Howard University Starts Over With Sports The Bison's new athletic director, Skip Perkins, wants to turn things around.

King of the Hilltop: Perkins says he’ll revive Howard athletics.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Skip Perkins became athletic director at Howard University on Monday—a month earlier than scheduled. Perkins explained that he showed up ahead of schedule because there’s “a lot to do.”

Yup, there is a lot. Howard’s major sports have done a lot of losing for a lot of years. President Obama gave the school its greatest athletic exposure in forever last month by attending the men’s basketball team’s season opener against visiting Oregon State (a team coached by Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother). With the spotlight shining, Howard lost by double-digits. The team is now 1-7 under first-year coach Kevin Nickelberry, who replaced Gil Jackson, who somehow lasted five seasons despite losing at least 20 games every year and posting a 37-118 overall record.

Howard hasn’t won a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title or been invited to the NCAA tournament in nearly two decades. For a school located in a city with as great a pool of basketball talent as any in the country, such chronic losing seems impossible and wrong.

Perkins, who grew up in Fort Washington, Md., and attended St. John’s College High School, says he plans to get his coaches to “recruit heavily in our backyard.”

Things are at least as ugly with the football program Perkins inherited. That team went 1-10 this year for fourth-year coach Carey Bailey. By season’s end, Bailey had run up a streak of 27 straight losses to MEAC opponents. His team’s only win in 2010 came against tiny Lincoln University, a historically black Division III school located in Pennsylvania’s Chester County, a school that was a chief rival of Howard’s 100 years ago.

Perkins, who for the last three years was AD at Arkansas-Pine Bluff, didn’t suffer the woe of the status quo for long. Within his first hours as Howard’s AD, he fired Bailey. No replacement’s been named.

All the new blood has brought Howard grads some hope about the future of Bison athletics, says Sheila Marshall, the Region II chair of the Howard University Alumni Association, covering D.C.

Asked what changes she’d like to see Perkins institute, Marshall says, “I’d like to see us win. I told him that. Unequivocally.”

Perkins says bringing winning teams to the Hilltop is high on his list of goals, too. He says school officials have assured him that the administration is ready to change the culture and turn the sports programs into winners.

But history shows that getting the university to follow through on that pledge of support might be Perkins’ toughest battle. Howard, quite plainly, has long been an unwelcome place for athletes.

All the way back in 1936, for example, the plight of Howard athletes was a national story. That’s when the whole football team went on strike just before a home game against Virginia Union. According to The Washington Post’s account, Howard players, angered by the continued failure of the school to even provide them food, voted to forfeit. While the crowd was waiting for kick off, the team walked over to the Howard Theater on T Street NW and took in a show by entertainer and burgeoning comic legend Pigmeat Markham.

In its writeup of the 1936 brouhaha, Time magazine, describing Howard as a “happyland for white-collared U.S. Negroes,” quoted one of the striking players saying he and his teammates couldn’t face Virginia Union on empty stomachs. “We were too hungry to get in there and battle those big country boys full of ham and kale,” he said.

In the ensuing school week, Howard students boycotted class to take up the team’s cause. The students marched down Georgia Avenue with the players chanting “Food! Food! Food! We want food!” and carrying signs that said “We Want Ham and Cabbage for the Team!”

Howard administrators conceded nothing. Instead, as punishment, the team was ordered to also forfeit the season’s final game, a then-annual Thanksgiving ritual against good ol’ Lincoln University.

The lack of sustenance for athletes caused another major scandal in 1981. Ivan Thompson, a Howard running back and budding football star at the time, told the Post that coaches reneged on a promised scholarship, and then refused his request “to be put on a meal plan so I can eat like a ball player should.”

Howard officials responded by kicking Thompson off the team. A large group of Howard athletes then boycotted the school’s athletic banquet to show support for Thompson, presenting a list of 18 “non-negotiable demands,” including a “training table” complete with adequate foods and beverages for all athletes.

Carl Bonner, a member of Howard’s nationally ranked soccer team in 1981 and a leader of the athletes’ boycott, drew up those demands.

“When I was at Howard they were serving us the same meal —fried chicken and rice and gravy and greens—for dinner and lunch every day during the week, and then twice more on the weekends. I kid you not,” recalls Bonner, now a chemistry professor at Norfolk State University. “And for some reason they would limit us to three 8 ounce cups of liquid per meal. Any liquid. Three cups. If we’d ask for more beverage, they’d tell us to have another piece of cake, but no more beverage, which our bodies needed after practice. It was so strange.”

