“It’s not just redemption toward the other schools in our conference, it’s redemption for ourselves, getting back to the way we play at Howard University, getting back to our tradition,” Bison football coach Gary Harrell said. (Jonathan Newton/WASHINGTON POST)

If anyone knows how far the Howard football program has fallen, it’s first-year Coach Gary Harrell. As a 5-foot-7 wide receiver, he helped lead the Bison to an 11-1 record and the NCAA Division I-AA playoffs in 1993. Since 1999, though, Howard has had only two winning seasons and is coming off a 2010 campaign in which a win over Division II Lincoln was its only victory.

So it’s no surprise that Harrell has one word on his mind: redemption.

“It’s not just redemption toward the other schools in our conference, it’s redemption for ourselves, getting back to the way we play at Howard University, getting back to our tradition,” said the 39-year-old Harrell, who had a brief stint with the New York Giants. “This is the job I’ve been praying for, been preparing myself for, to be the head coach at Howard University, to be in charge of leading this program in a different direction.”

Harrell still owns the Howard record for career receptions and is known around campus as “The Flea,” the nickname he earned as a player because of his size and tenacity.

Now he answers to “Coach Flea.”

“It gives him more than enough credibility,” junior linebacker Keith Pough said. “He was here, he knows the ins and outs of Howard. He has walked the grounds and he’s won here. It’s kind of like when your grandfather walks into the house. No matter what he says, you listen just because he’s lived it, he’s got the experience.”

Harrell’s first order of business after accepting the job in January was to surround himself with assistant coaches who have strong ties to the university, not those simply seeking a promotion. So he started with names already in his address book.

As a result, his staff directory reads like a who’s who from the program’s glory days.

There’s Ted White, Howard’s signal-caller in 1996, the year he led the team to a 10-2 record. He’s the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Ray Petty returns after serving as Howard’s head coach from 2002 to 2006 and defensive coordinator in 1993 and 1996. Petty gave Harrell his first college coaching job, at Howard, in 2002. Harrell hired Petty as his new defensive coordinator.

There’s Ron Bolton, too. In his first stint at Howard, he helped develop current NFL players Antoine Bethea of the Indianapolis Colts and Ronald Bartell of the St. Louis Rams. Now he’s coaching Howard’s defensive backs.

The list also includes Bobby Jones, Jonathan Brewer, Billy Jenkins and volunteers Randall White, Rudy Hardie and Vontrae Long, all of them former Bison.

“He wanted to make this a family atmosphere, bring in people who genuinely loved the program, [who weren’t] just in it for the job,” Petty said. “That’s why I came back: I love Howard University.”

But Howard’s offseason makeover didn’t end with Harrell’s staff.

The defense, which yielded 50 or more points five times last fall, ditched the 3-4 in favor of the 4-3 alignment that Petty prefers.

Although the transformation hasn’t been easy, Petty he said he’s encouraged by the unit’s performance in the spring and expects another impact performance from Pough, who led all I-AA players in tackles for a loss with 281 / 2 last season.

On offense, the Bison have dropped the triple option and switched to the spread. Harrell plans to put it all in the left hand of 6-3, 200-pound freshman Greg McGhee. It’s a leap of faith, the coach concedes, but it’s also consistent with the long-term plan he’s put into place.

“We’re going to grow with him,” Harrell said of McGhee. “We’re going to do a lot of things to protect him, let him get his confidence early and then let him come into himself.

“To me, he’s a [mid-I-A] kid who could easily play on that level, so we’re blessed to have him at Howard.”

McGhee’s primary target figures to be playmaking wide receiver Willie Carter, a 6-3, 190-pound senior. He’s 66 catches short of breaking Harrell’s all-time career mark of 184.

At Howard, Carter has endured a pair of 1-10 seasons. But he has noticed a different vibe around Greene Stadium. The losing attitude that permeated the locker room, he said, slowly is being replaced by optimism.

“Ever since Coach Flea, Coach White, Coach Petty and all them guys came back . . . it’s not so much us buying into what they’re saying; we feel it,” Carter said. “One night in training camp, we had about 20 or 25 former Bison come back and talked to us about the old Howard way.

We’re trying to bring back that tradition. There’s a whole lot of new energy.”

Harrell, too, is bullish on the future. But he’s also realistic. With Saturday’s season opener at Eastern Michigan looming, the Bison are only starting to merge into the road to redemption.

“I think by 2012,” he said, “that’s when you’re going to see a different team.”