A champion dethroned
Why did the NCAA strip the title from the first HBCU to win a Division I championship?
early 130 soccer players, coaches and media filled the ballroom of Miami’s fading McAllister Hotel for the NCAA’s final four banquet a few days after Christmas in 1972. But as Howard University coach Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips walked to the front of the room, he recalls, “You could hear a rat piss on cotton.”
Twenty-four hours earlier on Dec. 27, the Howard Bison had been denied in their attempt to repeat as national champions, losing 2-1 in the semifinals to St. Louis University, a perennial powerhouse that had won seven of the last 13 national titles. In only three years, Phillips, 31, had taken the team from mediocrity to becoming the first historically black college or university (HBCU) to win a Division 1 national championship. But he was not a happy man.
After praising St. Louis and their coach, Phillips, directed his attention to his team’s toughest opponent that year: the NCAA. Five Howard players had been pulled off the field over the course of a season-long investigation, including some as late as the tournament quarterfinals.
Phillips believed he knew the source of his team’s travails. A native of Trinidad, he looked out over a room in which—with few exceptions—the only black faces belonged to the players on his team.
“We played against this entire wretched system of this society,” he said. “I would say the NCAA is guilty of practicing racism.”
“St. Louis did not beat Howard University last night. They beat the remnants of what was left of Howard University.”
To Phillips’ surprise, the room erupted in a standing ovation. Except for the NCAA officials seated in the front row.
The year started on a much higher note. Howard defeated St. Louis 3-2 in the national championship game on Dec. 30, 1971, in Miami. President Richard Nixon congratulated the team via telegram. (They turned down a later invitation to visit the White House, worried that it might be interpreted as support for Nixon during an election year.) The Washington Post called players Alvin Henderson, Keith Aqui and Mori Diane “heroes” in a city unaccustomed to sports championships.
The euphoria lasted just over three weeks.
On Jan. 26, the NCAA received a letter from someone “desiring to remain unidentified,” according to documents in a later court case. The sender urged the organization to look into the eligibility of Howard’s players.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Some people in the predominantly white collegiate soccer world were uncomfortable with Howard and its meteoric rise. Besides being black, the players were all international students, largely from the Caribbean and West Africa. And a few were older than most of their competition, including star forward Aqui, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, who was 25 when the team won the national title.
Navy’s Hall of Fame coach Glenn Warner, who led the Midshipmen to the 1964 national title, refused to schedule Howard. “I don’t think they should be allowed to use so many foreigners,” he told the Post in 1972, while denying responsibility for the anonymous complaint.
The now-deceased St. Louis coach, Harry Keough, also insisted he was not the one who sent the letter to the NCAA. “I win my games on the field,” Phillips remembered Keough telling him.
“Here was this team prior to that time everybody could beat up on,” said Winston Yallery-Arthur, left wing on the 1971 championship team. Before Phillips’ arrival, the program was ravaged by what the Post described as “nationality conflicts.” It hadn’t advanced to the NCAA tournament since a 1963 first-round 5-1 beatdown by Navy.
“All of a sudden they’re rising to the top,” said Yallery-Arthur, now a partner in a Washington law firm. “I guess they figured out the best way to resolve that is removing them from the scene.”
Regardless, that lone letter created a snowball effect. By fall, the Bison’s most formidable opponents weren’t programs brave enough to schedule them. It was the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions. Every crevice of Howard’s story was examined, with investigators interviewing players, coaches and the dean of admissions. Rival coaches, the Trinidad Soccer Football Association and the United States Soccer Football Association were also questioned.
Players were removed throughout the season. For Diane, a left wing from Guinea, witnessing teammates swap uniforms for street clothes was traumatizing.
“The more disappointing day was when I came to practice and we were told two of our star athletes had to be benched going into the quarterfinals,” says Diane, who now is co-founder and executive vice president of AMEX International, a Washington consulting firm focusing on economic development overseas. “Then, when we came back we got a few more people benched, including myself. It was like seeing this tidal wave starting to unfurl.”
A short-handed Howard still managed to eviscerate its first three NCAA tournament opponents—Duke, Clemson and Penn—scoring 15 goals and giving up none, before falling to St. Louis.
A month later, in January 1973, the NCAA concluded its investigation and found that the school had violated three rules governing player eligibility. The first Division 1 national championship team from an HBCU was stripped of its 1971 title, a third-place finish in the 1970 tournament and banned from postseason play during 1973.
