The podcast remembers Howard University’s vacated 1971 football title

Mark W. Wright was very proud when “Redemption Song,” the short film he produced for ESPN about the Howard men’s soccer team’s 1974 national championship, premiered in April 2016 at the school’s Cramton Auditorium. But when Wright, a 1993 graduate, looked out at the audience that night and saw the faces of some members of the 1971 Bison team whose title was being vacated by the NCAA, he knew he wasn’t done, theirs to tell story.

“This is America, right? “We want to talk about winners, and we want to talk about falling down, getting back up and holding the trophy at the end of the day,” Wright said in a recent telephone interview. “This film focused on [the 1974 team]. I felt that the ’71 group had been sidelined, and I promised many of these people that I would not give up on this story until I got justice for them.”

Seven years later, Wright has made good on his vow. The 1971 Howard team, which experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows under legendary coach Lincoln Phillips, is the subject of Wright’s three-part podcast, “The Bison Project,” part of Meadowlark Media’s “Sports Explains the World” series was produced. It will be released on Wondery Plus on Wednesday and on other podcast platforms from November 15th.

“The Bison Project” features interviews with several of the surviving members of the 1971 team, including lifelong friends Ian Bain and Alvin Henderson of Trinidad and Tobago, and former New York Times reporter Lena Williams, who became the first female editor of “The Hilltop “was”, Howard’s student newspaper. Williams covered Phillips’ squad in 1971 when it became the first historically black college or university to win a Division I national title in any sport.

Howard’s football team burst onto the national stage in 1970. After the Bison started 9-0, the Washington Post declared that Phillips and longtime coach Ted Chambers, who led the program to an NAIA title in 1961, were “quietly building a football dynasty.” that “could one day rival UCLA’s basketball success.” Howard lost to UCLA in its first trip to the NCAA semifinals that year, but came back stronger than ever in 1971.

Players praised Phillips, a former star goalkeeper for the Trinidad and Tobago national team and player-manager of the North American Soccer League’s Washington Darts, for bringing unity to a team made up of players from 10 countries.

After an undefeated regular season in 1971, Howard defeated Harvard 1-0 in the national semifinals. The Bison faced defending champion Saint Louis, who was riding a 24-game winning streak, in the title game. Howard won the Orange Bowl in Miami 3-2 on Henderson’s second goal of the game, a shot into the top left corner of the net off a pass from Stan Smith.

“For me, this is the greatest accomplishment of my life,” Phillips told reporters afterward.

At the start of the 1972 season, The Post reported that the NCAA was investigating Howard for possibly using ineligible players. Keith Aqui, the Bison’s best player and the subject of an investigation into his amateur football career in Trinidad and Tobago, has been sidelined indefinitely.

The Bison enjoyed another dominant regular season and still reached the national semifinals, but their 30-game winning streak ended with a 2-1 overtime loss to Saint Louis. Aqui and Tony Martin had already been ruled ineligible for the game because they had played football in Trinidad and Tobago for too many years after turning 19. Howard athletic director Leo Miles withheld two other starters, Mori Diane and Keith Look Loy, after meeting with the NCAA Rules Infractions Committee 10 days earlier.

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“It’s pretty obvious that a black school shouldn’t win,” Phillips said afterward. “As soon as we start winning, it’s considered unfair, we’re somehow cheating and things need to be put right.”

Phillips echoed those sentiments at a banquet the following evening attended by NCAA officials.

“I would say the NCAA is guilty of racism,” he said. “Saint Louis didn’t beat Howard University last night. They destroyed what was left of Howard University.”

The news came via telegram a few weeks later, on January 9, 1973: The NCAA placed Howard on one year of probation and stripped him of the 1971 national title. The investigation found that Aqui and Rick Yallery-Arthur had lost their five years of eligibility before the had exhausted the 1971 season by playing in Trinidad and Tobago and that Martin and Guinean striker Mori Diane had failed to take the SAT or ACT. Diane and Howard filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming the NCAA’s decision was unconstitutional. A judge acknowledged that the NCAA’s rules were vague and overly complex, but did not find the enforcement of those rules discriminatory. Meanwhile, Saint Louis coach Harry Keough declined to accept the Bison’s vacated trophy.

“The best teams of the day in college football featured black players,” said Wright, who never received a response from the NCAA as part of his podcast’s coverage. “[Howard was] the only school with an all-black team and a black coach. …Did Howard unintentionally break some rules? Yes, I don’t think we’re hiding from it. Intentionally? I would say no.”

Wright was born in England and grew up in Jamaica before moving to the D.C. area as a 12-year-old. He has a personal connection to this story beyond his Howard degree. Bain, one of three players on the 1971 team who was also on the team that won the title in 1974, was later hired as a football coach and Spanish teacher at Springbrook High School, where Wright attended. Wright joined Springbrook’s soccer team as a senior and Bain became a lifelong mentor.

In “The Bison Project,” Wright gives Bain and his teammates their flowers and the opportunity to speak their truth about the pain that followed a joyful season.

“He would never say publicly that he wanted these flowers, but I know he appreciates it,” Wright said. “I still get text messages from a lot of players and they are just super grateful that they can share the story with their kids and grandkids.”

In the podcast, narrated by Wright and Sam Dingman, Bain and Henderson recall playing soccer as children in Trinidad and Tobago and their struggles adjusting to American college life as freshmen at Howard University. Williams, the Hilltop reporter, describes the “out-of-body experience” when the Bison won the 1971 title when Sly & The Family Stone’s “Family Affair” – the team’s unofficial anthem – played on the field, and her dismay Team to see the immigrants labeled as cheaters after the NCAA ruling.

One of the more interesting off-the-field stories that Wright explores in the podcast involves Howard’s lack of a White House visit with President Richard M. Nixon after winning the title. (His research took him to the Nixon Library and included interviews with Nixon’s former Cabinet members.)

Wright has written to Vice President Kamala Harris, a Howard graduate, about a possible future visit to the White House. He still hopes the NCAA, which has since changed the rules that penalized Howard for violations, might revisit the Bison’s case.

“If they come back with the same conclusion, I won’t be happy, but at least they took a second look,” Wright said. “And how great it would be [for the 1971 team] go to the White House? It would be great if they were recognized when you visit, whether the trophy is there or not. All I want is something like that for these guys.” The podcast remembers Howard University’s vacated 1971 football title

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