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Battle for ‘the real HU’ is now Howard vs. Harvard

Bison play Crimson on Jan. 21 at Burr Gymnasium

When fans and alumni talk about “the real HU,” it’s usually friendly banter between Howard University and Hampton University.

But Howard and Harvard University have their own history together that Kery Davis, Howard’s athletic director, has been looking to resuscitate since he was hired in 2015.

He’s done that. The schools will play against each other in basketball on the Howard campus on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 21, and in football at Harvard Field on Oct. 5.

“One of our scheduling goals was to play more like-minded academic schools and institutions,” said Davis, speaking specifically of Harvard, whose Latin motto translates to “Truth,” while Howard’s Latin motto translation is “Truth and Service.”

“We have had alumni finish undergraduate studies here who have gone on to Harvard for graduate school, or vice versa, so there’s always been an intimate connection between the two universities. After 125 years, we thought it was time to play this game again.”

Often viewed as the standard-bearer for academics, Harvard started its football program in 1873, 20 years before Howard began its program. Their history — together, on the gridiron — goes back over 100 years.

“When football started at Howard 125 years ago, there was an actual newspaper article which said that Harvard lent Howard their uniforms, allowing [Howard] to play in that very first season of Howard football,” explained Davis, previously a senior vice president of HBO Sports before arriving at Howard. “So when I spoke with their athletic director, we recognize the synergies between our institutions. We have had alumni finish undergraduate studies here who have gone on to Harvard for graduate school, or vice versa, so there’s always been an intimate connection between the two universities. After 125 years, we thought it was time to play this game again.”

Meeting on MLK Day — Howard will host the basketball game at Burr Gymnasium — gives this matchup more significance. For Tommy Amaker, Harvard’s head coach who attended W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia, before starring at Duke, it was an easy yes.

“We felt like Tommy would be amenable to this idea, being from the D.C. area,” Davis said of their conversation. “I knew that he would believe that this would be an opportunity for his young men to experience a bit of culture. Some of his young men might not know about the impact of Howard both culturally and socially, plus there is a huge Harvard alumnus base in the D.C. area, so we knew it made sense.”

Both teams last met in 2016 in a game that was marked by turnovers, long scoring droughts and physical play on both ends, with Harvard beating Howard 69-61.

Davis, then relatively new in his AD role, recalls the electric atmosphere at sold-out Burr Gymnasium, an atmosphere he expects again on MLK Day, with celebrities and dignitaries — reportedly among them U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a Howard grad — expected to attend.

“We’re excited about it; we’re expecting the game to be sold out,” he said. “It’ll be televised by Monumental Sports Network, and we’re sure Coach Amaker will likely take his team to the [Smithsonian National] Museum [of African American History and Culture]. This is just a mutually beneficial meeting for both Coach [Kevin] Nickelberry and Amaker and their programs.”