Lincoln Phillips provides perspective on black soccer in 1970s USA

By Paul Gardner

As a goalkeeper, Lincoln Phillips should not feature among my most cherished soccer memories. I have little time for goalkeeping escapades. But there he is, the begetter of a wonderful moment that is as clear -- and every bit as delightful -- as it was when it happened 40 years ago.

Actually, this was not the goalkeeping Phillips. This was Phillips the coach at Howard University. This was in Miami, the night before the 1971 NCAA Division I final, to be played in the Orange Bowl. A nice occasion, all final-four teams present, all smartly dressed, everyone on his best behavior. The semifinals had been played. Howard had beaten Harvard, St. Louis -- the “Billikens” -- had beaten San Francisco.

Tomorrow it would be Howard vs. St Louis. Phillips was making his speech, radiating charm with his melodious voice, his soft Trinidad accent and his fetching smile. He praised the St. Louis players and their veteran coach Harry Keough. He paused for a moment, then looked impishly over to the St. Louis table and added, “For tomorrow, I want to wish you the worst game you’ve ever played.”

Hilarity all around. No one took offense at that superb throw-away line, perfectly timed, beautifully delivered. The day after, the Billikens did not have their worst-ever game. They rarely looked bad anyway, consistency was their forte. But Howard was better on this day, taking the trophy with a 3-2 win. The first time an all-black university had ever won a major NCAA title.

All of this came rushing back to me as I read Lincoln Phillips’ autobiography “Rising Above and Beyond the Crossbar” -- despite the fact that, incredibly, Phillips doesn’t include that incident. The book is a terrific read anyway, beginning with irresistible stories of the young Lincoln’s boyhood in St. James, Trinidad. Not all of them soccer related, by no means. There’s some track & field, there’s some cricket, but above all there’s life and humanity and warmth and humor.

I was constantly reminded of one of my all-time favorite novels, V.S. Naipaul’s “A House for Mr. Biswas.” How about the time Lincoln and his brother Wilbert decided to give their mother a present -- a flourishing flower bed to match that of their neighbor Mr. Clifford. The bed was dug, the sole raked, manure and water applied. Now for the flowers. A midnight raid on Mr. Clifford’s beds solved that, and a riotously colorful floral display of gerberas greeted Mammy the following morning.

Nice try. But Mammy knew at once. “Take them back,” she ordered. And when night fell, Lincoln and Wilbert set out to “reverse Operation Gerbera.” The following morning, they heard their neighbor’s maid calling out, “Mr. Clifford, the plants come back.”

A lovely tale, I can see those mischievous well-meaning boys, and I can see and maybe smell those bright little plants -- even though I haven’t a clue what a gerbera is. I think “mischievous” is a good word for Lincoln -- for a start that captivating grin of his always carried a suggestion of mischief with it.

Phillips came to the USA, he played for the Baltimore Bays in the early days of the old North American Soccer League, became player/coach for the semipro Washington Darts. In 1970 he became the not-too-well paid soccer coach at Howard University.

There was already a soccer team at Howard, but enthusiasm for, and knowledge of, the sport among the athletic officials was lacking. Phillips knew what he wanted. He knew he could get better players from Trinidad or elsewhere in the Caribbean. His charm, his mischievous grin persuaded all. Having convinced Howard to award their first-ever scholarships for soccer, he brought in players from Trinidad and Jamaica and Africa. In just two years, Howard, the black university, was winning that unique NCAA trophy. When the NCAA published its 1972 soccer guide, the cover-boy was Howard’s star forward, Keith Aqui.

Phillips has plenty to tell of that championship team, its characters, its games, its triumph. But there is an undercurrent that Phillips handles well: racism. The early 1970s were turbulent times on that front. Black Power was making itself felt. On campus, the soccer championship was greeted with huge satisfaction.

Then the problems began. They revolved around cover-boy Aqui. He was 25 years old. He had not been recruited by Phillips. He was already at Howard, studying psychology, and he joined the team. Phillips’ says of him: “The guy was opinionated, and Gawd, could he grumble. But he could also play.” As a super-fast, slick goalscorer, Aqui attracted attention. From opposing players and coaches and -- eventually -- from NCAA investigators.

