Credit: Courtesy Howard Athletic Department

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The headlines revealed an athletic department in disarray. In 2012, Howard University announced a temporary suspension of its sports teams from any intercollegiate athletic competition while the school conducted an internal investigation on what appeared to be widespread violations of NCAA rules. A few years later, in 2014, a track and field coach resigned after an investigation showed that he had committed numerous recruiting violations.

Ultimately, the NCAA determined that Howard lacked institutional control and handed down penalties that included probation, a hefty fine, and scholarship reductions in several sports including football and basketball.

The school’s current leaders have put those incidents in the past. Today they are looking to schools like Stanford, Duke, the Ivy League institutions, and cross-town rival Georgetown as examples where athletic success can support the school’s academic mission. 

President Wayne A.I. Frederick has made it clear: He wants the school to treat sports as a serious endeavor on par with the academic side of the university. Football and basketball are the teams the school is most keen to develop.

Frederick hired Kery Davis as the school’s athletic director in September 2015 to guide the program out of turmoil. The former HBO Sports executive sees the potential in what Bison athletics can offer and how it can grow.

“The goal is answering the question, ‘How do we enhance the academic reputation that Howard already has through our athletic program?’” Davis tells City Paper. “I always thought of Howard as a great academic school [but] basically their athletics was an unpolished diamond.”

Howard’s athletic department has had a history of success—especially in women’s sports, men’s soccer (winner of the 1974 national championship), and track and field—but not with any consistency. Given Howard’s academic prestige and desirable location, Davis is confident it can become a sports power in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and compete on the same level as the Patriot League and Ivy League’s finest, just years after a scandal nearly eroded the department.

Funding will always be the challenge, as it is for any school playing the high stakes game of major college athletics. Howard has historically focused on cultivating its academic reputation, as numerous iconic black leaders in business, politics, and literature have graced its halls. 

Football and basketball are the most important sports for schools hoping to get serious at the Division I level because success in those programs can impact incoming donations, prospective student applications, ticket and merchandise sales, and sponsorship interest.

“Our next step is to win championships in the two major revenue sports, which are men’s basketball and football—and I think both of them are in the short horizon for us,” Davis says. “Both of those teams are very young and talented, and I really see us winning [conference] championships in one or both in the next few years, and that’s the critical next step.”

Howard men’s basketball team appears to be on the right path under Kevin Nickelberry, the Bison’s nine-year head coach. He has a model student-athlete in star guard RJ Cole, who was seventh in the country in scoring last year as a freshman, leading the way. The Bison have not reached the NCAA tournament since 1992, but the future looks promising.

Second-leading scorer CJ Williams and third-leading scorer Chad Lott are juniors and leading rebounder Zion Cousins is a sophomore. Freshmen bigs Akuwovo Ogheneyole and Andre Toure and guard Raymond Bethea Jr. have all made their presence felt in their first year and are poised to be stronger contributors down the road. If this core can remain intact, these players can accomplish something special.

“Howard is a major brand within the MEAC but their on-court performance over time hasn’t been the best,” says Stephen-Michael Thompson Jr., a journalist who covers the MEAC for SB Nation’s Mid-Major Madness. “RJ Cole can break that trend. … [he] can truly take this team far, but he needs some help.”

Davis also acknowledges that women’s basketball is a key pursuit. That Bison squad is off to a 10-8 start this year in a season where it returns four out of five starters under fourth-year head coach Ty Grace

“You have to win in basketball, both on the men’s and women’s side,” Davis says. “We’re doing better there … Women’s basketball is off to a terrific start this year, and it reflects the fact that Howard has 68 percent women on this campus.”

Football faces an uncertain future after a coaching change, but the coaching staff hopes to give all D.C. sports fans a team they can have pride in.

Davis invested in the sport immediately after taking over by upgrading the locker room, fully staffing the assistant coaching ranks, and offering scholarships to student-athletes that include a cost-of-attendance stipend, which schools can now offer to cover the cost of books and other school expenses. He also hired well-known Division I coach Mike London to lead the program before the 2017 season.

In London’s first year at Howard, he and the dazzling freshman quarterback Caylin Newton guided the Bison to a 7-4 record that included a huge upset over an FBS team in UNLV. The team won three games in its previous two years combined and hadn’t had a winning season since 2012.

But they took a step back in 2018, losing four one-score games on their way to a 4-6 finish. In the offseason, London departed for William & Mary.

Looking for a new leader to take the football program through this critical juncture, Davis tapped Ron Prince, an assistant at the University of Michigan by way of the Detroit Lions who had also spent some time as head coach at Kansas State.

The newest Bison head coach would likely have played for Howard if it weren’t for a scheduled recruiting visit to D.C. in 1988 that didn’t go as planned. Prince ended up playing at Appalachian State. Three decades later, he feels positive about the conversations he had with London, a friend of his, and the vision of Davis and Frederick.

His offensive background should mesh well with the Bison offense he inherits. Prince recruited and coached future NFL quarterback Josh Freeman while at Kansas State. Last year’s Bison squad averaged 33.6 points and 470.8 yards per game.

“I think that the wide receiver group has some college frontline players and so does the running back group,” Prince says. The group returns all-conference receiver Jequez Ezzard and a couple of talented running backs in rising sophomores Dedrick Parson and Khalid Dorsey.

Where the Bison need to improve if they’re going to be a leader in the MEAC is on defense. They finished the season last in the conference, by a wide margin, in yards and points allowed per game. 

Prince knows the expectations from the school are high. Football success can make a big difference for the university, and he has an opportunity to take Howard football, and the athletic department, to a new level. The potential is there, the investment has followed, and the visions, considering what Howard has overcome, are grand.

“It’s a high-profile game in a high-profile city,” Prince says. “I see a legitimate option to be Washington, D.C.’s team. We really want to try to fight for that space right here in the District and be that option … We think its viable to make fans among the people that live here.”