But the rules at issue and the unusual severity of the punishment raise questions about whether Howard was treated unfairly. In an era when medal-winning black athletes were vilified for raising their fists at the Olympics and St. Louis Cardinal center fielder Curt Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause for treating him as “a piece of property,” it wasn’t a stretch to see Howard’s situation in racial terms. One of the rules the school violated was being dumped that year by the NCAA even as it was enforced against Howard. A second rule was later found to be unconstitutional.
The team often felt they were playing 11 vs. 13, the extra two opponents being the referees. Yallery-Arthur remembers being pelted with racial slurs, both on the field and from the stands. It was them against the world, a reflection of black life in America.
Stripping a school of its championship was an exceedingly rare punishment at that point, although it happened with more frequency in later years. (An NCAA spokeswoman said the group does not keep a comprehensive list of titles that have been vacated.)
After Howard, the next instance came in 1978 when San Francisco’s soccer team lost its title for using an ineligible white foreign student. Syracuse’s 1990 lacrosse team, Arkansas’ 2004 and 2005 track and field squads and Southern California’s 2004 football program were each stripped of national titles for violations including improper benefits, course assistance and lack of institutional control.
The most egregious case was probably at UCLA. Its 1995 softball title was forfeited after Tanya Harding went 17-1 and pitched all four Women’s College World Series victories for the Bruins. She began attending UCLA in midseason and left after the postseason without taking finals. UCLA also had three players listed as receiving soccer scholarships to sidestep the limit on softball.
There were no such willful violations at Howard.
“If you look at the compliance book back in that time and look at the compliance books now, it’s huge. The rules are so vague,” Phillips said. “I had just come from Trinidad … I didn’t know much about the rules. They didn’t have any compliance officers or anything like that.”
In June 1973, Howard University and Diane filed suit in federal court, alleging the NCAA ruling violated the First, 5th, 9th and 13th Amendments.
Howard’s rules violations fell into three categories: not meeting the standard of academic eligibility for first-year students, not complying with rules governing foreign students and allowing players to participate past their five years of eligibility.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, athletic eligibility for freshmen was determined by a controversial mandate known as The 1.6 Rule. Students had to achieve a high enough score on either the SAT or the ACT to predict a grade-point average of 1.6 (approximately a C- or D+). Many schools, including those in the Ivy League, wanted the rule abolished, saying that it gave the NCAA inappropriate oversight of academic affairs.
“I think a concern and complaint about The 1.6 Rule was it was very subjective. It didn’t give any certainty on a school-by-school basis on what it would take to hit that 1.6,” said Scott Schneider, head of the higher education practice group for the law firm Fisher & Phillips.
The same rule was used to disqualify future Boston Celtics Hall of Famer Robert Parish and tiny Centenary College in Shreveport, La., from postseason play, even though Parish had taken a different test to show he could meet the standard.
Howard’s admission process allowed for exemptions from the SAT/ACT requirement, particularly for foreign students. According to court records, Diane, Anthony Martin of Trinidad and Charles Payne from Nigeria were accused of violating the rule. Diane did not take either the SAT or ACT, but took the French Baccalaureate Certificate No. 2. His passing score resulted in one year’s advanced placement at Howard.
Anthony Martin passed the General Certificate of Education, a test used in the British Commonwealth, in English Literature, English Language, Math, Latin, French and General Paper, which Howard judged would predict a minimum GPA of 2.0. And Charles Payne took the SAT on May 19, 1971. His score of 760 met Howard’s standard of eligibility.
At the time of the NCAA’s 1972 investigation, the students’ completed first-year GPAs, respectively, were 2.85, 3.36 and 2.12.
“Everybody was motivated to really study and do very well,” Phillips said. Decades later, he still resents the implication that his players were foreign jocks who treated their schoolwork as secondary. The Howard soccer team had the highest GPA among the school’s varsity teams, according to a 1971 report in the Post.
“Everybody excelled in the classroom. For us to get caught with that rule, it’s really … I don’t know what to say.”
The 1.6 Rule was repealed at the NCAA’s annual convention in January 1973. Student-athletes would only need to graduate from high school with a 2.0 to participate in athletics. The change, however, would not go into effect until the 1974-75 academic year. So at the same time the NCAA was abolishing the rule, it was enforcing it with Howard.
The NCAA’s foreign student rule was designed to prevent older players from dominating the competition due to age and experience. The rule stated that foreign students lost a year of postseason eligibility for every year after their 19th birthday that they participated in athletic competition in their home countries.
