These are tough times at Howard University which is personified by the fiscal crisis manifesting itself in the troubles of the football program. With the university recovering from a multi million-dollar deficit and the athletics department dealing with NCAA Academic Progress Rate (APR) sanctions, Bison football prepares for a season where there is nothing to play for other than respect.
Howard quarterback Kaelin Johnson, #15, hopes to lead the Bison back to respectability after a 1-10 season in 2015. (Courtesy photo)
That is something the rest of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) doesn’t show Howard these days. The Bison are picked 10th in the 11 team MEAC, just above Savannah St., which hasn’t made a mark in conference play since moving from Division II. They are 6-17 over the last two years and are facing significant challenges in their quest to regain respectability in the league.
“In this generation we don’t feel disrespected at all,” said Howard coach Gary Harrell. “We are trying to stay on track and move the program forward”,
“I know we are going to have a good football team this year. We feel like we can go from 1-10 to a first place record”.
Harrell, the all-time leading receiver in Bison history, has confidence that he is the steward to right this ship after facing similar challenges as a player. During his sophomore year in 1990 the team finished 2-9. By his senior year in 1993 Howard was undefeated MEAC and Black College National Champions.
“As we navigate through the challenges we face it will make everything more gratifying once we get things turned around,” said Harrell.
Howard’s APR situation doesn’t make the prospects for this season any brighter. The football program, already facing NCAA sanctions last year, failed to meet the APR requirements by scoring only 908. If an NCAA athletic program doesn’t reach the APR minimum score of 930 they can receive probation. For this season the Bison are ineligible for any postseason games including the Celebration Bowl, which is the only Bowl game featuring Football Championship Subdivision teams from the MEAC and Southwestern Athletic (SWAC) Conference.
The controversial APR issue – which many feel is biased against HBCU’s because most schools don’t have the resources to adequately staff compliance divisions in financially strained athletic departments – has affected Morgan State University, Florida A&M, and Savannah State in the MEAC as well.
The NCAA implemented the APR standard in 2013 and awards a point to each student athlete for remaining academically eligible and in school. The maximum any program can receive is 1,000 points. Any team that doesn’t score at least 930 faces sanctions such as reduced practice time to increased academic concentration or the loss of postseason eligibility.
In recent years Howard’s compliance issues have led to roster adjustments having to be made abruptly on game days. In other cases, players were notified of their academic ineligibility when on the bus preparing for travel and told to stay on campus minutes before departure.
“Our compliance department is doing a good job right now of making sure our certifications are on point,” said Harrell.
The schedule doesn’t do Howard any favors this season. They open the season against two Big 10 conference opponents – Maryland and Rutgers -before their MEAC play starts on September 24 versus Hampton in the Nation’s Classic at RFK Stadium followed by a prime time Saturday night matchup at Morgan. This is an ambitious task for a program facing its challenges although three of their first five games are day trips that ease the financial burden on the program.
With a roster full returning players who matured under fire last year thanks to injuries Howard should be better. After finishing 1-10 in 2015, however, there is no place to go but up.