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Men on a Mission
Grant Wahl
February 24, 1997
The 1974 Howard University soccer team wanted to win more than an NCAA title
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February 24, 1997

Men On A Mission

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

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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.

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."

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