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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