The football field at William H. Greene Stadium was filled with row after row of folding chairs. A stage had been erected at one end, and workers were going through the final checks of a big-time sound system. The afternoon was warm, the second week of May in Washington, D.C., and students walked around the campus of Howard University with their parents, everyone ready for the graduation ceremony the next day that would feature Colin Powell as the speaker.
Steve Wilson was not ready. Not yet.
"I'm going to make it, though," said Wilson, the Howard football coach. "Just a few more cuts, a few more additions, then I'll get this thing printed, and I'll be done."
The "thing" in question, his work in progress, his movie, was being played on the large television set in front of him. Football players were flying across the screen and cheerleaders were cheering and then shots of a large civic celebration appeared on the screen, everyone yelling, "Whomp, there it is!" even Franklyn G. Jenifer, then Howard's president, and Washington mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, even Wilson himself. Over the past few weeks the coach had gone through 61 tapes and reels of film from the 1993 season, picking out meaningful moments, funny interviews, bizarre bounces and good band music in order to make this three-hour documentary that would have only a limited distribution: 75 copies, one for each person associated with the 1993 football team.
August 28, 1994
"It'll be something they can keep forever," Wilson said. "Ten years from now they can put it in the VCR and say, 'Wow, look at how slim I was.' "
"You do this every year for your kids?" he was asked.
"Oh, no," the coach replied. "This is the first time. But it's the first time I ever coached a team that was 11-0."
Eleven and 0? Howard? Isn't that the alma mater of the author Toni Morrison and the late Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, of Vernon Jordan of the National Urban League and politicians David Dinkins and Andrew Young and Douglas Wilder? Isn't that—you hate to use the term, but everybody around campus does—the "black Harvard"? Isn't that the place where Khalid Muhammad of the Nation of Islam gave an inflammatory speech last year that started a national debate about black-Jewish relations? Isn't academic discourse supposed to be the main contact sport at Howard? Football? At Howard? Eleven and 0?
"I told my coaches before the season that I wanted to challenge these kids," Wilson, 37, said. "I wanted to tell them we'd go 11-0. My coaches thought I was crazy. They said, 'What if we lose a game, what do we do then?' I said I didn't care. I thought we had the talent to go 11-0. That's what we talked about, from the first practice. That's what we talked about every day, 11-0."
This was a challenge with large teeth. Howard's classification is Division 1-AA, far from the headlines in most nationwide newspapers but part of the grand sub-rosa structure of black college football. Who doesn't know about the success of certain black colleges in football? Wilson was looking to change the landscape. Forget Grambling and Jackson State and Florida A&M and Alcorn State, familiar names that have sent long lines of players to the NFL. Think Howard.
Though this was the school's 100th season—the first was played in 1894 with hand-me-down uniforms donated by the real Harvard—football games on campus had always been occasions for fun or for expressions of social concern. Success was not expected. "We were playing Hampton Institute at their homecoming," Johnny Mercer, a wide receiver during the black-power days of the late '60s, now a lawyer in Silver Spring, Md., recalled in The Howard University Magazine. "The coaches came up to me and said, 'Why don't you just not do that balling your fist thing [during the national anthem], because this is their home and this is their homecoming.' Well, as soon as the anthem began. I turned around and balled up my fist. Hah. We were considered the radicals among the black colleges."
Wilson arrived in 1989—or, rather, returned. He is a 1979 graduate of Howard, a wide receiver who went to the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent and wound up playing 10 years in the NFL, three with the Cowboys and seven with the Denver Broncos. He wasn't one of those star-quality guys, riding on a reputation: he was an end-of-the-roster plugger. He played wide receiver, he played defensive back, he ran back punts and kickoffs. His career was the perfect prelude to coaching; he was the underappreciated guy who learns all of the intricacies of the game to survive, the utility in-fielder who becomes manager.
"I was pretty sure I wanted to coach," he says, "but I didn't know where. The job became open at Howard, and I applied. I never thought I had a chance. I was hoping that maybe I could become an assistant. I flew in for the interview from Denver with a bad case of the flu and one suit of clothes. I did one interview, and they told me. 'Come back tomorrow.' I did another interview, and they told me to come back again the next day. I kept meeting all these people, answering these questions. I still had the one suit of clothes. I finished all the interviews, I got the job."
It should be noted that Wilson didn't inherit a talentless team: The Bison had gone 9-1 in '87 and 7-4 in '88. But they were also under NCAA investigation, and in '91 they were placed on probation for, among other things, using ineligible players.
