Former U.S. international Philip Gyau returns to his alma mater. (Photo courtesy Ceasar/Howard University Communications) Former U.S. international Phillip Gyau returns to his alma mater. (Photo courtesy Ceasar/Howard University Communications)

Why would Phillip Gyau want to coach the worst college soccer team in America last year?

“Because it saddened me to see Howard University drop down so far,” the former U.S. national team wing said after his introductory news conference Tuesday. “I went to this school, and this school gave me everything. I want to give back.”

Gyau, 48, has played an integral role in local youth development for years, but when the Bison job opened over the winter, he sought a new challenge: resurrecting a program that plummeted from national royalty in the 1970s and ’80s to a 1-17-0 record last fall. According to the NCAA’s rating system, Howard sat on the bottom of Division I’s 203-team list. The scoring margin was 59-11. The victory came against Washington Adventist. Average attendance: 64 souls.

It saddened not only Gyau, but other figures from Howard’s glorious past, including the university’s interim president, Wayne Frederick. In 1988, when the Bison advanced to the NCAA championship game, Frederick was the team manager, a scrawny freshman from Trinidad and Tobago known as “Freddy” who would go on to become an oncologist and medical researcher.

“It’s extremely important to rebuild the soccer team because we have a strong history of success,” he said. “My first impression of athletics here was one of excellence.”

The Bison have a long way to regain excellence. Late in the recruiting season, Gyau will have to make due with the current roster. There is, at least, a stronger foundation in place. The athletic department has pledged to add a paid assistant. (Gyau plans to appoint Emile M’Bouh, a former Cameroon national team midfielder who runs an academy in Maryland.)

Apparel giant Under Armour is in its first full year of support. After two seasons as an independent, Howard will compete in the Sun Belt Conference as an affiliated member. The champion of the six-team league will qualify for the NCAA tournament, a destination absent from Howard’s portfolio since 1997.

“We are going to hope for the best this season,” Gyau said of having to catch up on the recruiting trails, “and then the following year start to bring in players.”

In addition to trying to draw U.S. players to the historically black university, Gyau aims to return to Howard’s roots of recruiting skilled players from west Africa and the Caribbean. Foreign players have always featured prominently at the school, particularly on the NCAA championship teams in the 1970s. In 1988, when the Bison made an improbable run to the NCAA final, the starting goalkeeper was Trinidadian freshman Shaka Hislop, a future English Premier League starter who anchored his national team at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Nigerians and Jamaicans, as well as locally groomed players, helped fill out the roster.

Hislop, now an ESPN commentator, and Frederick remain close friends. The tall goalie was the best man at his old buddy’s wedding.

“We know how important soccer is in this community,” Howard Athletic Director Louis “Skip” Perkins said. “We’ve seen other teams in the area do so well. It’s time for us to compete at the highest level. You are not going to win a championship every year, but we want to be able to say at the start of every season that we have a chance, and honestly we haven’t had a chance the last couple of years.”

How long until Gyau straightens out the program?

“You have to give it two or three years to turn around,” Perkins said. “We will give him time.”