As its 2011 home opener against Norfolk State moved into the second half, Howard University tackle Cory Gwinner couldn’t help but steal glances at the Greene Stadium stands between offensive series. Usually, this would be the point in the contest when the crowd started to thin, fans heading toward the exits with another Bison loss assured.
But this time, Howard continued to hang tough into the second half against the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference power, and the stands remained mostly filled with the promise of a rare conference victory. The upset bid crumbled into a 23-9 loss with a lackluster final quarter, but even in defeat, Gwinner left the field with a refreshing blast of hope.
“That showed me that [the fans] wanted to be here,” said Gwinner, now a fifth-year senior. “They’ve seen the improvement and the change in the athletes here. They gave us more pride in playing for them, and it hasn’t always been like that.”
In Coach Gary Harrell’s first season, Howard made progress toward respectability with five victories — a four-win bump over 2010 — and began to create excitement that has been missing around the program as it slipped in the standings.
Now the Bison will try to sustain that momentum this season in the face of NCAA violations that will keep up to 14 players out of Saturday’s season-opening game against Morehouse at RFK Stadium, a result of an ongoing investigation into improper textbook distribution.
Some players will miss as many as three games, and though the school and NCAA have declined to release the names of the players affected, the team is not expected back at full strength until its Sept. 29 home game against Savannah State.
In an interview last week, Harrell said sophomore quarterback Greg McGhee, last year’s MEAC rookie of the year, and senior linebacker Keith Pough, the conference’s preseason defensive player of the year, could be on the list of ineligible players. An NCAA spokeswoman said last week that 15 other players still have eligibility cases pending.
“I don’t worry about anything I can’t control,” said Harrell, who was hired in January 2011. “This situation was something that was uncontrollable. When I came in it had already manifested, and it’s just something that I have to, at this time, just partner up with the school and just get through it.”
Harrell, once a speedy 5-foot-7 wide receiver who helped Howard win a MEAC title in 1993, has followed a carefully laid-out plan to get the team this far so quickly. The Bison stopped a 28-game MEAC losing streak last season and ended up with four conference wins. They were picked to finish eighth in the 11-team conference this summer.
Those measures included filling his staff with coaches connected to the university. Defensive coordinator Ray Petty, the team’s head coach from 2002 to 2006, led a squad that finished in seventh in total defense in the Football Championship Subdivison during his first season.
Offensive coordinator Ted White, a legendary Howard quarterback in the mid-1990s who graduated as the program’s all-time leading passer, scrapped the team’s triple-option system, installed a spread attack and helped McGhee develop into a dual-threat quarterback. If McGhee were to miss time this season, Harrell said junior Randy Liggins Jr. and true freshman Jamie Cunningham would battle for starting duties.
In addition, Harrell has met with student and alumni groups in an effort to rally the fan base. He’s also made scrimmages more fan-friendly, even inviting the school’s band to play during some of them.
“If you do all those things and don’t win,” Harrell said, “then the interest level and everything goes away.”
That could prove difficult in the early going this season as the team plays short-handed. Harrell said the ineligible players will be allowed to continue practicing with the team normally. He spent the first few weeks of the season running practice as normal, but as specific preparations for Morehouse began last week, he has focused on giving reps to the players who he expects to be eligible for the game.
That trend should continue as the team prepares for games in the following weeks against Rutgers of the Big East and Norfolk State, but several players said the expectations won’t change even as the depth chart does.
“We are here to be MEAC champions,” senior center Bradley Bush-Johnson said. “The whole team from freshman to redshirt senior, everybody’s here to win. We’re not trying to wait til next year. We’re not trying to develop anything. Everybody needs to be ready to play.”