In the fall of 1972, an NCAA investigator appeared on the Howard campus. He was interested in Aqui, asking many questions about how much soccer Aqui had played before arriving at Howard. It was quickly established that there was no professional soccer in Trinidad, but that was not what mattered. There was an NCAA rule that said that for every year of organized soccer played overseas, one year of college eligibility was canceled. Aqui had certainly broken that rule.

To Phillips and his players and to Howard University, the moves -- by the overwhelmingly white NCAA -- smacked of racism. Admittedly, I never got around to that viewpoint, but I found the investigation not to my liking for three other reasons: first, it appeared that there were clauses in the NCAA rule book that were rarely activated, and that no one really understood; second, I definitely had the opinion that the NCAA decision, if not anti-black, was certainly anti-foreign; third, from a strictly soccer point of view, I felt that the college game, already stagnating, needed the invigoration that Howard was bringing. Yes, I did want Howard to come out on top.

NCAA charges were made against other Howard players with regard to their grades. This again had a discriminatory flavor, as no one seemed certain how to assess foreign high-school grades. The 1972 Howard team lost five of its starters, but it still reached the final four. There to lose in the semifinal, inevitably to St Louis. Phillips made another banquet speech, a rather different one, somberly, quietly, telling us that Howard’s hardest opponent that season had been the NCAA. He accused the NCAA of racism. He declared that St Louis had not beaten Howard -- “They beat the remnants of Howard.”

A daring speech, another mischief-making moment, applauded by all. A short time later, the NCAA stripped Howard of the 1971 title. The trophy was returned to the NCAA who tried to get St. Louis to accept it. The thoroughly honorable and decent Harry Keough refused. The trophy, I assume, gathers dust at NCAA headquarters.

Phillips was undaunted. He quickly built another Howard powerhouse team -- this time paying plenty of attention to the players’ eligibility. In 1974, Howard won the Division I title, beating -- who else? -- St Louis, in the fourth overtime period.

“For the second time we’d become the first African-American college to win an NCAA championship. Truth, I tell you. Truth. Nothing but the the truth.”

Phillips ponders “I sometimes wonder if I was negligent in checking player eligibility ...” Oh Lincoln, of course you were. But was any other coach doing any better? While you were doing, on your own, just about everything necessary to run the team?

Negligence there was, but the NCAA rules took a lot of tracking down and pinning down. When I finally got around to understanding them (well, I thought I did), they didn’t seem racist to me. It was their application that looked biased, unfair, that was what gave substance to the charges of racism. Phillips quotes then Davis & Elkins coach Fred Schmalz: “In a word, I thought it would have been overlooked if it was not a black institution. They were still the best team in the country.”

The wonder is that Phillips does not seem to harbor any bitterness over Howard’s treatment. You might think that’s because he had become accustomed to racist attitudes in 1970s America. Possibly -- he has plenty of tales to tell that involve him and his team.

But the overall spirit of this book is a cheerful one. That is the sort of guy Phillips is, treating both of Kipling’s famous “impostors,” triumph and disaster, just the same.

His time at Howard came to an end in 1980 after 10 years, and a 116-19 won-lost record. It did not end amicably. And Howard has long not been a soccer power. For a while he moved back to Trinidad. Jack Warner hinted that he would get the national team job, but that was not what Phillips wanted. He worked as an advisor, found Warner a tricky man to deal with, a trusted ally one minute, a dangerous opponent the next.

There were hard times. During one of these spells, he took a job as a high school coach in Maryland. “Do you know that this team hasn’t won a game in three years?” the A.D. asked him -- after he’d signed on. “Yes,” lied Phillips. This was unwelcome news, but “I just really needed the work.” Aided by some decidedly odd tactics on the field (conceived by Phillips) the team won eight games the next season.

There was the Lincoln Phillips Soccer School, which lasted for 20 years, and another turn at coaching college soccer with Virginia Commonwealth University.

Phillips also had a short spell with the U.S. national team coaching staff before the 1994 World Cup. Bora was the coach and he “wanted to go outside the U.S. to hire assistant coaches, but the USSF insisted that the American coaches were good enough ‘Hire them’ ordered the Federation.” (Now there’s something Herr Klinsmann should know about). So Phillips got hired, and worked with Tony Meola. A happy couple it seems. Phillips quotes Bora as saying “I don’t know what it is with you and Meola. When you are not here . . . hmmmmmm.” Bora made a sign meaning just so-so. “But when you are here -- Mamma mia!”

