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By Lut Williams
Black College Sports Page
 
The powers that be at Howard University say they’re on a mission.
 
Their goal is to match Howard’s sterling reputation and success in academics with success in athletics. The hiring of new head football coach Mike London some three weeks ago, they say, is a step in that direction.how frederick london davis(L-R) Howard University President Dr. Wayne A. Frederick, new head football coach Mike London and Athletics Director Kery Davis after the announcement of London's hiring.
 
Howard president Dr. Wayne A. Frederick and athletics director Kery Davis convinced London to leave a position as the associate head coach at the nearby University of Maryland of the Big Ten and take over the struggling Bison program.
 
It constitutes a step down for London from the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) where he has spent the last seven years including a tumultuous six years as head coach at the University of Virginia in the ACC. He moves to the lower rung Football Championship Subdivision where he won a national title in 2008 in the first of his two years at the University of Richmond.
 
His predecessor at Howard, Gary “The Flea” Harrell, a former star player and popular Howard alum, could only muster a 20-36 record in five years at “The Mecca” and won just three of 19 games over the last two seasons. The Bison have just one winning season on the gridiron since 2005 and won their only Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title way back in 1993.
 
Jay Walker, now an ESPN color analyst, was the quarterback of that 1993 title team. He and Harrell were roommates during that championship year run. He chose not to talk about his good friend’s dismissal but he does believe London was a great hire.
 
“It’s good for them to bring in a guy like London with the proven track record,” said Walker. “If they give him the tools to succeed, I believe this is just what Bison football needs.”
 
Those tools include a commitment to upgrade Howard’s facilities, not just in football but in all its athletic programs that Davis says was part of the pitch to London. While Davis would not give specifics, he did say a new press box was part of the plans.
 
“The one thing that Dr. Frederick and I agree is that you don’t hire a man like Mike London and not commit to investing in the athletic program,” said Davis, a former HBO executive who graduated from Dartmouth and got a law degree at Cornell. “Then, you’re just throwing good money after bad. We understand that it takes more than just quality coaching to win at the levels we want to win. It’s going to take a commitment from a lot of different stakeholders to make this thing work.
 
“We decided we are going to put resources into the football program and to athletics as well because a hiring like this raises the bar for all of our programs. This is our way of saying athletics is an important feature of what we think the overall student experience should be at Howard.”
 
“I’m sympathetic because Howard is landlocked,” Walker said of the needed improvements.  “We know that. There’s not a lot of land in Washington, D. C. But even though that’s a limitation, you have to put everything into it so that it doesn’t become detrimental to your program. You have to modernize your stadium. You have to modernize your weight room. Howard just needs modernization because everybody else is doing it. You really do a disservice to your student/athletes if you’re not giving them the best equipment to have a chance at success on and off the field.”
 
Howard has been pegged a difficult place to recruit and build a consistent winner because its academic standards make it hard to land and retain true athletic talent. That’s not necessarily so, but the school does require student/athletes to maintain a 2.0 GPA the entire time they attend Howard that’s above the NCAA’s 1.8 GPA requirement. Perhaps this is one reason the Bison have faced some kind of NCAA Academic Progress Rate (APR) penalty four times over the last decade including a postseason ban in 2016.
 
But London, 56, who also briefly played in the NFL and coached one year with the NFL’s Houston Texans, is a man comfortable in his own skin. For him, the decision was pretty simple. He can handle it. He relishes the opportunity that is before him and he’s anxious to get it done.
 
“I’ve been here a week and I’m glad I made the decision,” London said last Monday as he rushed out of a men’s basketball game at Howard’s Burr Gymnasium to do some recruiting. Signing day for college prospects is Feb. 1
 
“My thing is, it’s cool to go to school and not look the other way and say I wish I didn’t have this class or the GPA requirements are too heavy or too tight,” he said. “Everywhere I’ve been, you get high-caliber young men who desire a degree and know that their identity is not tied up in being an athlete. The academic requirements that are in place here are the same as they are in other places that I’ve been. So I know what’s required.
 
“It is about the talent, the profile of the young men who can come here and be successful,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing right now. We’re hard at work trying to finish this recruiting class. We’ve got about another week-and-a-half or two weeks before it’s all said and done. You stopped me on my way going to do that.”
 
Davis is just as comfortable with London.
 
“We identified Mike early on,” said Davis, who was in attendance this Saturday at Howard’s basketball game at North Carolina A&T. “He had all the characteristics we were looking for in a head coach – someone who had head coaching experience, who had excelled at both the FBS and FCS level, had shown that he could work at high academic institutions like ourselves and most importantly, was a leader of men. He was the kind of man that I thought would be a role model for these young men and help build their character.
 
“There are so many institutions that have excelled in both (academics and athletics) whether you’re talking Duke, Stanford or Harvard with its football team and what Tommy Amaker is doing in basketball,” Davis said. “I think that they set the standard that we would like to achieve. It’s important for us that our young people understand the academic rigors at Howard, but it’s also important to understand that athletics is not a hobby. It’s not an extra-curricular activity. It’s a co-curricular activity. That’s something we want to emphasize and the hiring of Mike London reinforces that vision.”
 
Part of Davis and president Frederick’s sell job with the new coach also had to center on money. London made around $1.7 million in each of his first three years at UVA before signing an extension that paid $2.1 million a year in his final two seasons. Last year as the associate head coach and defensive line coach at Maryland, his salary was reportedly in the $400-500,00-a-year range.
 
He’ll make substantially less at Howard, reportedly around $300,000. Despite the pay cut, the figure would still make him among the highest if not the highest paid coach in the MEAC. The difference is substantial and London said he talked to his wife Regina about it. “We’re in agreement,” he said.
 
“We all stand on the shoulders of somebody else that helped us and influenced us,” he explained. “I mention guys like (former Stanford and Notre Dame head coach) Tyrone Willingham, (former Temple and Alabama State head coach) Ron Dickerson and (former Howard, Hampton and Florida A&M head coach) Joe Taylor – guys who do it for the right reason. There is a difference (in money). But I have an opportunity to coach with my son, who’s on the staff.
 
“I’ve been blessed with a tremendous amount of opportunities having been in the FCS, the BCS, and I’ve been in the NFL. But there are some things here that are in place that, you know, I couldn’t say no to basically.“
 
He described the Howard experience as “black excellence.”
 
“Here, there’s an opportunity for young men to get a meaningful degree and work on life after football. It’s about being more than just a football player but a husband, a father, an owner of a business, a doctor, a lawyer. There are so many things you can talk about that a young man can be. I’m excited about being a part of this.”
 
That excitement is filtering down to potential recruits, and their parents.
 
“I’ve had several people here in the area that have contacted me and said, with Mike London at Howard, my son is now interested in going to Howard,” said Walker. “I think that’s proof positive right there. Where Howard wasn’t an option before, they say their son is now interested in going to Howard to play football.
 
“If I’m just hearing that, and I’m just one person, then I can imagine what the rest of the talk is in the DMV (D.C., Maryland and Virginia area).“
 
And perhaps around the country.

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