When the first HBCU to win a Division I championship was stripped of their title, Howard University’s multi-national barrier-breakers made history all over again.
The way coach Lincoln ‘Tiger’ Phillips recalls it, there was not much point in playing one period of overtime to decide the 1974 NCAA men’s soccer championship, let alone four – though, that’s what it eventually took for his Howard University Bison to defeat Saint Louis University Billikens, 2-1, and claim the national championship for the only time in the school’s history. Why? Because fate, Phillips recently told the Guardian, had already decided the outcome of the match long before a ball was even kicked on that freezing cold December day 42 years ago this week, when conditions delayed kickoff and snow had to be piled up behind the goals at Busch Memorial Stadium in St Louis.
Phillips’ belief stemmed from the fact that the “only time in its history” part of his and Howard’s story – which saw the school become the first historically black college or university to win a Division I national championship – was not entirely accurate. Though the record books currently show the university’s men’s soccer team with one title to its name (1974), the school and Phillips had experienced such a success story before; it was the basis for the coach’s fate-based-on-fact approach, paired with a sense of redemption that ran through a squad whose stories stretched from Africa to the Caribbean to Washington DC.
The first first had come in 1971 – one year after a young goalkeeper from Trinidad and Tobago had set foot on the Howard’s campus with a vision of transforming its rather woeful soccer team into a national powerhouse. Phillips, then just 29, had previously worked as a player-coach for the Washington Darts of the North American Soccer League. When he arrived at Howard, the school had not advanced to the NCAA tournament since 1963, when they comfortably lost to Navy, 5-1, in the first round.
In 1970, Phillips’ team qualified for the NCAA’s final four, prompting the school to offer him a full-time contract the following year. In accepting the head coaching role at the university, Phillips would also receive a free education to pursue his undergraduate degree. Despite what may have been perceived as an awkward situation for the Phillips – sitting alongside his equals in the lecture halls, but expected to exert authority on the field – the coach’s personality traits made him the perfect figurehead for Howard at the time. He was young and ambitious; had respect from his time as a NASL player and Trinidadian international; and his calm demeanor and one-on-one approach could also be matched by an intense focus on physical fitness and effort in matches. Phillips had an objective, too. Though seemingly far-off when he arrived, especially given Howard’s past performances, the idea becoming the first black school to win a national title would galvanize the team, he said. There was a sense of pride that extended beyond soccer, he added – his tenure starting just two years after the Civil Rights Act and a decade of bloodshed and riots that had seen the assassinations of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.
Due to Howard’s reputation, the team Phillips was able to build contained a global mix of lineages. Some saw this as a negative – a clash of soccer identities. But Phillips believed the appeal of the talented players at his disposal far outweighed man-management issues. “At the time, Europe was not moving, at least on a professional level, for players in third world countries,” he said. “So, for the African players and the Trinidad players, America was the way out, coming over here to college. … Some of the players were on national teams. These are the [types of] players who are now playing in England and Europe.”
Bison players under Phillips originated from countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Eritrea, Trinidad and Tobago, Ethiopia and Jamaica. After finishing third in 1970, Howard would steamroll the opposition during the 1971 season. Speed was the driving force behind this success – the Bison playing with high, in-your-face intensity, capitalizing on counter-attacks whenever possible. There was also a party atmosphere that year, past players said. A small, easy-going group that essentially picked itself for each game put any egos aside for the collective goal, which, as the season progressed, became ever more believable.
Most of the teams the Bison faced were all-white, and some matches saw fights, red cards, and, according to some players, biased referees and acts of discrimination from opponents and on the touchline. But Howard would better its 1970 performance in 1971, reaching the final, where it would face Saint Louis University, the most dominant soccer program in NCAA history, which had won eight Division I championships over the previous 12 seasons.
Despite being underdogs going into the match at Miami’s Orange Bowl on 30 December 1971, Phillip’s team would come out on top, 3-2, completing what would have been unthinkable before he had taken over. The coach cried; players carried Phillips aloft as Howard basked becoming the first black institution to win a Division I championship. The university’s victory was followed by a congratulatory telegram from President Richard Nixon, and Saint Louis’ all-white team and staff showed the utmost respect for Howard also, Phillips said.
The title also helped to raise the profile of the soccer program, allowing the university to appeal to more talented international soccer players in the years to come. This was a stark contrast to some of the ‘71 team, who, when arriving at Howard years earlier, had been unaware the university even had a soccer team.
“We knew where that program came from,” Trevor Leiba, a Trinidadian goalkeeper who joined the university in 1974, said. “I knew about the situation in Trinidad, but it was like a child trying to understand family life at the age of 10 or 12. I didn’t feel it until I was here and I would hear Lincoln and the older guys talk.”
On 26 January 1972, just over three weeks after the Bison had celebrated their historic victory, the NCAA received an anonymous note, asking them to look into the eligibility of Howard players. What followed was not only a whodunit between coaches and soccer officials, but also a whydunit of sorts. Some speculated that the letter was sent as retaliation, the predominantly white world of college soccer unhappy about Howard’s vast improvement. Others argued that factors such as jealousy over the international players, or the ages of certain players played a part.
After the NCAA’s Committee of Infractions opened an investigation into player eligibility, the 1972 season for Howard saw five individuals removed from the team as questions arose. Interviews were conducted with everyone from players and coaches – both from Howard and their opposition – right up to the United States Soccer Federation. Despite losing key figures, the Bison still managed to reach the semi-finals that year, losing to eventual champions Saint Louis.
