putting in blood, sweat and tears. But it’s all good. Our doubters are our doubters, but we’re steady working it. It doesn’t discourage us. It encourages us.”
Before London united the team, he spent time learning about his players individually, so much time that many of them bring it up on their own during interviews. They were impressed. Although London brought a new level of preparation to the program and demanded a stronger commitment, he avoided creating a new sheriff vibe.
“It truly felt like family from Day 1,” Philyaw said.
Since London’s arrival, there have been some profound team-bonding moments. He has counseled players who lost loved ones. Some have revealed hardships that they were once reluctant to discuss. Hurricane Harvey affected several native Texans on the team, and London was amazed at how this squad supported those players.
“When you talk about football being just an element of their lives — it’s not who they are — you have to get to know them as individuals, and you have to really value a relationship,” London said. “I love these guys. I’m dedicated to doing whatever I can to make them a better son, student, husband, father. And last on that list is a football player. I believe it shows. The reciprocal of it is giving a great effort, trying to hold true to the values and the mission of the program.”
When you have lived as London has, it’s impossible not to have perspective. The most dramatic parts of his story are told without shock now. There was the time when, as a Richmond police detective, a robbery suspect aimed a gun at his forehead, pulled the trigger, and it did not fire. There was the time he defied medical odds by being a bone marrow match for his daughter, Ticynn, and helped to save her life. London carries those experiences and many others into coaching.
After all he has been through, what’s impossible about rebuilding Howard?
“My perspectives, I believe, are just a little different about things,” London said. “The status jobs — BCS, FBS, NFL — I’ve done all that. And I’m here. The plan for me is here.”
Like Philyaw, London has a favorite Bible verse. It is Jeremiah 29:11. It reads: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Howard football, for so long the grass beneath an opponent’s cleats, has hope and a future now? Believe it.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.