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.
Howard's development as a soccer power is the first evidence of its drive to attain big-time athletic recognition. Known for years as a producer of distinguished black leadership, the university has not enjoyed commensurate success on the playing field. "Academically we have always been outstanding," explains Howard's earnest, courtly sports-information director, Ric Roberts. "Now we want to go major in athletics. Soccer at Howard represents a crusade to open up the NCAA university division to a black school."
What Howard faced in the St. Louis Billikens was the product of a grass-roots soccer movement that has been growing thicker and stronger each year. Catholic schools in St. Louis sponsor a soccer program that begins in kindergarten. All told—in the church leagues, recreational programs and the school system—25,000 youngsters from high school age down play soccer for several months each year. Typical of these is the Billikens' high-scoring All-America forward, Mike Seerey, whose father is Pat Seerey, the former Cleveland Indian outfielder. Mike plays nothing but soccer from August to June. "I started when I was five or six," he says. "It's my game."
Harry Keough, St. Louis U.'s gregarious coach, ranges no farther than the city limits on his recruiting trips. With the exception of a Brazilian who showed up for practice one afternoon, the entire Billiken roster comes from St. Louis. Stressing physical fitness and the sort of precise ball-control game that only skillful, experienced players can handle, Keough's teams have won 62 games, lost five, tied four. They have also won three NCAA titles in his five years there.
To get a shot at St. Louis, Howard first had to beat favored Harvard in the semifinals. Also plentifully staffed with foreign talent, the Crimson are backed up on defense by Shep Messing, an American-born goalie who plays his position with the reckless violence of an NFL linebacker. He also plays goal for the U.S. team now trying to qualify for the Munich Olympics.
Harvard favors the same wide-open game Howard employs. When well executed, punt-and-chase soccer can be a spectating treat, like a high-scoring football game. When badly done it is about as thrilling as a game of catch. Unfortunately, Harvard and Howard put on an inept and scoreless exhibition for most of their game. Finally, with just over 10 minutes left, the Bisons scored, thus sparing the Orange Bowl crowd of 4,044 the ultimate in ennui—an overtime match between two sloppy teams.
"Both of them looked so bad," said St. Louis' Keough after the game, "that my No. 1 problem may be getting my boys up for the finals."
In truth, a No. 1 problem came quicker than that in the form of San Francisco University, the fourth semifinalist. The Dons played the Billikens to a standoff in the nightcap of the Orange Bowl doubleheader, until churning St. Louis won in the last quarter 3-2.
The finale went all but unnoticed on a crowded Miami social and political calendar that included the Brandt-Nixon summit meeting, John Lindsay's declaration of his presidential candidacy and the promotional hullabaloo preceding two other Orange Bowl games, Nebraska-Alabama and Miami-Baltimore. Even the President's phone call congratulating Dolphin Coach Don Shula on beating Kansas City went almost unnoticed.
While only 5,800 spectators showed up for the soccer finals, the game itself was deftly played and sufficiently gripping to satisfy even sophisticated European soccer buffs. Howard started without its high scorer, Keith Acqui, who had suddenly collapsed with a high fever and swollen glands and was ordered to bed. Partly for this reason, Howard decided to rely on a more controlled defensive game. It probably helped, for gone was the erratic quality of the game against the Crimson.
St. Louis stuck to its well-coordinated attack, spreading its forward line from sideline to sideline to open up the Howard defense for a series of short, accurate passes. The Billikens scored first, Seerey dribbling around Goalie Tettah and flicking the ball home from right in front of the net at 4:24 into the game. Howard matched this score three minutes later when St. Louis Goalie Steck dived for a loose ball during a melee in front of his own net and failed to come up with it. Henderson, lying flat on his back, suddenly found the ball at his feet and an open goal before him. He simply swept the ball in with his right leg. But St. Louis went ahead once again less than three minutes later on a goal by Forward Dennis Hadican. This caused an unexpected reaction. The ailing Acqui leaped up from the Howard bench, stripped off his navy-blue warm-up suit and rushed—fever and all—onto the field.
"Keith couldn't play at his usual level," said Henderson later, "but it was inspiring just to have him out there with us." Acqui and Henderson now began sprinting down the sidelines after those high, looping passes from halfbacks, finally tying the score on a goal that was almost a duplicate of the one that had beaten Harvard. Henderson bounded upward under a pass to the left of the St. Louis net and headed it back into the center where freshman Forward Mori Diane kicked it in.
Howard scored its go-ahead goal in the opening moments of the second half, and the rest of the game became a fierce stand-off struggle between St. Louis' persistent, forcing offense and the packed Howard defense.
The jubilant winners ran a victory lap around the field and didn't tumble back into their locker room until a good 30 minutes after the game had ended. "Where is the man from the Miami Herald who called us 'upstart Howard'?" one player screamed joyously through the happy chaos as he held the NCAA championship plaque aloft. A team manager snatched a telephone off a shelf and handed it to Coach Phillips.
"It's President Nixon for you," he called out as reporters pushed forward.
"What have I got to say, Mr. President?" Phillips said into the phone. "Only that I'm disappointed you didn't call sooner." Then he slammed the receiver back on its cradle and whooped with laughter at the joke and the bewildered expressions on those around him who weren't in on it. Few crusades have gotten off to a more uninhibited—or successful—start.