When you’re 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds dripping wet, you don’t become the all-time leading receiver at a Division I-AA college and reach the NFL, albeit briefly, unless you’re tougher than men twice your size. So no one questions the heart and intestinal fortitude of Gary “Flea” Harrell, the former Howard University standout who later spent time with the New York Giants, Montreal Alouettes (CFL) and Frankfurt Galaxy (World League).
What’s open for debate is the wisdom displayed in January when he accepted the head coaching job at his alma mater, which has enjoyed a winning record just twice (6-5 both times) in the past 12 seasons. The last three campaigns have been particularly brutal, a pair of one-win seasons sandwiching a 2-9 mark in 2009.
Inclement weather forced a one-day postponement of Howard’s season opener, a 41-9 defeat Sunday at Eastern Michigan. Harrell will seek his first victory in more familiar surroundings Saturday — though not at Greene Stadium — as the Bison face Morehouse College in the inaugural Nation’s Football Classic at RFK Stadium. Just like the rebuilding job ahead, conquering the Maroon Tigers won’t be easy. Many of the key players who helped Morehouse reach a No. 16 ranking and the Division II playoffs last season have returned.
“Morehouse is a tough matchup right now,” former Bison quarterback Jay Walker said. “It’s one of those games where the Howard administration doesn’t have much to gain because it’s supposed to beat [a Division II school]. But if that game was played last year, Morehouse would’ve won.”
Walker, who announces college football for ESPN, led the Bison to an 11-0 record in 1993 before they lost at Marshall in the Division I-AA playoffs. That remains Howard’s lone Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title since it became one of the league’s founding institutions in 1970.
The Bison haven’t won as many as seven games in a season since 1998.
“Watching from a distance has been very painful,” Harrell said. “Everything is just different. When I played we had tough individuals and any time we were faced with adversity we were able to overcome. We played with more heart.
“This is more than X’s and O’s,” he said of the challenge. “It’s more like being a psychologist and working with their minds, trying to get guys to believe.”
Harrell played at HU from 1990-93 and still holds the school record for career receptions (184). He’s the third coach to take a shot at restoring the glory days under Steve Wilson, who departed after the 2001 season. Unlike the two men who preceded him — Carey Bailey (8-36) and Rayford Petty (20-24) — Harrell is an alum, like Wilson.
Walker figures that connection alone will solve part of the problem.
“First and foremost, Flea is a Howard man,” Walker said. “Those who went to Howard know that it’s a unique place. There are plenty of distractions and he’s been through it all. I had the utmost respect for him because he was an All-America player when I got there and he was level-headed. How many All-America freshmen can stay focused enough to graduate on time from the School of Business? He always had the ability to command respect and have a good time, but understand what it takes to get the job done.”
The rebuild begins with a trio of players on the All-MEAC preseason team, including redshirt-junior Keith Pough, cited as one of the Top 10 linebackers in Division I-AA by the Sports Network. But much rests in the hands of freshman Greg McGhee, a 6-3, 200-pound quarterback from Pittsburgh.
“When you look at Howard’s history you see one thing,” Harrell said. “Whenever we’ve been great, we’ve had a great quarterback, whether it was Lee DeBose, Jay Walker or Ted White. You have to have a quarterback to depend on and I think we have that. [McGhee] has the tools, leadership ability and mental toughness to go along with a strong arm. And he’s smart.”
Some might question Harrell’s smartness in returning to Howard instead of waiting for an opportunity at a more-established school. But the first-time head coach dreamed of leading the Bison back to prominence, and he convinced others who played or coached at Howard during better days to join his staff.
We know “The Flea” was plenty tough as a player.
Even more impressive would be injecting HU’s football program with the same purpose and resolve as its coach.