A deeply attached fan of a championship team called a couple of months back, saying he had arranged an interview with the coach and one of his star players at the L Street downtown office of an international businessman, that it was of “paramount importance” to be there.
Asked what this is about, he replied simply, “It’s about the best team you never heard of.”
Several days later, in a third-floor conference room with a strong African art-deco motif, an upbeat, ultra-fit man introduced himself: “Hello, Mori Diane, nice to meet you.”
Diane, the executive vice president of his company for the past 28 years, is — for the purposes of this story — “the player.” Sitting next to him is “the coach”: a grinning, 73-year-old, gray-flecked gentleman who speaks in a rhythmic Trinidadian twang.
“I’m glad you have come,” said Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips, a former world-class goalie who once faced Pele. “Now we will tell you the story.”
The World Cup final will be played Sunday in Brazil, where either Germany or Argentina will be christened champion of the beautiful game before millions of viewers. Millions fewer will remember it is also the 40th anniversary of Howard’s beautiful season, the unbeaten, untied 1974 Bison, a mishmash of Caribbean and African kids led by the legendary Phillips.
In their finest moment, the Bison outdueled host St. Louis in four overtimes to complete a 19-0 season and make good on a quote Phillips had borrowed for his mantra to the ’74 season: “Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again.”
Three years earlier, Howard became the first historically black college in any team sport to win an NCAA Division I title — only to have it stripped amid eligibility allegations, a decision Phillips would call “racist” and “unfair” to his foreign student-athletes at the time.
Both the 1971 and ‘74 teams will be inducted into the Howard hall of fame in September.
They played during the social cauldron of the civil rights movement, often withstood sideline slurs such as “Go back to your banana boat” and, despite a dearth of American-born players, still packed the stands of a grassless football field labeled the “Dust Bowl” by the end of their seasons each December.
“Howard was the whole African diaspora in one college: Caribbean, African and African American,” Diane says. “Most of us, we came to Lincoln playing street ball. What he did with this team, taking raw talent and meshing it into what we became, was so amazing.”
Diane, Ian Bain, Alvin Henderson and Keith Aqui and other former players joined Phillips in May for the release of his autobiography, “Rising Above and Beyond the Crossbar: The Life Story of Lincoln ‘Tiger’ Phillips.”
The basement level of the Cramton Auditorium swelled to capacity that night. After testimonies were given and as Phillips signed every book purchased, teammates and their families shared jerk-spiced chicken and other Caribbean offerings. They caught up with one another in the same building many first celebrated a title four decades earlier.
The White House called in 1971, they remembered, inviting the District’s newest champions to Pennsylvania Avenue. But the players declined, determined not to be used for Richard Nixon’s political purposes during an election year.
“I regret it now,” Diane says. “We should have gone. But at the time, with Vietnam and everything else, we felt we had to make a statement.”
The Bison’s largest social contributions were on campus, where many Howard instructors allowed their classes to be skipped for 2 p.m. game days, when one of the most unlikely supporters was the captain of Howard’s baseball team, Rock Newman, who would later become the promoter for a world heavyweight boxing champion.
“Howard wasn’t immune to the cliquish nature of every university campus,” said Newman, the “fan” who introduced me to Diane and Phillips and was joined by a fellow Bison baseball alum, WJLA anchor Glenn Harris. “Folks comin’ in from Ghana hang with the Ghanaians. Folks from Senegal stick to the Senegalese. And all the territorialism that comes with it. Football players with football players and so on. But this soccer team transcended all that.
“I do not remember anything happening on campus that galvanized and forged a universal sense of one like being at the soccer game. You dropped all your affiliations.”
From his military training in his native Trinidad and Tobago, Phillips believed in the art of psychological warfare, winning the mind game before the physical portion started. His players would come out of the tunnel “like gazelles on their tiptoes,” Newman recalled, “bouncing and prancing.” Then they would dart like lightning toward midfield and alternately split off in different directions.
“The crowd was going crazy with how these brothers were comin’ out in style. When the game started, they were a blur.”
Phillips said he would often send down gunners on the first possession, the two fastest flyers trying to beat the ball in the air downfield for an early assault on the goal rather than a methodical approach.
Diane, it is said, was so blindingly fast he could start 20 yards behind his opponent and beat him to a ball 40 yards away. Barely surviving as an Embassy Row hotel bus boy, the 19-year-old Guinean was “on my last rope” when Phillips saw him fly down a pitch, offered him a scholarship and changed his life.
Howard didn’t just beat teams in 1974; the Bison blasted doors off, outscoring the opposition in the regular season 63-6. They beat Hartwick in the semifinals that year to set up a rematch with St. Louis, whom the Bison beat in 1971 before being stripped of the title.
Pitting the all-black Bison against the all-white Billikens, the game was played at Busch Stadium during a cold December drizzle. Tied 1-1 entering the fourth overtime, Kenneth Ilodigwe banged in a beautiful cross from Richard Davy for a pulsating end to a perfect season: a Jamaican-to-Nigerian, multiethnic connection that encapsulated what Phillips had created.
“The triangle of blackness,” he said, explaining slowly.
Before the ’74 season began, Phillips said he asked Howard professor Dom Matthews to speak to the players. Matthews drew a triangle on the chalkboard inside the team’s locker room.
Matthews “told them, ‘All of us, whether we’re from Africa, the Caribbean, North America, we were all taken away and had pieces of our culture stripped from us.’ The only line that was missing was a direct line back to Africa. That’s where Howard is, in the middle of that triangle, bringing all of us together. You have an opportunity to go out and connect us all with your excellence on the field. Howard University is the custodian of that triangle of blackness.’”
They would not compete for merely their university that season; during a time of racial tumult in America, the Bison also would play for black pride.
Phillips could remember only one other speech that made him more emotional. It happened in 1971 before the national semifinal against Harvard, when the man who hired him, the saintly Ted Chambers, interrupted his pregame prayer to acknowledge the moment.
“In the middle of his prayer, Ted Chambers, bless this man, says, ‘I cannot believe, in my lifetime, the capstone of white education and the capstone of black education playing on the same field,’ ” Phillips recalls.
“And then he burst into tears. We all did.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.