By Paul Holston, Editor-in-Chief
Posted 8:05 PM EST, Thurs., Dec. 8, 2016
Once a Bison, always a Bison. Gary “The Flea” Harrell, the former head football coach for Howard University, has bled red, white and blue since graduating from Howard with a B.A. in marketing in 1994. The announcement of his departure after serving as head coach for six seasons came in an unexpected way for many, including himself. But Harrell now looks ahead in search of a new chapter for his coaching career, a career that started back in 2002 at The Mecca as a wide receiver coach. Harrell sat down with The Hilltop to reflect on what inspired him to pick up the game of football, his journey before becoming the head coach, the challenges as well as what’s next in his career:
HT EIC: What inspired you to pursue the sport of football and what was the moment that you said that this is something that you wanted to do throughout your life?
Coach Flea: It’s very ironic for you to ask that question. I’m from the inner city [in Miami, Florida] and I’m from an environment where there are two things that you had to be involved in: Academics and sports. Academics was a thing that you must be involved in order to get out that environment. But the most attractive thing with the people that I was with was either sports or doing the wrong thing as it came with being involved with drugs and things of that nature. That’s all we saw in that environment…and I chose sports.
I was quiet by nature, very laid back, but it gave me an opportunity to let out and release a lot of emotions…it gave me an avenue to express myself and I continued to play the game of football. It was just something that came natural to me because that’s what we did on a daily basis. I think that kind of helped me mold into being a better leader and coach, because for some reason I was always the guy who chose to pick teams. I look back to where I am now and can somehow see some of the traits and characteristics that helped me be the person I am today. I’m also the first out my family to go to college.
HT EIC: Talk about your student-athlete, undergraduate journey at Howard. How did that play going into post-grad?
Coach Flea: It’s an interesting story, as I didn’t really have Howard on my radar coming out of high school. I had a pretty good high school career and became one of the best receivers coming out the county in that area. I had big offers. I had an offer from Colorado, which was my first offer, and when I committed to Colorado I turned a lot of schools down. We have what we called a national signing day and Colorado had a change of heart about three or four days before the signing day and decided to go into a different direction, so I had nothing as far as scholarship or anything to go to college.
Through my family background, the only thing that I could go to college was through a scholarship, and Howard found out about me later on and came and did a home visit. I spoke with my mom and she chose Howard for me. I came to Howard and I was small…about 5’6″/5’7″ and 150 pounds, and I just had a chip on my shoulder. Not saying that I didn’t belong here, but I wanted to show the world what I could do. At that time I had a child that was born my second semester here at Howard, so a lot of those things fueled me and motivated me to do Howard. I started all four years and was also able to graduate in four years from the School of Buisness with a marketing degree, but all those things motivated me to go through college and to be able to provide for my child and to give her some of the things that I didn’t have.
HT EIC: During that time, how big did your coaches give emphasis on being a student-athlete?
Coach Flea: They pretty much lead by example, and the person that I wanted to emulate the most was the head coach Steve Wilson who was a Howard grad who went on to play in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos. He was someone who I wanted to follow in his footsteps. That’s why I wanted to be a marketing major because I did my research and that was what he wanted to pursue, but he always motivated me to be a student-athlete. I went into class everyday and was serious about things on and off the football field.
HT EIC: Going post-grad, how did you go about both professional ball and football overseas?
Coach Flea: It was a journey that coming from Howard, I always had dreams of playing at the higher level and was blessed to get that opportunity with the New York Giants, but to get there as a free agent from a Historically Black College, you have to make the team. I was able to make the roster and played two years with the New York Giants. Between the first and second year kind of explained how I got into the world of the football league over in Europe. It was the first year of their existence and they wanted to have NFL players go over, help the league grow, and for us to get experience. I loved it…it was great, it was different, and I learned a lot being a part of that. When I came back, I finished my contract with the New York Giants, played in the Canadian football league, but got a knee injury. That’s when I went home and relied on my college degree.
HT: And during that time, when did coaching football peak your interest?
Coach Flea: You know, I never really thought about coaching then. But once I stopped playing, I really couldn’t watch the game. I had so many emotions going through me not being able to play and had a hard time of dealing with it, so I had to detach myself from the game of football for a while.
But I was in Miami at an ATM and met an old coach that coached here at Howard University, Rayford “Ray” Petty, and he informed me that he was about to be the head football coach at Howard and asked me if I wanted to come coach with him. I was in Miami, was looking for something new, and when I came to coach back in 2002, that’s when I fell in love with coaching. I knew I wanted to be a head coach at Howard University, so that’s when I moved around to different universities such as Texas Southern, Florida A&M, Morgan, and Bowie State because I wanted to see how different programs operated. I wanted to build my resume and was blessed to put myself on the path. Being able to be head coach at Howard was my dream job.
HT EIC: When it was announced you got that job, what was your top goals going into the head coaching position, even though you knew it was going to take some time?
Coach: First and foremost, I have to give thanks to former Howard President Sidney Ribeau who gave me the opportunity to be the head coach at Howard. I’m forever grateful for what he did to give me the opportunity. When I got the position, I wanted to get back to the winning tradition. I knew I could come in and inject the pride back into the game. Even though with the lack of resources that we had, we did it in 1993 with some of the same or less resources. So I wanted to come in and install the pride because I truly believe that the football team really do a lot and impact the college campus. If we come out and win, the campus life is very vibrant and carries us on throughout the year. Winning is a part of Howard University.
A lot of guys as they were going through those trouble times while I coached, many of those guys did not know what we did back in 1987, 1993, or 1996. The theme that I created was the “Road to Redemption,” to where I wanted to give them something to really understand to where we were trying to go…and I think we began to do that. The first year we won five games and in the second year we won seven and won second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).
HT EIC: What do you think were the challenges as the years progressed?
Coach Flea: We was going through some times where there were a lot of injuries, but also lack of summer school was a big piece. We were always behind bringing the athletes back in August to get them in shape and it just didn’t work out that way for us. Scheduling was a big part as well, and we were missing a lot of guys.
HT EIC: Do you feel that the players’ morale changed in the past year?
Coach Flea: I definitely think so, but my staff did a good job as far keeping the guys focused and keeping them motivated. We did hold some motivational seminars, such as motivational Mondays, for speakers to to come speak to them about anything in terms of life skills to be a better person.
HT EIC: You emphasize throughout your character the trait of faith? How important faith is to you?
Coach Flea: That’s all I know, and that’s what got me this far. I was a guy from the inner city, 5’6″, 150 pounds that made it to the highest level of football. That’s why I always want my guys to always believe in themselves and that’s why we always tried to do things as a family. I tried to tell my guys all the time that we are not defined by wins and losses, we are defined by decisions and choices that we make. That’s what I live by everyday.
HT EIC: Talk about the important of mentorship.
Coach Flea: I think no matter how old you are or what you’re doing in life, I think everyone should have a mentor in your life. I have several mentors who got me to where I am today.
HT EIC: What are the next steps in terms of looking ahead for the next chapter?
Coach Flea: This is not the end of the road for me. I think I have a new chapter in my life, but I would have stayed at Howard forever. I would have given my left arm for this university…and I just have to look at it that everything happens for a reason. I like where the program is going and it has some positive years ahead of him. I’m going to move forward.