Twenty-four hours after that defeat, Phillips and his team attended the NCAA’s final four banquet, where the Howard coach was due to speak to a room full of his peers and the media. Standing at the podium, Phillips congratulated Saint Louis on their victory. He then said: “We played against this entire wretched system of this society. I would say the NCAA is guilty of practicing racism. … Saint Louis did not beat Howard University. They beat the remnants of what was left of Howard University.”
Applause for the coach’s stand rippled around the room. But a month later, in January 1973, despite this show of apparent support from fellow university players and coaches, the NCAA’s investigation concluded that Howard had violated three rules relating to player eligibility: they would be stripped of their third-place finish in 1970; banned from post-season play during 1973; and, most shatteringly, also stripped of their 1971 title, which has since remained vacant.
“In my opinion, the Howard University team was stood knee-deep in the civil rights struggle,” Mori Diane, a member of the 1971 team who would go on to play professional soccer, said. “We played our little part, even unbeknown at the time. Our struggles were pebbles in the sandstorm that brought acceptance of blacks as equals.”
One of the rules Howard was deemed to have broken surrounded freshman eligibility and hinged on athletes achieving a high enough score on certain entry-level examinations to make a predicted grade-point average. For some students – especially those from outside of the United States – Howard’s admission process gave exemptions from these exams, as students could be admitted based on their scores on British Commonwealth or French equivalents. All of the players who were said to have broken this, The 1.6 Rule, achieved GPAs during their freshman year higher that were higher than the entrance requirements. In 1971, the soccer team had the highest GPA of all of the university’s varsity teams, with Phillips, studying alongside some of his players, putting a greater emphasis on education over sport.
The other rules Howard were questioned over surrounded the eligibility of certain foreign students. One player from the ‘71 team, for example, was questioned over the roughly three years he spent playing in a league in his home country, despite the standard being extremely low. NCAA rules deemed foreign students would lose one year of postseason eligibility for every year they participated in athletic competition in their home country after their 19th birthday. A rule that stated students were eligible five years of athletic activity after first registering for a college also hit Howard players, as some had spent periods at colleges in their home countries.
“Did they follow the rules to the tee in terms of what the NCAA requested? I don’t think so – but it was nearly impossible for anyone to at that time,” Justin Tinsley, who has written about race and the Howard teams of the early 70s for ESPN’s The Undefeated, told the Guardian. “But it was never to the extent where head coach Lincoln Phillips was trying to game the system, either. ... It wasn’t until after 1971 season and the questions that arose after it did it only become a problem. They had a bullseye on their back then. So of course powers that be were going to gun for them.”
After the NCAA’s decision, appeals followed. But despite having sympathy for the university over the vagueness of the rules, it was concluded that, though unintentional, Howard had been in violation. The 1973 season rolled on, but with no postseason, the drive of ‘71 had all but evaporated.
“It was terrible,” Richard Davy, a member of the 1973 Howard team, said. “Even the bus broke down a number of times – and it was so cold. We felt like were just playing for the heck of it.”
For Phillips and his remaining players, the 1974 soccer season could not come soon enough. When it did, the Howard team that began the campaign looked a little different to that of ‘71. Some had graduated; others had been suspended. The roster Phillips now oversaw – perhaps boosted by Howard’s growing reputation within collegiate soccer – contained a stronger group of players, according to some on the ‘74 team. “It needed a coach like Lincoln,” Trevor Leiba, the goalkeeper, said, “because even though it was a very talented team, that team was filled with egos.”
Like in ‘71, the Howard team also had an objective: the push for a second first. Some players have since joked that there was more pressure on them than in their exams; others have said the opposite, claiming that history and a sense of purpose made them certain of Howard winning the title. But whatever the drive – nerves, confidence, redemption — the Bison flew through the 1974 season in a style not seen in Division I college soccer before or since. A group that contained internationals, experienced and driven members of ‘71 team, and those, like Leiba, who did not understand the mindset around the NCAA’s decision until they arrived on campus, finished the season 19-0, outscoring their opponents 63-6. Those numbers included the final victory over Saint Louis, where Howard started slow, before a half-time change by Phillips altered the game and gave the Bison the title.
“It was all about black pride,” Richard Davy, who set up the winning goal in the final, said. “They had taken away the ‘71 title, but ‘74 was clean.”
Today, Lincoln Phillips still sees his team as winning two titles, not one – there would not have been a ‘74 team without a ‘71 team, he says. When asked to attend events that recognize the achievements of his‘74 team, Phillips has insisted that the ‘71 team be recognized also; books and documentaries, including Spike Lee’s “Redemption Song”, have been created to discuss the broader impact these Howard teams had. Phillips would go on to coach at the university until 1980, but the Bison would not win another national championship, leaving questions open about the dynasty that could have been built between the years of 1970 and 1974 had not the controversy arose.
It’s a great what if. But no matter what the record books say, or if the rulebook should have come down so hard on Howard, Phillips today says he’s simply comforted by the way his players responded when they could alter the outcome, bolstered by the greater significance their results and attitudes had.
“The remarkable thing was that we did not wear that racism baggage on our shoulders,” Phillips said. “All we were concerned about was not what was done to us, but what must we do to take back what is rightfully ours. And, looking back in retrospect, that’s a great message that can be sent to anyone – black folks in discriminatory situations, or any group that’s discriminated – travel light, don’t wear baggage, and focus on what you have control over.”