Amid all the sporting and political hoopla that swirled through Miami last week, the national collegiate soccer championships understandably resembled the calm eye of a Florida hurricane. For the handful of appreciative fans who rattled around the 78,000-seat Orange Bowl for the championship matches, however, it was "eye" as in eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.
In a brutally physical and exciting finale, Howard University, a mysterious outsider, scored an upset over formidable St. Louis University, the school that had won eight of the previous 12 championships. It was a game of multiple contrasts—not just cheeky newcomer vs. entrenched power, but also uninhibited fast break vs. tight ball control, foreigners vs. homegrown and, for those who seek significance in such face-offs, even black vs. white. The result often was collegiate soccer at its best, sometimes at its worst, always dramatic. It was a good display of why the game has become the NCAA's fastest-growing sport, now played by more than 350 schools.
Howard won the title 3-2 on an explosive goal scored early in the second half of the final game. The Bisons had come from behind twice in the first half, each time when it seemed as if St. Louis was ready to stage a rout. With four minutes left in the second quarter, Howard tied it 2-2, and at the second-half kickoff it moved quickly downfield again. Twenty-five yards out from the St. Louis goal, Howard's captain, Left Half Stan Smith, drilled the ball across the stadium's smooth but abrasive Poly-Turf surface to Alvin Henderson, Howard's quick forward. St. Louis Goalie Al Steck hesitated, then rushed forward to intercept the charge. It was a fatal mistake. The ball rocketed off Henderson's right foot, soared past Steck's desperate lunge and struck high into the left-hand corner of the net.
For the rest of the game the Bisons drew in their offensive horns, mauled the Billikens' usually deft ball-control attack with some hockey-type checking and ended a St. Louis undefeated streak that had reached back 44 games and three years. In addition, Howard became the first predominantly black institution to win a major college championship.
"Things have been going very well for us all year," said Henderson, a sophomore chemistry major from Trinidad and the team's second-leading scorer. "It just seemed as if we were in the hands of fate and that the tournament was meant for us."
Up until two years ago soccer at Howard seemed fated not for glory but oblivion. The university, located in Washington, D.C., has an undergraduate population of 10,152 that is mainly black (only 500 white students are enrolled). But, thanks to 1,700 foreign students from 72 nations, the campus cafeteria sometimes looks like the Delegates' Lounge at the U.N.
Quite a bit of Howard's soccer talent rolls in with the wave from overseas. Even so, the Howard team could not realistically aspire to a major title until two years ago when the athletic department hired 30-year-old Lincoln Phillips as full-time coach. A native of Trinidad who had served as goalie and player/coach of the Washington Darts in the professional North American Soccer League, Phillips began a revolution.
"There had always been a great many skillful players at Howard," Phillips said the other day, "but there had been very little organization—no real training program, no regular coach, no serious practice. People just came out and played."
Phillips supplemented the supply of talent with players he recruited back home in Trinidad. He persuaded others like Goalie Sam Tettah of Ghana, who was in school but playing only in a Washington amateur league, to come out for the team. Finally, he installed the freewheeling British and European style of soccer that most of his players had been raised on. Phillips' system is soccer's equivalent of basketball's fast break, what American cynics call "punt and chase." It consists of long, downfield kicks, with the forwards racing after the ball in the hope they can bang a goal in before the opposition can get organized. Defense is characterized by close checking, knocking people down and going after the ball.
Under Phillips, success came quickly. Last year Howard did not lose a game until UCLA defeated it 4-3 in the NCAA semifinals. This year, with seven starters from Trinidad, two from Bermuda, one from Guinea and one from Ghana, Howard brought a winning streak of 13 to Miami, and Goalie Tettah had turned in four straight shutouts.