As the final days of last November came to a close, Howard University athletic director Louis "Skip" Perkins faced a daunting challenge: turn around a withering football program that bore a 4-29 record from 2008 to 2010. That task will begin in earnest Saturday RFK Stadium to glimpse the renewal of a prominent rivalry that has laid dormant for the past 14 years.
Leading Howard into battle against old foe Morehouse College this weekend will be the man Perkins believes can reinvigorate both an aged rivalry and past glory: Gary "The Flea" Harrell. After all, who better to carry the torch than the player who set Howard's all-time record for career receptions in a game against Morehouse that capped a perfect 11-0 season?
"It was a no-brainer as far as coming back as a coach. I knew this was where I wanted to be," said Harrell, who left his post as offensive coordinator at Bowie State to become Howard's coach this past January. "I just set my path and made sure to try to build my resume so that when the opportunity came I was well-qualified and the job would be easy for me to get. It's definitely a privilege for them to feel like I'm the guy to lead this charge."
Since helping that undefeated 1993 team capture the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) title and the black college national championship, Harrell has served assistant coaching stints at Texas Southern, Florida A&M and Bowie State, in addition to his first sideline role as Howard wide receivers coach from 2002-2004. Now the Howard Hall of Fame inductee is charged with instilling his own winning mindset into a crop of players accustomed to losing. That undertaking began when Harrell handed assistant coaching positions to five fellow Howard graduates, all of whom share the same commitment to bring back the winning mentality that emanated during their time as players.
"[Harrell has] seen success and experienced success in college football as a player and also as a coach, so I think he knows it's possible and how it can be done," said Erik Moses, managing director of the Events DC sports and entertainment division. "I think infusing that belief in what is possible and what is achievable is the first step in turning around a program that's been struggling like Howard's football team has been."
Harrell has a chance to put his stamp on the program against Morehouse, another historically black college with a strong reputation for producing international leaders in a wide array of professional fields. The game is drawing particular excitement from Washington and Atlanta, two cities that already compete on so many levels. Included in that realm is Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Howard graduate who admitted being torn between his duties in office and as a member of the Howard Board of Trustees.
Even with all the hype surrounding the contest, however, Harrell is treating the game like any other.
"You're talking about two national brands. You can go across the country and people know about Morehouse and Howard University, so it's just a game of that magnitude that can be noticeable nationwide," Harrell said. "But for us we're not going to get caught up in the hype. They're just an opponent right now for us in our next game. We're just ready to play another football game."
As a player often underestimated for his small stature, Harrell has tried to infuse his team with the tenacity that allowed him to rise above adversity during his playing days. He recalled the toughness it took to attain that undefeated record in 1993, when several teams threatened the Bison's perfection with down-to-the-wire finishes. That drive to overcome setbacks will already be in place this weekend, as Howard looks to avenge last week's 41-9 defeat at Eastern Michigan.
"As a player I want to be well-prepared. As a player I play with no fear. I don't like to make mistakes and I don't like to lose," Harrell said. "So all of those things pretty much carry over to me as a coach. I don't like to lose, I want to be well-prepared, and I want my team to play with a lot of passion and a lot of pride and energy. I feel like if we do those things and we leave it on the field, win or lose, I can live with that."
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