Bisons Kick Their Way To Top

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West Indies wiz coaches Howard U. soccer squad to championship

IN 1969, when Howard University sought to improve its soccer team by hiring Trinidad soccer pro Lincoln Phillips as coach, the news didn't stir a ripple. The possibility that Howard would become a national soccer threat seemed as far removed as that of the Redskins' making it to the Super Bowl. Fat Chance. St. Louis University was just beginning what soon would become a long string of 40-plus straight victories and San Francisco State and the University of Maryland were by popular consensus the top contenders.

Phillips had other ideas. I his first full season, he lead the Howard Bisons into their first National Collegiate Athletic Assn. semi-finals, where they fought aggressively before bowing to a close 4-3 against UCLA. The following year, Phillips coached the Bisons toward an impressive 13-game winning streak and into another semi-finals. But this time, the ending went a little differently. After a hard-fought contest with Harvard, the Bisons met the St. Louis Billikens, eight-time NCAA victors, who by this time had extended their winning streak to 44. Both teams went into the finals undefeated, and the contest began to take on greater significance. The St. Louis team was white, predominately American and heavily favored to win. While not a popular sport throughout the country, soccer is a favorite son in St. Louis. The city has a grassroots organization, and some 25,000 youngsters from high school down to kindergarten play the game regularly, providing a steady source for talent.

Howard University's soccer team, on the other hand, was relatively unknown, black and composed entirely of foreigners. It went into the game with seven starters from Trinidad, two from Bermuda, one from Guinea and one from Ghana and its most notable achievement was winning the small college National Athletic Intercollegiate Assn. championship in 1961. What's more, Howard was without its star forward, Keith Acqui, who with Alvin Henderson and Ian Bain had been the thrust of the Howard offense. Acqui who racked up 25 goals coming into the semi-finals (a feat comparable to scoring 25 touchdowns in football), was sidelined with fever and ordered to bed.

In the finals, St. Louis moved against the Bisons with a well-coordinated attack that gave all the indications of a slow, methodical victory. At half time, Howard was barely able to tie it 2-2. Then Acqui entered the game. "Acqui came to me with tears in his eyes and said he wanted to play," says Coach Phillips. "I knew he should not have played, but I just couldn't tell him no. Once he got on the field, St. Louis changed their attack. They put two and three men to guard him, which left an extra two of our men free." Like in a Hollywood movie script, the game changed dramatically and Howard won 3-2.

With the NCAA championship trophy came a score of other honors. Howard became the first predominately black institution to win an NCAA title, the only team to win both the NAIA and NCAA titles and the first championship team in any sport, professional or collegiate, the D.C. area had produced in more than 25 years. Duly impressed, President Richard M. Nixon conveyed his personal congratulations.

Preparing Howard to win the national championship wasn't as difficult as one might believe, according to Coach Phillips. "Howard always had good talent," says Phillips. "They just needed someone to pull it together." Before he arrived, he says, "people just came out and played. There had been very little organization, no real training program, no regular coach and no serious practice." The lean, angular West Indian is being modest about his own credentials. He has been playing the game since childhood. He not only played for Trinidad's championship national soccer team but its championship basketball team as well. In 1968, he became the first black soccer coach for a U.S. team and led the Washington Darts to their first American Soccer League title. Along with his coaching duties at Howard, he was also goalie-coach for the Baltimore Bays soccer team during the summer.

Phillips was persuaded to join Howard's staff by James (Ted) Chambers, Howard's grand old man of sport and the founder of its present soccer program. "When I first came to Howard as head coach back in 1944," says Chambers, "few West Indians turned out for the football team and even fewer maintained an interest. I realized a large segment of the student body had no interest in an important part of collegiate life—athletics." Chambers, now 72, has always stressed the importance of athletics—not only for improving the body but for developing discipline, character and mental alertness. In 1945, with $500 borrowed from the football budget, he scrounged about for suits and shoes and equipment to start a soccer team. By 1947, the Howard Bisons were playing competitively and in 1961 under Chambers' leadership won their first major trophy, the NAIA title.

Shortly after Howard won the NCAA title and later the Soccer Southern Invitational Tournament at West Virginia University this year, rumors circulated that the team violated NCAA eligibility standards by recruiting professionals, that it had players whose academic average was below the 1.6 NCAA requirement and that it included too many foreigners.

In early October, the NCAA launched a formal investigation. "The lowest average they could find was a 2.35," said Leo Miles, Howard athletic director. "Most of the members of the soccer team also work part-time jobs and are enrolled in professional programs. Three of the leading scorers will finish their four year requirements in three years and at least 90 per cent of all past team members have gone to grad school. "Foreign boys just look like professionals," chuckles Chambers. "They come here primarily to get that degree and make that money."

"Soccer has always been dominated by white Europeans," adds Coach Phillips and the local schools are a little jealous. I thing the coach of Navy (U.S. Naval Academy) is just trying to get us out of competition. He's already said it was unfair to have foreigners on an American team. Not long ago, the NCAA heard a motion to limit the number of foreigners on a soccer team—despite the fact that Maryland won the NCAA soccer championship with all foreigners, as did San Francisco and Michigan. They were all white foreigners. They just want to pass rules to limit us." Howard has the largest foreign student population of any school in the U.S., more then 1,700 from 72 nations.

"The simple facts," adds Phillips, a former Trinidad Army physical education instructor, "are that you will play well if you prepare well. My boys practice 1½ hours a day, every day."

Phillips quietly enjoys the controversy, and swells with pride when some of the local teams openly admit that they dropped Howard from its schedule because it is "too good." "I like Howard," says Phillips. "I intend to stay here for a while because there are so many people saying black people can't be champions. It's an uphill battle. But I always revel in the going."