Howard University has lost 20 games or more in each of the past seven seasons.
The Bison have been to the NCAA tournament twice in their history, the most recent a not-so-recent 18 years ago.
The basketball offices, when Kevin Nickelberry first walked into them, still sported the same worn-out carpet that had been installed when the office space served as a bank nearly 20 years ago.
And all Nickelberry could think was how much better things looked than in his previous gig.
You want relative? Sit in Nickelberry’s shoes. No, Howard isn’t Kentucky. OK, it’s not even Eastern Kentucky.
It’s also not Libya.
“When I got into the gym, the fans were still running and the entire court was covered in sand,’’ said Nickelberry, who served as the Libyan National Team coach during last year’s FIBA African Championships.. “I went on the FIBA website. There were only two teams ranked below Libya. In the world. I can honestly tell you, the level of talent in that room was probably a mediocre high school or decent Division III program at best.’’
Frankly, things are only moderately better at Howard, where the athletic department of a proud academic institution has been left untended for years. Which is why it’s perfect for Nickelberry.
The 45-year-old doesn’t do easy.
Given the choice between a program already on its way to a success and one in complete disarray, he’ll choose the disaster. That’s all he’s ever known.
He began his career unofficially while a student at Virginia Wesleyan, serving as a happy lackey at Old Dominion for Oliver Purnell -- “for the first year and a half he didn’t know my name, but I knew what coffee to get him,’’ Nickelberry said -- and has spent virtually his entire career learning how to start a program from scratch. He worked alongside Ralph Willard when Willard resuscitated Holy Cross, Bobby Lutz when he brought Charlotte alive in Conference USA and again with Purnell when Clemson needed new life.
When he branched out on his own, Nickelberry took a head-coaching job at Hampton, a job only slightly better than the one he has now. He went a respectable 50-44 in three years before resigning.
“In my mind, I’m still a Division III walk-on who is trying to make a name for himself,’’ Nickelberry said. “The only way I could do it as a player was to dive on the floor and run through trash cans. That’s my mentality. That’s what I know.’’
But save for his one-year stint in Libya, Nickelberry admits this might be his toughest reclamation project of all. Despite the largest alumni base of any university in Washington D.C., Howard averaged fewer than 1,000 fans at home last season. And even with an endless supply of recruits sitting in its D.C. neighborhood, the university has managed but one local recruit in the past five years.
As much as the university’s academic reputation rings true nationally, its athletic reputation rings hollow.
“If we can find a way for the academic notoriety here to match the athletic reputation, we’re taking the right step,’’ said Nickelberry, whose parents both graduated from Howard.
As it is with most historically black colleges and universities, Howard has suffered from a lack of administrative support in the past. That, however, has started to change with the addition of president Sidney Ribeau, who came from Bowling Green, where he watched Urban Meyer turn a perennial football loser into a contender. Appointed in 2008, Ribeau has started to bring change to Howard.
The university ranked 276th in athletics expenses last season, which might seem low but actually is more than competitive in the MEAC. The Bison spent $8.6 million last season, in line with Morgan State, Norfolk State and Hampton.
And in Nickelberry, Ribeau has hired a man who recognizes that if he wants improvements quickly, he’s going to have to do it himself. He pounded the pavement and raised the $200,000 necessary to renovate the coaches offices -- doing away with that ancient carpet -- and has no qualms about going before the fertile alumni base to ask for support.
“That basketball office felt like a third-world country,’’ Nickelberry said. “It was bad, really bad. Nothing had been done – no paint, nothing, and I explained if you want people to come in here, you need them to feel like there’s a commitment here. Now we have flat-screen televisions, a conference room. It’s completely changed.’’
Of course, Nickelberry knows the real changes can’t just be cosmetic. They need to be on the court. Howard needs to change the culture of losing. When he first told his players that he intended to compete for a championship, they looked at him like he was crazy. And so his first message at his first practice was a simple one: Your dreams have to match your commitment.
“Everyone came here dreaming of championships,’’ he said. “That’s why you come to play college basketball, I don’t care where you are. But they needed to understand they had to work for that. Their commitment had to match that dream.’’
In the early weeks of practice, Nickelberry is starting to see that gradual change. He has converts, converts to the belief of winning.
He also is getting players. Theodore Boyomo was looking at schools such as Rutgers and Texas A&M. But the 6-9 freshman from Cameroon instead opted for Howard.
Why? Because Boyomo played for the Cameroon National Team and his coach there knew Nickelberry from Nickelberry’s year with the Libyan team.
“All those 25-hour flights paid off,’’ Nickelberry laughed.
There, of course, needs to be more Boyomos to turn things around. But if Nickelberry has learned anything from his year in Libya, it is this: anything is possible. The Libyan team, previously winless in world competition, went 3-5 under Nickelberry.
“When I walked in here at Howard, take away the sand, it felt exactly the same as Libya,’’ he said. “But I also thought, ‘We can do this.’ ’’