With its first winning season in 23 years in 2002, Morgan State finally proved it could be done again. With last year's follow-up finish, the Bears showed they were not a one-year fluke.
And as he enters his third season at the school formerly known as the butt of local college football jokes, Morgan State coach Donald Hill-Eley sees a program that has emerged from the darkness and is rounding into a model of stability, continuity and talent.
This is no joke. The Bears, led by seniors, such as quarterback Bradshaw Littlejohn, wide receiver Tommy Manus and middle linebacker Vincent Brown, look like serious contenders for their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title since 1979. They are aiming for their third straight winning season, something not accomplished since 1971.
The signs of a vibrant program abound. Hughes Stadium, which had $14 million worth of renovations done in 2001, features a synthetic grass surface that was installed a year ago. A new practice field is nearly ready. Former tight end and current New York Giant Visanthe Shiancoe recently donated $30,000 worth of equipment to the weight room.
The Bears carry 90 players, 72 of whom are on scholarship. According to Hill-Eley, 67 more potential walk-ons are on a waiting list. His coaching staff is intact, except for one departure that reflects nicely on Morgan State. Michael Lynn Jr. left after last year's 6-5 finish to become the head coach at Bowie State.
"I know what I used to say about Morgan when I was at another place. It was a no-stress week. We were going to go in and crush 'em," said Hill-Eley, 36, a former assistant for the old Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League who also was the offensive coordinator from 1997 to 2000 at MEAC rival Hampton.
"Now I know the other coaches we face can't count Morgan as a win. [Before] we were winning with what we inherited. Now we have what we recruited, and we're not losing recruits to Howard and Delaware State. We're losing them to big schools like Maryland and Syracuse. It's good to get the Bear back on track."
Hill-Eley is the ninth coach at Morgan since Clarence Thomas, who had the last winning team until Hill-Eley's arrival. He might be the last one the Bears hire for a while.
Earlier this summer, his wife, Songhai, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital and a Ready Responder in the National Health Service Corps, was ordered to report to Jackson, Miss., a medically under-served community. She recently took the couple's 5-year-old son, Ayinde, with her and began a three-year commitment. Hill-Eley missed his son's first day at kindergarten last week.
"If I was an assistant coach, I probably would have been gone yesterday. But a leader has to make sacrifices. I'm giving up a part of my family for these guys and my coaches," Hill-Eley said. "I figure I've got 90 kids here, and the majority of them didn't have a dad. They see me as the closest thing they can get to it, and I have to make that commitment."
That commitment resonates with Brown, the leader of Morgan's 4-3 defense, who loves Hill-Eley's discipline. No longer is facial or braided hair or jewelry allowed. Timeliness and proper conditioning are stressed.
"He's all about accountability ... being focused," Brown said. "He prepares hard, he teaches you how to be a young man, and he's a great offensive coach."
Littlejohn loves Hill-Eley's offensive imagination, from the way he employs multiple pro sets to the freedom he gives his quarterbacks once they have mastered his scheme. He also loves the other things his coach represents.
"Coach has been like a father figure to everybody. He cares for everybody he coaches. He makes everybody want to play," said Littlejohn, a preseason All-MEAC pick whose running and passing ability are a key to Morgan's success. He produced 1,229 combined yards in 2003.
"There's no joking about how much we [stink] anymore. That's in the past. We've started a foundation. The campus energy is behind us. We don't want to go back there again."