The Howard Bison were in the 1971 NCAA Men’s Soccer Championship game on December 30, 1971 at the Miami Orange Bowl. Standing between them and the national championship were the Saint Louis Billikens, who were in the midst of a run that has been unrivaled in college men’s soccer: 10 national championships and 3 second place finishes in 16 years. Howard had made the semifinals in 1970 but came up short, and this was an opportunity for them to break through and make history. It was a close game, but in the end, Howard emerged as 3-2 victors over the Billikens. Howard University became the first historic black college or university (HBCU) to win an NCAA national championship in soccer.
They had been underdogs in that match, despite their undefeated season where they had dominated the competition. Beating an all-white Saint Louis team was considered a monumental victory for the Bison, and head coach Lincoln Phillips cried tears of joy as he was carried off the field by his team. They even received a telegram from President Richard Nixon, who expressed his congratulations on the Bison’s historic title. It was unheard of at that time for an HBCU to challenge for national championships in any sport, and not only they did that, they they took down the college soccer dynasty in the process.
But, after the season, it was all taken away, their title vacated because of the NCAA’s accusation that Howard fielded ineligible players. Their story became one of redemption, where they fought to get back to the top to reclaim the throne that was rightly earned on that Orange Bowl field in 1971.
After the 1971 championship, the NCAA levied accusations against Howard that two of Howard’s starting 11—which all hailed from countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Eritrea, Trinidad and Tobago, Ethiopia and Jamaica—were ineligible because of playing amateur soccer in Trinidad and Tobago, while two others were academically ineligible. Howard argued that the players were all in good academic standing, with GPAs over 3.0, and that the NCAA’s rules on amateurism discriminated against foreign student-athletes. Still, the team continued to thrive on the field, making it back to the semifinals in 1972 despite having to remove 5 players due to the NCAA inquiry. At the NCAA soccer final four banquet that year, Howard coach Lincoln Phillips took to the podium to congratulate Saint Louis on their championship, but then offered this pointed remark: “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.” It was met with raucous support from the room filled with fellow college coaches. The NCAA wasn’t as amused.
After the 1972 season, Howard learned that the NCAA informed Howard of their determination that three player eligibility rules had been violated. The NCAA stripped Howard of its 1971 title, they were banned from postseason play for the 1973 season, and placed on probation for one year. Mori Diane, a player on the 1971 team, summed up his thoughts on what he thought was a witch hunt:
“In my opinion, the Howard University team was stood knee-deep in the civil rights struggle...We played our little part, even unbeknown at the time. Our struggles were pebbles in the sandstorm that brought acceptance of blacks as equals.”
Most felt that the ruling handed down by the NCAA was vindictive. Others further felt that Howard was harshly punished, in part, due to their visible part in the nation’s civil rights movement. The school decided to push back, challenging the NCAA’s ruling in court. In the end, they were able to win a ruling saying that NCAA rules regarding foreign student eligibility was discriminatory. Still, the ruling did not restore the 1971 national championship that was taken away from Howard. That title still is officially vacated to this day.
In 1974, the team came out on a mission, only content with returning to reclaim the glory that was unjustly taken away. It operated under the motto, “Truth, crushed to the earth, shall rise again.” They destroyed their competition, going undefeated during the season and outscoring its opponents 63-6. In the postseason, they cruised to the title game, where they faced—you guessed it—Saint Louis. This time, the final took place at Busch Stadium, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals. Howard was the true underdogs, but they were not to be denied. In quadruple overtime, Howard scored a goal to win 2-1 and win the 1974 national championship. Redemption was theirs. For the 2nd time, Howard became the first HBCU to win a national championship in soccer, but this time it was going to stand. It was official. Howard soccer was the king of college soccer.
For many players, that redemption was a long time coming. Howard player Winston Yallery-Arthur stated, “[It] was like the rising of the phoenix for us...For me it was vindication. It made all the stuff we had went through worth it.” Ian Bain took it further: “Every time we took the soccer field we had to represent a group of people in a country who needed a voice. We grew because of the struggle.”
Howard University had one title taken from them and fought their way back to win another. It helped spur investment into their soccer team, which drew interest from players from around the world. Howard would return to the semifinals in 1975 but then hit a dead period where they didn’t feature in the hunt for the soccer title until the late 1980s. One thing it also did was effectively end the reign of the Saint Louis Billikens. While no men’s program has won more national championships, SLU’s loss in 1974 to Howard was the last time the program appeared in the national title match. Howard held the throne, and it was a throne that they fought hard to get back after it was taken away from them.
Learn more about the 1971 and 1974 Howard Bison team through this Scoreboard special: