When the NCAA announced its 19-team draw for the 1979 national soccer championship, the overwhelming pretournament favorites were last year's finalists, defending champion San Francisco and runner-up Indiana. Ho hum. However, before anyone could catch up on his Zs, both the Dons and the Hoosiers had been upset and the NCAA tournament had been turned over to a bunch of teams looking for storybook endings to unpromising beginnings. Indeed, the four schools that made it to Tampa for the final showdown last weekend—Penn State, Columbia, Southern Illinois at Edwardsville and Clemson—had an easier time explaining why they shouldn't have gotten that far than how they did.
Neither Penn State nor Columbia had ever been in the final four. The Nittany Lions were the epitome of inexperience, with only one senior and three juniors on their 20-man roster. Still, it was Penn State that had upset Indiana 2-0 in the quarterfinals. And Columbia—which was rated 18th before the season began—seemed about as out of place at an NCAA championship as Albert Einstein at a tag-team wrestling match. Hairsplitters might point out that Columbia has won eight NCAA titles in fencing, but the Lions have never so much as made the NCAA finals in anything else.
Nevertheless, some observers thought that Columbia, which had beaten Hartwick and Rhode Island on the way to Tampa, could give Clemson a tough time in the semis. The Tigers, whose lineup is annually dominated by Nigerians, had been to the final four three times in the last six years but had never won a semifinal game. This year the Tigers had lost one starter to homesickness and had graduated six others, including their all-time leading scorer, Christian Nwokocha. Even though four new Nigerians arrived on the scene this fall, Clemson's primary objective for 1979 was an eighth straight Atlantic Coast Conference title, not a national championship.
It was apparent in its very first game that Clemson wasn't totally destitute when Nwokocha's freshman brother, Nnamdi, set a school record with seven goals in a 14-0 rout of Belmont Abbey. But after that auspicious start, the offense had trouble getting untracked and the defense, traditionally the team's strong point, played poorly. Midway through the year Cleveland State broke the Tigers' 57-game regular-season unbeaten streak with a 2-1 upset.
December 17, 1979
The Clemson coach, Dr. Ibrahim Ibrahim, an Arab èmigrè from Israel who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and is known as "I-squared," views that loss as the turning point in the Tigers' season. Their defense got a big boost the very next game when all-conference Fullback Damian Odoh, who had missed several games with a pulled groin muscle, returned to a starting role. Ibrahim also did some lineup shuffling, and Clemson suddenly went on a tear, recording six straight shutouts to get to Tampa.
Just 5:12 into the semifinal with Columbia, Nwokocha blasted a goal past Goalie John McElaney for a 1-0 Clemson lead. Because the Tigers had won both their previous tournament games by that score, no one would have been surprised if they had settled into a cautious defensive game. Instead they stayed on the attack. Within a four-minute period near the end of the first half Striker Obed Ariri put the game out of reach by scoring twice. When Ariri isn't playing soccer, he is the placekicker for the Tigers' football team, and as soon as the tournament was over last Sunday he began preparing for the Peach Bowl, in which Clemson will meet Baylor.
Columbia finally broke Tiger Goalie John Bruens' shutout string when Striker Steve Charles connected with a perfect 15-yard crossing shot from the right wing. But that just made the score 4-1, which is how the game ended.
That put Clemson in the finals with SIUE, which had beaten Penn State 2-1 earlier in the day. Of the four teams in Tampa last weekend only the Cougars went into the season with lofty hopes. They were ranked No. 2 in the nation in one preseason poll, but before the end of September they had lost two games, tied two more and dropped completely out of the top 20. Their problems started less than three weeks before their first game when Coach Bob Guelker, who won five NCAA championships at St. Louis and a Division II title at SIUE in 1972, underwent a triple bypass in open-heart surgery. When he rejoined the team on a Western trip just two games into the schedule, he was ghostly pale, talked in a whisper and had to be pushed through airports in a wheelchair by his players. The Cougars promptly lost the first two games after his return, the second of them to San Francisco.
Guelker now admits, "The players might have been torn between two leaders. I couldn't exert myself the way I should have. We were playing as individuals instead of as a team. When we tied two games in a row to make our record 6-2-2, our players were fighting among themselves on the field."
Guelker decided to take action. He benched Striker Don Ebert, the team's star, and Midfielder Dave Hummert for a game after the two mouthed off at a team meeting. "Ebert's mouth was the biggest thing going on the field at that time," says Guelker. "He was trying to help but instead he was disrupting some of the players." Guelker then publicly chastised his son Tim, a midfielder, who the rest of the team felt was not being physical enough in his play. He also realigned several players on defense. The Cougars didn't lose another game and reached the semifinals by avenging their loss to San Francisco 4-2.
"The players probably think I've been 100% for three weeks now," Guelker said on the eve of the tournament. "They don't realize I get tired when I go home at night."
The SIUE attack centers around Ebert, who is also a striker for the U.S. Olympic team. He is a junior, but during last week's tournament he was being pressured to declare hardship status so he could be selected by the North American Soccer League in its draft, which was scheduled for the day after the finals.
As most teams do, the Nittany Lions hounded Ebert throughout, but he still got free for several shots. Unaccountably, he missed two point-blank attempts that could have turned the game into a rout for the Cougars, who dominated play for much of the game. Instead, after a Guelker header put SIUE up 1-0 for the first half, Penn State was able to tie the score on a direct kick by sophomore Fullback Dan Canter after a tripping foul was called on Ebert. Hummert scored the deciding goal late in the second half on a difficult 18-yard crossing shot from the left wing. "That shot was taken from about as bad a place as possible to take a shot," moaned Penn State Coach Walter Bahr afterward. Bahr got some solace the next day when his Nittany Lions downed Columbia 2-1 for third place.
The championship game that followed looked, for a time, as if it might turn into a runaway. SIUE's Matt Malloy scored two goals in the first half and narrowly missed an early hat trick as the Cougars opened a 2-0 lead at intermission.
But in the second half, Clemson adjusted to SIUE's physical inside defense by moving the ball farther out on the wings and began putting pressure on the Cougars. First, Ariri headed a ball into the net off a crossing shot by Awesu to make the score 2-1. Then, with exactly seven minutes remaining, Awesu sent another high crossing shot across the goal mouth from the left wing. This time Ariri was beyond the far post so he headed the ball back across the front of the goal, where Nwokocha headed it in.
Suddenly the score was 2-2 and Clemson was controlling play at the SIUE end of the field. With a little less than four minutes remaining and the Cougars again under heavy pressure, Ebert was fouled in his own territory and SIUE was awarded a free kick. Sophomore Back Pat Malloy, Matt's brother, let loose a booming boot that traveled almost 60 yards to the Clemson goal. "I figured I'd just put it up for Ebert," he said later, "because no one can stay with him in the air." Instead, the ball came down in a pack of Clemson defenders surrounding young Guelker. All of them went up. Guelker cracked skulls with one of the Tigers and fell senseless to the ground. It was several minutes before his teammates could tell him what then happened, which was that the ball popped up closer to the goal, where Matt Malloy was waiting to head it gently over Bruens' reach for the winning score.
Guelker's father was profuse in praise of his players. "Clemson had gained control of the game," he said, "but the comeback we made today is the mark of a true champion. What we did in this game is just like the comeback we made this season."
As the coach was called forward to accept the team trophy, the P.A. announcer mistakenly identified him as the coach of the Clemson Tigers. Guelker wheeled toward the distant press box and hollered in mock horror, "Clemson!" His face was flushed with excitement, his voice now booming. In a way his was the biggest comeback of all.