Mentioning Howard University and Hampton University in the same conversation often is an immediate impetus for banter over who is ” the Real HU.”  These two outstanding institutions of higher learning have produced some of the top African American leaders in the history of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). 

Because of that, arguments can often lead to competitive passion. There are various tales and fuzzy knowledge about when the debate actually began, but there is no question that the competition has heightened due to the athletic competition on the fields and courts.  Whenever the two meet on the football field, the courts or maybe even marbles, it can get pretty intense. 

Before we get into this, let’s give a brief history.  Howard was founded in 1867 while Hampton followed the next year.  Originally Hampton Institute, it received University status in 1984. 

Both were original members of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the oldest HBCU conference in history.  In 1971-72, Howard decided to make the jump to NCAA Division 1 and became a member of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC).  Hampton would later follow and became a member in 1995 and some say that is where “the Real HU” argument became intense. 

Legend has it that in the first meeting as members of the MEAC, the football teams were invited to play in the Greater Washington Urban League Classic at RFK Stadium in 1997.  It was a good choice as both institutions had a large representation of students and alums in the DMV area. 

On that day, Howard University, which went on to win the Black National Championship, dominated their old foe and welcomed their new member.  It did not sit well with the Hampton faithful, especially the then, affectionately known as “President for Life,” Dr. William R. Harvey.  During the presentation of the winner and loser trophies following the game, Harvey is reported to have proclaimed to the Howard administrators, “This will never happen again.” 

And you know what, he proved to be prophetic. For the next 13 times that the two met, Hampton came out victorious. Because of their profile and the budding rivalry, the two would meet in numerous venues, including Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands and in Chicago at Soldiers Field 

As a result of this rivalry, many of the games were close and bitter defeats for Howard and Hampton took great joy in beating their rivals. 

Then things took a turn and in 2011, under then-head coach Gary “Flea” Harrell, the Bison snapped the Pirates streak with a 10-7 victory at Hampton.  Following the game, several of the Hampton players were so upset that they initiated a confrontation with the Howard players and refused to shake hands. 

“As a player at Howard, I knew nothing about the rivalry,” recalled Harrell, who was a member of the 1993 team at Howard that went undefeated.  “I know that both schools are proud institutions and pride themselves on their legacies.  But I have to admit that as a proud Howard alum, the streak bothered me.  So I just told the players that they had to get over the mental hurdle that had played a role.  I told them that they had to get out of the mental block and make it about who we are as Howard University.” 

Following that victory, Howard would go on to begin a streak of its own, winning four in a row. 

Harrell is currently wide receivers coach at the University of Colorado.

In the meantime, the battle for “the real HU” permeated to the other sports. 

No one can speak to this as well as Kevin Nickelberry.  He coached at Hampton for five years before coming to Howard and coaching there for 10 years.  He is now an assistant coach at Florida State. 

“When I was at Hampton, there was an unbelievable passion when it came to playing Howard,” recalls Nickelberry.  “And then when I came to Howard, the passion was equally strong.  They are two great schools with strong passions about who they are and what they stand for.” 

Women’s basketball was also part of “the real HU” storyline.  Before Hampton became a member of the MEAC, the Howard women’s basketball team had dominated for many years.  It took a couple of years but eventually Hampton became the kingpin of the conference.  During one period, the two met for the conference tournament three straight years and Howard lost all three by a combined total of seven points. 

Even volleyball, softball and now women’s soccer are now in the fray.  In softball, Howard’s first-ever trip to the NCAAs in the sport came after unseating the Pirates, the reigning champions.  

 Howard’s women’s soccer became the first HBCU to field a Division 1 program (2001-02).  Hampton is only in its third year in the sport.  Two years ago, the two played at Howard and drew its largest home crowd ever.

Hampton has now left the MEAC and is a member of the CIAA, but despite the fact that they have changed, some things never change.  They still play each other in football and occasionally other sports.     

That leads to this coming Saturday when the two meet in the “Truth and Service Classic” at Audi Field in Washington, D.C. The game is set to broadcast on ESPN2 and will kick off at 3:30 p.m. It will be the 100th meeting between the two on the football field.  

Hampton maintains a 55-43-1 advantage in the series that started in 1908 and has won six in a row. Before that, Howard had won six of seven. 

“The thing I appreciate most about this game is that we get a chance to show how two HBCUs have a great balance between academics and athletics,” noted Greg McGhee, quarterback of the 2011 team that stopped the Hampton win streak and current quarterback coach for the Bison. “At the end of the day, this game is all about pride.” 

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