An official school investigation into Thomas’ complaints concluded that the food offered to athletes was “glaringly insufficient.” The administration ignored the athletes’ list of demands almost entirely, however. “I know we got the training table, but that might be it,” Bonner says.

I talked to members of the baseball team in 2002 after Howard dropped the sport. Players and coaches said they were routinely left to pay for their own food and transportation during road trips. During a tournament in Florida, players were sent to a local big box store to buy hats with their own money.

“The hats didn’t even have an ‘H’ on them,” ballplayer David Durand told me. “We didn’t need ‘throwback’ uniforms. We were already wearing them.”

As a last sign of disrespect, the school announced it was killing the baseball program and taking away players’ scholarships after the spring semester had ended, giving underclassmen on the team no time to try to land scholarships elsewhere.

“When I leave Howard University, I’d like to think I’ll leave as a better person than when I came to campus,” Durand said at the time. “But I know I’m not leaving here a better baseball player.”

Bonner says he still shakes his head in amazement when he remembers the mistreatment he suffered through and witnessed at Howard.

“The attitude at Howard was always that athletes were privileged and didn’t deserve anything because we were there for the education,” he says. “But the school made it impossible for a lot of the athletes to take full advantage of the educational opportunities.”

Bonner, however, did take full advantage of the academics that his soccer skills got him at Howard. He ended up with a PhD in chemistry; he’s been teaching at Norfolk State for 15 years. He travels to science conferences throughout the year, and Bonner says that what he learned at Howard informs the way he treats the best and brightest students who he brings along on the trips.

“I always make sure they have enough to eat and drink,” he says.

Perkins says he knows all about Howard’s athletic history, and has no doubts that a turnaround is possible.

“Can we win? Absolutely,” he says.

The early start can’t hurt.

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Our Readers Say

Any Howard student/alum can tell you that the University spends ZERO dollars on athletics, the money goes to academics. If the University actually supported its athletic department we could be a 1AA powerhouse.
If howard is only spending money on academics, they clearly don't have much money. The way school is run is like a small version of DC during Marion Barry's crack years. [well the crack years when he was mayor]
Perkins, who grew up in Fort Washington, Md., and attended St. John’s College High School, says he plans to get his coaches to “recruit heavily in our backyard.”HOW MANY TIMES HAVE THE INCOMING A.D. SAID THIS AND NOT FOLLOW THRU.



I just graduated from Hampton University class of 2010. I was born in DC and raised in PG County, MD When I was being recruited in 2006 I had letters from as far as Florida State, Miami, and Boston College. The staff at Hampton recruited me heavily and I ended up accepting a football scholarship to go play for the 2 time defending MEAC Champions winning a 3rd straight my freshmen year. I never had a chance to go to Howard because I never ever got a letter or drop of response after sumitting a questionnaire on their athletic site. Georgetown recruited me heavier than them and their failure to recruit this local talent shows in their record. Meanwhile the area's finest go to Penn State, VA Tech, Del St, Hampton, and pretty much everywhere else. It has to stop.
Notoriously known for being so BOUGIE that the only 'sporting event' that matters to that administration is Homecoming cause folks show up for that REGARDLESS.

So focused on being the 'Black HAAVAAD' that they purposely ignore the Athletic Dept. and just hire and fire to keep things interesting.

You'd need a smart bomb to surgically remove those 'Talented Tenth' negroes who permeate this joint...their singleminded snobbery is responsible for HU being terrible in athletics.

Too afraid they were gonna be lumped in with the Michael Britt/Earl Jones UDC Firebirds and been running the opposite direction ever since. Interesting considering that some of the same professors that teach/taught there also taught at UDC.

