Colorado, you can have Deion Sanders. I hope he enjoys Boulder which he claims has “no crime,” and I hope the university enjoys him until he moves on to a job with more money and prestige and says that he was instructed by God to do so. I also hope that Jackson State continues to thrive sans the man with the gold whistle who doesn’t allow earrings in meetings. Another HBCU — Howard University — is seeing a surge in athletic success. It has been pursued away from the spotlight, but recently the fruit of the program’s labor has been plentiful.
Howard is a university with a history of producing stars. Sure I’m a biased alumnus who is high on school pride with the Bison in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament for the third time in the program’s history, but facts are facts. Howard produces Academy Award winners, MacArthur Genius Grant recipients, civil rights leaders like Kwame Ture a.k.a Stokely Carmichael who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. but also challenged him on certain topics, the current vice president of the United States of America, and many more highly respected individuals.
Sports stars few and far between at Howard
Of course, sports are expensive, and as an HBCU Howard doesn’t have the athletic budget of a Power 5 university. However, even when the majority of star Black athletes played at HBCU programs, Howard struggled athletically. Jackson State has four Pro Football Hall of Famers, but per Sports Reference the only player from Howard to make a Pro Bowl is Antoine Bethea. (He made three to be exact.) Howard Men’s Basketball coach Kenny Blakeney (pictured) is from Washington and said that he couldn’t name five players in the history of the program during his introductory press conference in 2019.
Turning its athletics program around
In recent years, Howard has been slowly but surely turning its athletics program around. A major move took place in May 2015 with the hiring of Ty Grace as head coach of the women’s basketball team. Before the start of that basketball season, Kery Davis was hired as athletic director.
Last season Grace’s squad won the MEAC tournament — Howard’s first conference title in two decades — and was also victorious in a First-Four game. This season they advanced to the MEAC title game again and almost pulled off a spectacular comeback against Norfolk State.
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Howard is the only HBCU with swimming and diving teams. In February the men took home the Northeast Conference Championship for the first time in three decades, breaking 16 records in the process. The women finished fourth but still broke 15 records. Miles Simon from the men’s side won Most Outstanding Swimmer and Jordan Walker from the women won Most Outstanding Diver.
Last spring the softball team took home a MEAC Championship. Stephen Curry helped get the golf team back to Division I competition in 2021 and the program won a conference championship in its first season. The football team also tied for a conference championship in the fall. It was their first conference title since 1993.
And on Thursday at 2 p.m. EST, Blakeney’s Bison men will take on Kansas in a first-round tournament matchup. Howard’s last appearance was in 1992 when Blakeney won a National Championship as a freshman at Duke. In his fourth season as head coach, Howard finished 11-3 in conference play and 21-11 on the season. The Bison defeated back-to-back MEAC Champion Norfolk State on Saturday in a 65-64 thriller.
Their 3-point shooting had failed them most of the day, but Marcus Dockery sent a rainbow through the net while double-covered to keep hopes alive with 13 seconds remaining in the game. A Norfolk State turnover and two clutch free throws from Jelani Williams — a graduate transfer from Penn — later and Howard punched its ticket for the first time since before tickets largely went digital. The program even received some love before the tournament from the NBA when the Milwaukee Bucks were in town to play the Washington Wizards.
A school that has almost always been more likely to produce a Stan Verrett than a Bethea has reached one of college sports’ most prolific events. It didn’t need a Pro Football Hall of Famer filming a documentary for Amazon Prime while coaching either. Just some new blood that was committed to taking the daily steps to turn the program around.
So for all of the classic literature, impactful advocates, talented artists, and world leaders that Howard produces, it’s now known for something else.
Howard has proved that it can be a sports school too.