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?