How so-called smart folks can be so damn dumb is beyond me...
In regards to the facts of this story, Bowling Green was Howard's season-opening basketball game, which it won, not Oregon State. I know then both have orange in their school colors, but they are different. And Lincoln-Pa. Is a Division II school in the CIAA. It's not D-III. Howard athletics certainly should be better than what it is. As a Howard grad, I love the fact that I went to an HBCU with a strong academic heritage as Howard, but there is no reason why athletics shouldn't be constantly strong as well. Unfortunatly I got to Howard a year after the '93 season when the football team became the first MEAC school ever to go 11-0 in a season, but I was there to see the '96 squad capture the Heritage Bowl and national title. I got to see the women's basketball team run through the MEAC and claim three straight titles, while beating on the likes of NC State, Maryland, Rutgers and Minnesota like they were MEAC teams. I was also there when men's soccer returned to the NCAAs and luckily was apart of the last MEAC baseball title for the school and the North Division in '98, when we upset nationally ranked Kansas State, Oral Roberts and Oaklahoma.the point is the school never been about athletics. We just had some good coaches back then and some talented athletes that all came to Howard at the same time. There is no reason why we should not have the best and state of the art facilities in our conference. Time will only tell, but I've heard the whole the administration is committed to Howard athletics before. I'll believe it when I see it. Go Bison!
Rarely has a truly serious athlete attended Howard for the possibility of turning pro. Regardless of what happens in the sports program, students at HU want an education. Our school is simply not large enough to maintain a Professional sports incubator. I see no shame in claiming that our kids are scholars, not athletes. Only slight embarrassment. Or am I numb to the truth about our sports program?
HU you will have to get a new stadium. The matchbox that you are all in is utterly ridiculous. Get off your high horse and take over the Banneker Campus and make a sports complex worthy of the competitors.

Perhaps a letter to Jay Walker is in the mail re: a certain head coaching vacancy?

Man, that guy was a thrill to watch.
As a former HU athlete, I have witnessed it all. I bleed Bison Blue all day everyday but it is true, there is no money in the athletics. It is easy for everyone to point fingers at the coachs, at the AD, and at the administration but what are you doing to help us turn the program around.

We all know that Burr Gymnasium is old and out dated. Green Stadium is used by every sporting team on campus including the band and the cheerleaders. The weightroom only holds about 20 people and is filled with equipment older than the current players. It is IMPOSSIBLE to win in these conditions.

I came to HU on an athletic scholarship but I also knew that the academic reward would be much greater than the other schools who were interested. I loved every minute of my undergraduate career but I HATE how everyone can point a finger at the problem without helping us get to where we need to go.

Since joining the Bison, every football team in the MEAC had a new and updated facility. The teams that won the conference during my career, were the teams with the million dollar weight room, the newly renovated stadium, or the new and improved training table. This is how you attract the top recruits, this is how you show players you are committed to winning, this is how you steal a 4 star player from UVA, V-Tech, or UMD.

If WE want Howard's program to becoming a winning program, WE need to address these issues. WE need to rally up ALL the notable alum and ask for their support in funding an adequate facility for our students to train, rehab, and compete with our competitors when it comes to recruit the top notch talent.
Well, I personally know the new AD. He is no saint, so make sure you all stay on him to keep his promises otherwise the athletic department will be in worse shape than it is already in. And please please please make sure none of the women's programs suffer in the process - like the baseball team did -- I was there when that debacle took place. I will never understand how the best team in the school -- they were MEAC Champs - had to drive 45 minutes away for home games in Glen Burnie or why they had to share practice space with women's lacrosse. That is ridiculous! I will always love HU, but the flaws in the athletic department make the university feel like that prodigal child that went astray, but you love regardless. Let's hope Skip helps the school improve and does his politicing to help rather than hurt.
While I'm not an alumni from Howard, I am an alum from U.A.P.B. where Mr. Perkins was the former A.D. I have got the chance to work with him, interview him, and speak with him on many occasions. He is dedicated, he is willing, he is open to a lot of ideas. In the short time he was with U.A.P.B., our basketball team won the SWAC (and appeared in the NCAA finals); our soccer team won the S.W.A.C.; Men's and Women's track won the SWAC; Baseball, Tennis and other sports all made SWAC appearances. Our field house was completed, and our baseball complex started. IF HE HAS THE SUPPORT, He can follow through with everything he says. Key words: IF HE HAS THE SUPPORT.
Howard should seriously consider downgrading their athletic program to DII. They would be more competitive on that level and able to keep their old rivalries like lincoln and morehouse. It also would be cheaper. Some alumni may not like it but Howard isn't known for its athletics, it is known for its rich history and superb education. Morehouse is too and it is DII.

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