2022 Football

Gary Harrell credits “Coach Prime” for his next chapter

The new MEAC Hall of Famer credits Deion Sanders with moving him to another level as the assistant head coach at Colorado.

After many years deserving the honor, former Howard star football player Gary “The Flea” Harrell was inducted into the Mid Eastern Athletics Hall of Fame at festivities during this year’s MEAC Basketball Tournament in Norfolk, Va.

As a player, Harrell doubled as a dangerous wideout and kick returner.

Harrell made a significant impact on Howard football and the MEAC as both a player and a coach. As a player for legendary Howard head coach Steve Wilson, he was a four-year starter as a wide receiver and punt return specialist. He started every game for Howard’s undefeated 1993 team and was a member of the MEAC championship team and black college national championship team that same season.

Don’t be deceived by the nickname “The Flea,” coined because of his short 5-8, 180-pound frame. Harrell was a hard-nosed, durable and reliable pass catcher, punt returner and a winner. He holds the Howard program record for most receptions in a game (13) and in a career (184). He ranks eighth in the MEAC in total receiving yards in a career (2,639), ninth in career receptions (184), fifth in total receptions in a season (72), tied for fourth in total touchdowns in a game (4) and tied for fifth in total receptions in a game (13). Harrell went on to play professionally in the NFL, the World League (WLAF) and the CFL. 

He had two stints as a head coach at his alma mater. First, in 2011 and 2012 and after a one-year absence in 2013, he returned to lead the Bison thru the 2014 to 2016 seasons. He posted a 20-36 record as head coach.

Why so long for the Hall of Fame?

“I don’t know, but timing is everything,” Harrell said of his HOF selection 30 years after his playing days ended. ” I’m just glad and blessed enough to be around to see it and feel it. My mom and family were here to witness it. So, I’m just so glad it did happen.

“I’m just thankful that whatever I did on the football field gave me the opportunity to do what I’m doing now. So, it does bring closure to a lot of things and now it gives me an opportunity to move into the next chapter of my life.”  

Gary Harrell’s next chapter and how it began

The Miami native has had a whirlwind career as a player and coach. That sojourn has most recently landed him on the staff of NFL Hall of Famer Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders. He served as Sanders’ assistant head coach and running backs coach at Jackson State over the past three seasons and now holds down the same positions at Colorado.

Deion Sanders Gary Harrell
Harrell at Jackson State.

Four years ago when Sanders was considering becoming a head coach on the HBCU level, a mutual friend introduced him to Harrell. Sanders wanted to know the ins and outs of being a head coach, particularly on the HBCU level. 

Sanders came to the right place. After his stellar playing career at Howard, Harrell had traversed the coaching universe, inside and outside the HBCU ranks. He had stints as an HBCU assistant at Howard, Texas Southern, Florida A&M, Morgan State and Bowie State before taking over as head man as his alma mater.

Outside the HBCU ranks, he coached wide receivers for head coach Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic before returning to the HBCU ranks again as assistant head coach and running backs coach at Alabama State. Under Kiffin, Harrell became acquainted with a lot about the structure of a big-time program that Kiffin learned during his time working under Nick Saban at Alabama.

The blueprint

The wisdom gained from all those stops was shared with Sanders. In effect, Harrell gave Sanders a blueprint.

“By the time we had our third conversation, I was able to build that trust with him,’ Harrell said. “And he told me that once he was able to solidify a head job, he wanted me to come and be an assistant head coach.”

With Sanders being from Fort Myers, Florida, both being from the Sunshine State didn’t hurt. 

“It didn’t help initially, but once we talked we had the same slang, we had the same vibe,” Harrell said. “We always say now we’re Florida boys so we’re always connected. So it helps. We can step outside the coaching realm and still be friends because of our Florida ties.”

Jackson State was waiting

It was at that point that Sanders thought it (getting the job at Jackson State) was a possibility, Harrell said.. It was one school Sanders felt good about. And it was a place he thought he had all the people in place – Ashley Robinson, the AD, a person with experience and Deion Sanders, the type of person that he is, the background that he has, the network – they meshed.

Deion Sanders
Robinson and Sanders with Harrell produced back-to-back undefeated SWAC championship seasons at Jackson State.

“Ashley Robinson’s a great AD that knows how to manage people,” Harrell said.. “He knows how to let people be who they are.”

Boy, did he ever in Sanders’ case.

Jackson State, Harrell said, had the culture and tradition before they arrived. “Deion Sanders came in and heightened a lot of things they already had and showcased it for the whole world to see it.”

“Coach Prime” and “Coach Flea” hook up

With Harrell in tow, now called “Coach Flea,” Sanders made Jackson State the talk not only of the HBCU world but the sports world in general. Not only did they post a 23-3 two-year overall record, after a pandemic-altered 4-3 2020 campaign, but they were 16-0 in the SWAC over those final two seasons. JSU won back-to-back SWAC titles in 2021 and 2022 and made consecutive appearances in the season-ending Celebration Bowl. 

Harrell particularly stepped up as the interim head coach when Sanders missed three games in the 2021 season after having foot surgery. The Tigers won all three contests. 

Perhaps most notability, Sanders continuously shocked the college football world with his protestations about the efficacy of HBCU football. He then backed up those words by flipping one of the nation’s top recruits, Travis Hunter, from Florida State to JSU. That signing sent reverberations and shook the foundations of major college football.

“Working with a guy like Deion Sanders has taught me so much – not just in the coaching industry, but as a man and a person, in terms of how to go about marketing things and always being in the right position and being prepared for anything that comes down the pike.

Hats off to “Coach Prime”for bringing him to Colorado

“When it comes to Deion Sanders – the man that he is and the honor that he always portrays – for him to take me from Jackson State, an HBCU, to a Power Five in the same role,” Harrell said, “that shows the loyalty and type of man he is. Because he didn’t have to do that.

“He pretty much changed my whole life. He changed my path as far as putting my career at a whole different level. I trust him with my career.”

“It’s going pretty good,” Harrell said during a break in the action at a semifinal MEAC tournament game of their efforts to rebuild the Colorado program. “The way to describe it best is it is a great opportunity. Everything I’ve been through in my coaching career has prepared me for this moment. “

The challenge ahead at Colorado

“We’re kind of far off right now,” Harrell said. “But working with Deion, I know Deion and right now, everyday, he’s thinking of how to get us from point A to point B. That’s what we had to do at Jackson State – get in there, assess the talent that we had, and bring in the talent to get us where we needed to be. So we’re going through the same process we did at Jackson State. We need better talent and we’re going to go out as a staff and find that talent. 

“Find out the guys that fit culturally. Our core values are smart, tough, fast and disciplined. You’ve got to check all four boxes and you’ve got to do all four things with character. We’ll start there. We won’t go outside of our parameters and we’ll find the right guys that match everything we’re trying to get done.

“But our goal is to win right now. We’re not trying to win in year two, we’re trying to win right now. And that’s win the Pac-12, and that’s being bowl eligible. Those are the expectations on the table right now.” 

Gary Harrell credits “Coach Prime” for his next chapter
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