Men On A Mission

Grant Wahl
Date Published: 
Sports Illustrated

The 1974 Howard University soccer team wanted to win more than an NCAA title

Ian BainThe NCAA demanded return of the 1971 awards, but Bain kept his.

The way Ian Bain sees it, the fortunes of the Howard University soccer team changed on a West Virginia highway one night in October 1973, when everything, it seemed, had broken down. Not just the team bus, which four hours earlier had sputtered to the roadside. And not just the Howard defense, which had scored on its own goal that day to seal what was only the Bison's third defeat in four years.

The sharpest blow of all, in fact, had come the previous January, when the NCAA had stripped Howard of its 1971 national soccer championship and placed the program on probation for the '73 season for having used four ineligible players. The title had been the first Division I championship in any sport ever won by a predominantly black college, and Bain had been a freshman midfielder on the victorious team. The day after the announcement, he clipped a newspaper article about it, as he had clipped other articles about the team, but this time he used pinking shears. The jagged edges reflected his mood. "We felt we had been wronged," he says.

Other reactions at Howard were less subtle. "We feel that it is simply because we are a black institution that the NCAA was requested to investigate," university president Dr. James E. Cheek said in an official statement at the time.

"It's pretty evident that a black school is not supposed to win," Howard coach Lincoln Phillips said after the 1972 semifinal, a 2-1 loss to St. Louis University in which Howard held out seven players accused by the NCAA of eligibility violations. (The NCAA later shortened the list to four.) The NCAA , Phillips went on, was "guilty of practicing racism."

The starting 11 on Howard 's 1971 soccer team all hailed from Caribbean and African countries. The NCAA charged that two of the players had previously exhausted their eligibility by playing amateur soccer in Trinidad, and two others had not taken NCAA -mandated entrance exams to predict a 1.6 grade point average. Howard argued that the four players had GPAs over 3.0 and that the violated rules were vague and discriminated against foreigners. The school eventually challenged the NCAA in court and won a partial ruling that an NCAA regulation regarding foreign students' eligibility was discriminatory, but failed to have the national title restored.

The NCAA maintained throughout that it was only enforcing its rules, and it would later strip San Francisco of a national title in 1978 for using an ineligible foreign player who was white. David Berst, head of enforcement for the NCAA , denies racism played any part in the decision against Howard.

The 1974 Howard squadThe 1974 Howard squad: with Bain (back row, fourth from left) and Phillips (standing, far right).

But feelings were running high that night on the broken-down bus. "We had no post-season to go to in '73, because of the probation, so people started talking about winning the championship in '74," says Bain, a native of Trinidad who was the Bison captain both of those seasons. He looked at his teammates and issued a declaration: "There will be no more losses like this next year."

And there weren't. In 1974 Howard achieved perfection. The Bison, playing under the slogan, Truth crushed to earth shall rise again, completed a 19-0 season with a 2-1, quadruple-overtime defeat of St. Louis in the national championship game. After three years of turmoil Howard had accomplished its famous first—for the second time.

In the living room of his northern Virginia home, Bain reaches for a small Lucite block bearing the inscription 1971 NCAA SOCCER CHAMPIONSHIP. "I remember when the NCAA sent a letter demanding that we return all the prizes," he says. "We gave them the team plaque. But this one, they'll have to come to my house and get it."

Thirty miles to the north, in Columbia, Md., Phillips displays an identical block of Lucite in his trophy case. Now 55 and a staff coach for the U.S. Soccer Federation, Phillips speaks slowly, with a melodic Trinidadian lilt. Time has softened his stance on the NCAA. "I wouldn't say now that they were racist," he states. His understanding of the NCAA has been deepened by 12 years of working with its YES program, which puts on youth sports clinics in cities that are hosting national championship tournaments. "But they were insensitive. Very insensitive."

Soccer at Howard has always been tied to race and multinationalism. A coach named Ted Chambers organized a soccer club at the university in 1947, but local, predominantly white colleges refused to put Howard on their schedules. With no opponents, Howard played for the next three years against embassy teams in Washington.

From the start, the university soccer squad was composed mostly of students from outside the U.S., but the student body at large was also international. Out of 10,152 students in 1971, there were 1,700 foreign students from 72 nations. The foreigners who came to Howard entered the cultural maelstrom of the era, and the soccer players, as much as anyone, got a crash course in U.S. race relations.

"In Trinidad we had [social] divisions, but they were based more on class than race," says Keith Tulloch, a midfielder on the '74 team. "When I came here, it was the first time someone had ever called me nigger, the first time a player had ever spat in my face."

During road games the insults were legion. "They'd say, 'Go back, banana boat. Go back, monkey. Go back to the jungle,' " Phillips recalls. "I had to tell my players that anytime that is done, it's fine to get angry, but you have to know how to get angry: Put the balls in the back of the net."

Here Phillips smiles. "They did that with amazing regularity, you know."

At the start of the '74 season, Phillips asked Dom Basil Matthews, a professor at the university, to speak to the team one day before practice. The players listened as Matthews described their role in what he called a triangle of blackness.

"He told them if you look back at the slave trade, you see people taken away from Africa to the West Indies and the United States," Phillips says. "The farther they came away, the more they were stripped out of their culture. The only thing missing was that line back to Africa, an acceptance of one's self. That's where Howard University is positioned—within the middle of that triangle, bringing the cultures together. And soccer was a big part of that."

When Matthews finished, the team was silent. "That was the first time that all of us as a group related to the idea of race in the environment we were now living in," says Bain. "But it was beyond race. It was like [Nelson] Mandela speaking, someone who is in a situation of race but seems above the race issue. Matthews wanted the season to be not so much a blow against white America or the NCAA but to bring pride to all of the different African groups, so that people all over the black world would notice our team."

Inasmuch as Howard was a microcosm of that world, the professor's wish was granted. "It just grew and grew," says Winston Yallery-Arthur, a former Howard player and volunteer assistant coach. "People who had never been to a soccer game started coming to watch the team play." As word spread of the team's success, professors began canceling their two o'clock classes on game days. The school band learned to play a samba beat and kept it going for the duration of matches.

"We weren't just playing soccer," says Phillips. "We were representing the game, our school and blackness. We felt black people needed to tell themselves they could succeed just like anybody else. So we had to be good."

Howard rolled through the regular season, outscoring its opponents 63-6. In the NCAA tournament, the Bison dispatched George Washington and Clemson before edging past Philadelphia Textile, 5-3, to reach the Final Four.

On a rainy December weekend at St. Louis's Busch Stadium, Howard slipped by Hartwick 2-1 to set up a rematch of the 1971 title game against the home team, all-white, all-American St. Louis University.

St. Louis dominated the first half, taking a 1-0 lead, while Howard equalized in the second. As the match went into overtime, the Bison took control. One Howard shot glanced off the Billikens' crossbar; another popped off the left post.

Finally, in the fourth overtime, Kenneth Ilodigwe, a Nigerian, took a crossing pass from Richard Davy, a Jamaican, and poked the ball into the goal for the 2-1 victory.

Twenty-two years later, Bain sits in his basement combing through two scrap-books of articles and photographs. These days he teaches high school Spanish, and sometimes his students show him pictures from his playing career that they have found in the school library.

"Do you know what my fondest memory is?" he says. "Seeing Lincoln in the locker room after the game." In Busch Stadium that night Phillips was crying tears of joy.

"They had taken something away that was very special," Phillips says. "And when we got it back, the burden we had been carrying was gone. There was relief."

Says Bain, "Had we lost that tournament, it would have affected the rest of our lives. We had to put something right that we felt was wrong."