And so it goes. Even surgery to give Phillips two new knees does not seem to have slowed him down. He’s back with college soccer, an assistant coach at Loyola University Maryland’s women’s team.

There’s not much in the soccer world that Phillips hasn’t been involved in -- and all that while he was a family man bringing up four young sons.

“Rising Above and Beyond the Crossbar” brings a voice we haven’t heard before -- a voice giving the black soccer perspective of a very troubled time in the USA, what it was like to be there trying to ensure that black players would be welcomed into the American soccer pattern.

Rising Above and Beyond the Crossbar by Lincoln Phillips (AuthorHouse LLC, 2014) 212 pages.

13 comments about "Lincoln Phillips provides perspective on black soccer in 1970s USA".
  1. Kent James, June 1, 2015 at 5:18 p.m.

    In took a C license course in which Lincoln Phillips was the primary instructor; he was excellent. Very knowledgeable, personable, entertaining, etc. I don't know if he was working for the USSF at the time (or just hired temporarily for the course), but it was clear he was a classy guy. In contrast, I was not impressed with the expertise of the director of coaching for the USSF at the time (Karl-Heinz Heddergott). He came in and taught one session, in which he emphasized being positive with the players to encourage their development (a pedagogically sound principle, I thought). Then, using some coaches in the course as players, he tried to demonstrate some activities, and when they struggled because it was clear they had never played much, he proceeded to tear into them for their incompetence...I guess he was a "do as I say, not as I do" kind of guy...

  2. Rick Estupinan, June 1, 2015 at 6:28 p.m.

    Individually they are pretty good,but as a group forget about it.

  3. Kevin Sims, June 1, 2015 at 9:28 p.m.

    Lincoln was on USSF staff for my first C course. As there were very few of us who had grown up on the game, Lincoln's patience was tested. He passed the test gracefully. I never have missed one of his sessions at the NSCAA Convention, and am proud to have introduced him a couple of times there. His coaching and personality leave a mark ... many aspects of GK training come directly from him and I can see his passion for the coaching point in my mind's eye as I pass it on.

  4. Casey Prince, June 2, 2015 at 8:49 a.m.

    I had Lincoln as a coach at Dan Gaspar's GK camp in 1993, I think. He was fantastic! He was so personable, challenging, and made things fun. One thing he really wanted me to do was stay on my toes, so my father made me start playing with a penny in my soccer, so that whenever I stepped down on it I would think about what "Lincoln" wanted me to do. Great coach.

  5. Santiago 1314, June 2, 2015 at 5:37 p.m.

    Lincoln is a Class Act... I think I was at that session, where Heddergott ripped those Coaches a "New One" for not being able to do a Double Shuffle or Step Over Spin Turn... I could do it, so he and I struck up a Friendship and he even Hosted a Team of mine in Hennef, Germany, years later.... You Just never know a person, until you get behind the Fascade

  6. Kent James, June 3, 2015 at 10:21 a.m.

    Santiago, it was at a C license course held at West Chester University (PA) in the summer of 1984 (I think). It's nice to hear Heddergott was more than what he appeared (one would hope so, given he was the director of coaching); I was just appalled at how in instructing us, he violated all the rules he had laid out about instructing. I also thought that it was admirable that these coaches were trying to learn (coaching clinics were not common then), and ripping them for their inability to play was inappropriate. I had just graduated from college soccer (and was taking the course in preparation for being an assistant coach at my alma mater), so I had no trouble with the required skills, but many attendees were not experienced players. While it is helpful that coaches have good technique, it is not a requirement (since they can use players to demonstrate good technique, they just need to know what it is), especially back then when so many adults had no soccer background. He was probably just frustrated that the drill he was doing wasn't going as well as he had intended, but he should have realized that he was talking to coaches, who have all seen activities break down because of a lack of skill on the part of the participants. Mainly, he needed the patience that had been demonstrated throughout the week by Lincoln Phillips...