Even those winning teams didn't fit Wilson's vision for Howard football. His predecessor, Willie Jeffries, had played close-to-the-vest, conservative football. Wilson was looking for pro football's offensive wildness.
"The people we had on offense couldn't do the things I wanted, but the defense was very good," Wilson said. "The second game of that first season we played Grumbling in Giants Stadium. Big game. I remember the cover of the program had Eddie Robinson's picture and my picture. I could see people saying, 'I recognize Eddie Robinson, but who's this other guy?" The game was all defense, but in the middle we scored on a 45-yard quarterback sneak. The second game I ever coached we beat Eddie Robinson 6-0. It was something to remember."
The record that first season was 8-3, but as the young players—Wilson's players—arrived, the record went downhill. The next year was 6-5, and the year after that was 2-9. Building toward a vision was not a pretty process. Wilson had to wonder about his plans. Had he relied too heavily on pro-football ideas? Had he made a mistake filling his staff with former NFL players like defensive back Charlie West and offensive lineman Fred Dean and running back Ron Springs? He had fired the previous coaching staff before his first season in order to bring in his own people, throwing out 47 years of coaching experience. Wilson had no years of experience. Was this the wrong direction?
Then a quarterback arrived. The direction seemed just fine. The kid's name was Jay Walker and he had only two years of eligibility remaining and he was from Los Angeles, of all places, and he was 6'4", 220 pounds and...well, it was one of those stories that keeps coaches knocking on strange doors.
Offered a scholarship to Washington State out of University High School in L.A., Walker decided to try baseball. He signed with the California Angels, spent a year as a relief pitcher with their farm team in Mesa, Ariz., and realized he had made a very big mistake. He jumped back to football, landing at Long Beach State, where former Washington Redskin coach George Allen was trying to revive the program, in 1990. This also did not work. Walker sat out the first season to reacquaint himself with school-work. Then Allen died during the winter. Then Walker sat on the bench for the next season, except for a few minutes in a 55-0 loss to eventual national champion Miami. Then the school decided to drop football. It was all a mess. Then, after the 1991 season, Wilson appeared.
He was looking for a lineman from the Long Beach roster but wound up with a quarterback on the basis of one interview and one snip of film from practice and the Miami rout. Coach-in-need met player-in-need. The Bison were 7-4 by the next season, and Wilson's head was churning with those 11-0 thoughts for 1993. He at last had a man who could throw the ball, and he had a wide receiver, 5'6" Gary (Flea) Harrell, who could catch the ball anywhere—"the best football player I've ever been around, including the pros," according to Wilson. Why not go for 11-0?
"The coach said it, and everybody believed it," fullback Rupert Grant said. "The whole season there was a feeling that we couldn't lose."
One crazy win fed into another, and by the end of the season, the school that had been listed only once before in 1-AA rankings was unbeaten and in the playoffs, traveling to Huntington, W.Va., to face defending champion Marshall University. A 28-14 loss to Marshall did nothing to stop the good feelings. Recruiting doors were opened. The questions that coaches had faced—like "What is Howard?" or even "Who is Howard?"—weren't asked so often. The school had a football identity to go with its academic identity.
"It's still work to attract kids here, but it can be done," Wilson says. "You get the kids who are recruited by Division I schools, the kids who ask things like 'Do you serve steak every day at the training table?' What I tell 'em is, 'No, we don't, but we serve an education that will allow you to buy steak every day for the rest of your life if you want.' I say, 'There's only one thing you're absolutely guaranteed as an athlete, and that's that sometime someone's going to take the ball away from you. That's going to happen, and what are you going to do then?" "
The 19 seniors, of course, are gone this season. Walker is with the New England Patriots, drafted in the seventh round. Changes will have to be made everywhere, but Grant is back at fullback and linebacker Josè White has pro scouts looking, and Wilson thinks this year's team will be good, the only question being how good. A freshman running back named Stephen Mosley, from Jacksonville, who chose Howard despite offers from Georgia Tech and Florida, will certainly help.
Wilson had a job interview at Duke during the winter but was never close to leaving. He wonders sometimes where he will land in the future but sometimes also wonders if he has landed exactly where he is supposed to be. He has daydreams about Howard. Suppose the school went Division 1-A...suppose it was the one black school on the 1-A grid, attracting the best black athletes in the country, a sort of black Notre Dame or Stanford rather than a black Harvard. How good would those teams be?
"Anything is possible," he says. "You just think about it, playing in a big conference...."
Eleven and 0. Whomp, there it is.