Fresh start for on-again, off-again series between Howard, Morehouse

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By nature, college football rivals need no introduction. Many have long forgotten how they first came to be at odds, and yet their fights have only grown in lore over the decades.

But what happens in a rivalry deferred? You end up like first-year Howard coach Gary Harrell, who is trying to gin up enmity for Saturday's clash against the Morehouse Maroon Tigers -- a foil his Bison last tangled with during the Clinton Administration -- inside a locker room that came of age under George W. Bush. "We're struggling because these kids don't know the history behind the game," Harrell said.

It's a history that dates to 1923 and a series that endured five interruptions, the most recent in 1997. On Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., the teams will reprise their bragging rights battle in the inaugural AT&T Nation's Football Classic, though the Bougie Bowl might be a better name for it. As clashes among the nation's Historically Black Colleges and Universities go, this is Harvard versus Yale. The D.C.-based Howard (enrollment: 11,000) is less football factory than a veritable assembly line for pharmacists, architects and classically trained musicians, while the Atlanta-based Morehouse (enrollment: 2,900, all male) is a hothouse for dentists, theologians and civil servants.

How wonky is this rivalry? Among the weekend's pregame events is a throwdown between the school's debate teams, an appropriate amuse-bouche for two fan bases that take sport in jawing over whom is most elite. It's a rivalry that pits famous alumni (like Thurgood Marshall and Phylicia Rashad for Howard) against famous alumni (like Martin Luther King and Samuel L. Jackson for Morehouse) and the gated communities other successful grads call home. In one corner is Prince Georges County, Md., a Howard haven that rates among the nation's wealthiest zip codes; in another is Buckhead, Ga., a Morehouse enclave that doesn't rank far behind.

By the tens of thousands, fans beat a path from Washington to Atlanta for the privilege of woofing at one another, some even sleeping in their cars when they couldn't find hotel rooms in the past. Just as many are expected to converge on Washington this weekend -- and when they meet, the business cards will fly. "One of my buddies called me and said, 'Howard is playing Morehouse?'" said Willie Jeffries, who coached the Bison from 1984 to '88. "I said, Yeah! He said, 'Well, y'all better rent a tuxedo for the referee!'"

It's also the kind of rivalry that makes losses hard to live down. Former Howard quarterback Jay Walker is still smarting from the 7-0 defeat he suffered at Morehouse in 1992 as a freshman starter. His Bison were heavily favored, but the Maroon Tigers mustered an early touchdown before sunny skies gave way to monsoon-like conditions. "As the official blew the final whistle and three of their linemen dropped to their knees and looked up at the sky with their arms in the air and fists, I remember thinking, wow, this is a big deal," said Walker, who went on to a four-year NFL career and now splits time as a Maryland state representative and a college football analyst for ESPN. "The next year we played Morehouse in D.C. for our homecoming and were up 14 points. Then all of a sudden it started to rain again, and they're like, 'We've got 'em now!' But I had learned how to play in the rain by them and we beat 'em 34-9."

Still, those two games might be two of the few between the schools that held any drama. The series has lacked spice since 1969, when Howard held a 10-8-2 lead. But when the Bison moved from Division II to I-AA in 1970, the bump in bodies and resources to spend on them widened the gap in the rivalry to a chasm. They went on to win the next seven games until Walker's waterlogged team came up short in '92.

A turnover in leadership at Howard and lacking corporate sponsorship played roles in the demise of the series five years later. It wasn't until Events DC, the municipal hospitality agency that also owns and operates RFK Stadium, went casting about for a bookend event to December's Military Bowl (which pits Navy against an ACC rival) that it came across various Bougie Bowl cheerleaders, including Morehouse athletics director Andre Pattillo, that the rivalry was rebooted. (The series will continue for at least another three years.)

Both teams hope to justify those efforts by putting on a performance that overshadows the considerable fanfare around it, and even between it. (For some, the halftime tussle between the school's soulful bands will be a bigger attraction than the game.) The Bison, who count Rams cornerback Ronald Bartell and Colts safety Antoine Bethea among their recent success stories, have taken a hit in recent years, their three victories over the past two seasons coming against teams that went an aggregate 2-31. Though they lost again in their season opener last week at Eastern Michigan, 41-9, the chance to get back on track seems real under Harrell, the school's all-time leading receiver and one of many former players on staff.

Morehouse is a program in ascendance under fifth-year coach Rich Freeman, who has led the Maroon Tigers from two victories in 2006 to four straight winning seasons -- including a high of eight wins last year. What's more, he guided Morehouse to the FCS playoffs and produced its first NFL draft pick -- Baltimore Ravens rookie offensive tackle Ramon Harewood -- in 34 years. For Freeman, this game is less about beating his kissing cousins than following in their footsteps. "It may open the door in the future for a vertical move into Division I-AA," said Freeman, who scored his first FCS pelt as Morehouse coach against Savannah State in 2007.

Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Maroon Tigers could be walking into yet another buzzsaw. They not only fall short of approaching the quality and quantity of players on the Bison's roster, but they are preparing for the biggest game of the season without any film on their opponent and their new spread-based attack. "We're going into the game blind," Freeman said. "Hopefully our system can match up to theirs." Meanwhile, Howard has been reviewing film of Morehouse's season opening victory against Miles College and '10 loss to Tuskegee all week and has staged up-tempo practices in preparation for the Maroon Tigers' no-huddle, error-inducing offense.

For the college football purist, the one who whinges about how big money has ruined the game, there is no better matchup on the weekend schedule. It has all the makings of a truly David-like upset. Still, Morehouse had better pray for rain.