  7. Santiago 1314, June 3, 2015 at 3:08 p.m.

    Yes Kent, he had a tough time with Parent Coaches that had hardly ever kicked a ball...Was Westchester the 1st Course he ever tought??? I thought it was North Carolina... I don't remember. .Too many Headers..jajaja...Mine was the B...What a mess that turned out to be...They Split the Course to 2 years, then they Fired him before I could get back... I had to go thru all kinds of Re-Tests and Appeals to finally get mine

  8. Kent James, June 4, 2015 at 2:07 p.m.

    I was a victim of the split course as well; my college had paid for the original c course, but I went on to coach HS the next year, and didn't see the point of paying half my salary to get a certificate. Once I had kids and got involved with youth soccer, I took the National Youth Course (w/ Sam Snow), which was excellent, and tried to get back on track with the licensing program. Since I had taken the C, I hoped the USSF would let me enroll in a B course (at that point I had been coaching for almost 20 yrs, and had kept up with new coaching methods through magazines, videos, etc.). Not only would they not let me enroll in the B course, they wanted me to start over (starting with an E course; evidently, the National Youth course taught nothing that applied anywhere else!). I thought that was ridiculous, and refused to jump through the hurdles on principle (not to mention the time and money I'd have to commit). I think the idea of a uniform curriculum and coaching program is important, but was very disappointed with a bureaucracy that demonstrated no flexibility or reason. Such thinking is very short-sighted.

  9. Santiago 1314, June 4, 2015 at 4:14 p.m.

    Yeah, they really tried to screw everyone from that Heddergott Split Course... I was Flunked in that Cubillas Fiasco... But I had "Chips" that I cashed in to get Re-Test... Got my "A" with no Problems. . But, it's just a Paper Chase...Youth Course with Sam was Excellent. ..I did mine at Xavier

  10. Kent James, June 4, 2015 at 10:34 p.m.

    I enjoyed the C course and felt I learned a lot (I had played a lot, but never coached before, though I had learned a lot from my coaches). Sam's course was really excellent; the whole 'development based on their age' was new to me (but certainly makes sense), and I was also impressed with the idea of letting the players do as much on their own as possible (not overcoaching). The value I got from that course renewed my interest in licensing generally, but then the bureaucracy crushed that desire...

  11. Santiago 1314, June 5, 2015 at 4:02 a.m.

    You are Right On, mi Amigo James..C was excellent...Tom Fleck was Great
    ....Except for Heddergott's Spin Turns and Double Shuffles, I Learned NOTHING In the B and A...Trying to stay awake during u20 USA-Ukraine...Gonna need some toothpicks to keep the eyes open for this Boring 2nd Half...tty on next article

  12. James Madison, June 9, 2015 at 8:44 p.m.

    Thanks, Paul, for honoring a guy who richly deserves to be honored.

  13. Andrew 133, March 12, 2016 at 12:06 a.m.

    I had the good fortune as a kid to attend one of Lincoln's camps in the mid-1990s. This guy could teach more in a week than other coaches have taught me in my entire life - no exaggeration. In retrospect what may have been most amazing was his ability to work with the wide range of talent at the camp - we had a goalkeeper who eventually competed for a US national team position, a couple of others close to this level, a few others who were alright for local clubs, and then me and a few others who were mediocre at best. Lincoln never compromised his standards - we were rated on a 1-5 scale on a variety of skills ... I rated myself as a 3 on a bunch at the beginning of the camp, while he rated me as mostly 1s at the outset, and he was right. By the end of the week I was significantly ahead of where I started, and all of us at all levels agreed that Lincoln made us better. It was a lesson in humility, not taking unfavorable facts personally, and not deluding yourself that you are something that you are not but rather accepting reality as it currently is and working to improve what you have. While he was authoritative he had a great sense of humor which he used to defuse issues and get points across - when I read these quotes from the banquet speeches, and can only think, yes, that is the Lincoln I know. He could easily have focused the lion's share of attention on the top guys at the camp who clearly were going places, but he pushed me hard and taught me well (the top guys also felt like they got a ton out of it). He was honest, direct, and gave all the resources and attention necessary to get better.

    I am proud to have known Lincoln and wish him the best in this book and in all endeavors. Clearly I'm late to the game in responding to this but leave it here in hope that anyone searching can have another testament to Lincoln's contributions (more testaments can easily be found in the comments on his books on Amazon).

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