The Metrobus pulls away from the stop just outside the gates of Georgetown University. From high on a hilltop where Gothic steeples and bell towers lord over the shores of the Potomac River, the bus snakes its way through the city - across 14th Street NW, past row houses and corner stores and down Georgia Avenue to Howard University.
To paraphrase Booker T. Washington, they are as separate as the fingers, these two institutions. One is a Jesuit school known for melding boys from Phillips Academy Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy into men of Wall Street. The other is a historically black college where Toni Morrison and Stokely Carmichael spawned renaissances and power movements that shaped the course of American history.
But they are closer than the half-hour bus ride would seem to indicate. They are two schools renowned for their academic excellence, their proximity to the National Mall - and their struggling football programs, which will meet for the first time Saturday at Howard’s Greene Stadium.
Beyond the obvious cultural differences - Howard boasts a “Showtime” marching band, Georgetown a “Pep” ensemble - the teams, coaches and players share a common ground.
“They have the same challenges as us,” Georgetown offensive lineman George Mosle says. “You go to a real good academic school, and you got to be an athlete as well, so you have to balance it out. Your professors have a lot of demands, your coaches have a lot of demands.”
Howard athletic director Dwight Datcher knows. Before coming to Howard, he was as an assistant to Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson in the early 1970s and returned to the Hilltop as associate athletic director from 1997 to 2006.
“We are two landlocked institutions, so some of the problems that exist there exist here,” Datcher says. “I think we both have a sense of home pride about our institutions. Both of them promote that ‘we can win in spite of not having’ attitude, both schools compete against some schools that clearly have better facilities than we have and yet we have to compete on a level to beat those schools - and we do it.”
The latter part of Datcher’s statement about winning has not held up in recent years on the gridiron. The two schools are a combined 12-32 over the past two seasons, and both finished last in their respective conferences in 2007.
Both the Bison and the Hoyas are led by coaches who came from signature college programs, hoping to spark programs in one of the nation’s largest media markets and most fertile recruiting crescents. For Howard’s Carey Bailey and Georgetown’s Kevin Kelly, Saturday’s game is the first part of a long rivalry - the kind of rivalry they hope attracts both blue-chip prospects and television producers alike.
“This helps our program overall,” says Kelly, who came to Georgetown after successful assistant coaching stops at Syracuse, Marshall and Navy. “The kids are excited about it, and we don’t have to travel very far even though it’s a road game. Now we can put those dollars somewhere else.”
Bailey, who was a defensive standout at Tennessee in the late 1980s and early 1990s and has coached at Minnesota, Oklahoma State and West Virginia, has visions akin to autumn afternoons in Knoxville, Tenn., or Morgantown, W.Va.
“In terms of getting people excited, that’s not a problem,” Bailey says. “When that game takes place here, there is going to be a lot of people walking down Georgia Avenue, wanting to go to Howard Deli and eat, wanting go to Georgia Brown’s and eat, wanting to go to Labamba’s and eat. When you have two programs that are at the same level within the same district or county, so to speak, it just makes sense for them to play.”
Saturday’s two-deep rosters will prove the schools’ football spheres are separated by less than six degrees.
Georgetown wide receiver and return man Kenny Mitchell received recruiting letters from Howard before signing with the Hoyas out of Atlanta’s Westlake High School.
Howard linebacker Patrick Jean-Mary - who starred at Cegep Du Vieux Montreal - will try and chase down Hoyas running back and fellow countryman Charlie Houghton, the MVP of the 2004 Metro Bowl, Canada’s annual high school all-star game in Toronto.
Howard running back Ramon McElrathbey will fight for yardage against Willie Bodrick, his former teammate at Atlanta’s Mays High School who now stars at cornerback for the Hoyas.
Then there is the curious case of Karlos Whittaker, the Howard running back who transferred from Navy. As a member of the Midshipmen, Whittaker played for a certain no-nonsense authoritarian who currently commandeers the sidelines at Georgetown - Kelly.
“[When told about the Georgetown game last spring] I was like, ‘Yeah!’” Whittaker says. “I just can’t wait to play against him because I knew he was over there.”
On Saturday, two forgotten football programs will try and remind the District of their presence. Georgetown and Howard hope to generate the kind of bitter vitriol only a college football rivalry can produce - and in doing so cross a chasm of culture that has long divided them.
“We are going to be able to show and promote this as a game that should go on every year,” Datcher says. “Not just the game but what kind of atmosphere did it create around the city? This is going to be a test to see where we can go, where we can carry this from here.”