One of the players questioned was Yallery-Arthur. He acknowledges playing in the Port of Spain Football League from roughly 1965 to 1968 before he enrolled at Howard. But Yallery-Arthur stressed that the league was neither professional nor associated with a school. It was “guys from the neighborhood playing ball.” When he enrolled at Howard in 1968, he was unaware the university even had a soccer team.
Ruling in the lawsuit brought by Howard, U.S. District Court Judge Gerhard Gesell said that foreign-student athletes were penalized for activities such as summer amateur participation in which American student-athletes were allowed to compete. He found it a “denial of equal protection under the 14th Amendment.”
Howard was most vulnerable on the five-year rule, which limited students to five years of athletic eligibility starting from when they first registered at a collegiate institution.
Newspaper reports at the time raised questions about the eligibility of both Yallery-Arthur and Aqui.
Howard acknowledged that Aqui had attended Trinidad and Tobago’s Mausica Teachers’ College from September 1965 to June 1967. But the school argued that since Mausica did not grant four-year degrees, Aqui’s eligibility did not expire in September 1970. Nevertheless, he was taken off the team in October 1972 while the NCAA investigation was underway.
Gesell was sympathetic to Howard. “Throughout the proceedings Howard has complained with considerable justification that the NCAA rules, viewed as a whole, are not precisely drawn, that they contain at least some superficially contradictory provisions and have had to be interpreted periodically on a more or less ad hoc basis because of their vagueness,” he wrote.
But that sympathy didn’t change the ultimate result, he decided. “The rules obviously need to be tightened and simplified but this does not lead to the conclusion that their implementation has been discriminatory, that an adequate opportunity to be heard has been denied, or that in this particular case there is any justifiable ground for Howard’s unintentional but admitted violations.”
Fresh off postseason exile, the Howard team adopted a motto for the 1974 season, a line from 19th century poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant: “Truth, crushed to Earth, shall rise again.”
Some players from the ’71 team remained, but neither Yallery-Arthur nor Diane were still playing for Howard. (Diane had moved on to the professional Washington Diplomats. Yallery-Arthur graduated in 1972 and began graduate studies in history at Howard the same year.) Nevertheless, this team was bent on proving 1971 was no fluke.
This was business and personal.
The team rampaged through the 1974 season, finishing 19-0 with a 63-6 scoring differential. In the tournament final, held that year at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, they beat their old rival St. Louis 2-1 in a four-overtime marathon.
For the second time in three years, Howard University became the first HBCU to win a Division 1 national championship.
Two weeks later, the appeals court heard Howard’s challenge to the trial court ruling upholding the NCAA investigation. But when the decision was announced that March, Howard had lost again. There would be no reclaiming the ’71 title.
Four decades removed, the sting has subsided, but the scars remain.
There was “nothing special about this team,” Diane said about the allegations that some Howard players had played professionally in their home countries. “If you took us individually, we were less better prepared than any kid on St. Louis. They literally grew up playing organized soccer. I picked up soccer playing in the street.”
In the end, the results on the field counted, Diane said, not the actions of the NCAA.
“To us, we had won the championship. We didn’t care if they took the trophy or not,” he said. “Whether they crowned it with a physical trophy was not as disappointing as preventing us from playing. That part was more painful than when they took the championship away.”
The ’74 title “was like the rising of the phoenix for us,” said Yallery-Arthur. “For me it was vindication. It made all the stuff we had went through worth it.”
For Phillips, 1974 offered a measure of atonement. The McAllister Hotel, where he labeled the NCAA racist, is no longer around, demolished in 1988. But the hurt he gave voice to there still lingers.
His players were unfairly targeted and punished, he believes.
Phillips, now 74, accepts that part of the blame rested on him. In his 2014 autobiography, he wondered if he was neglectful about ensuring player eligibility. The resources available today weren’t available in the early ’70s.
“I can tell you that I certainly never set out to cheat,” he wrote. “Negligent is a hard word, but at the end of the day the buck stopped with me.”
Still, he said in an interview, “I think that it wouldn’t have been brought up if it was a white school. But any time a black school wins something, all of a sudden something must be wrong.”
Howard’s soccer program is struggling now. The team didn’t win a game in 2015 and was outscored 60-15 overall. It hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament since 1997. Hints of a more competitive era can be found, but you have to know where to look.
The 1974 championship trophy, for instance, sits by itself in a glass case outside the home basketball court in Burr Gymnasium. Nothing indicates the struggle it took to put it there.