Howard University soccer, Mark Wright and the 'obsession' of 'The Bison Project'

In "The Bison Project,” a three-episode podcast series, former Howard University soccer players tell the backstories of a team that represented both African-American excellence and the Black diaspora at the height of the Black Power movement.

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There’s a good chance Soccer America readers have heard about the excellent Howard University men’s soccer teams of the 1970s, particularly the undefeated 1974 squad that won the NCAA Division I national championship via a quadruple-overtime thriller of a final vs. St. Louis University, in St. Louis.

That team’s achievements were remarkable enough to merit a 2016 short film made by ESPN in partnership with Spike Lee, dubbed “Redemption Song” in reference to the 1971 Bison side that also won the title, only to have it summarily vacated by the NCAA for alleged eligibility infractions involving two players’ involvement in amateur play in their native Trinidad & Tobago.

As one of ESPN’s producers, Mark W. Wright was centrally involved in “Redemption Song.” But his attachment ran deeper still.

Ian Bain, one of the Bison’s star players, later coached Wright at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, becoming a mentor and lifelong friend. And even after Howard soccer’s remarkable story got its moment in the limelight, a sense of something missing nagged at Wright.

“'Redemption Song' is amazing, and I'm so glad we did it. We had a premiere at Howard, all the players came, and it was wonderful,” Wright recounted to Soccer America earlier this month. “But it really focused on the '74 championship, the team that won it back, right? And there were players from ‘71 who kind of felt slighted. It almost felt like ‘oh, shoot, here we go again, the ‘74 guys’ story gets to be told again, what about us?’

“So I developed a friendship and a kinship with a lot of those legends, a lot of those elders, and I said, I promise you, I'm going to continue working on this to the point where your story, ‘71 exclusively, is told.”

Mark W. Wright (left) with Ian Bain, one of Howard’s star players and later his coach at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a mentor and lifelong friend.

That pledge flowered into a passion project, a seemingly never-ending sequence of conversations, interviews, documents – one thread after another that Wright found and pulled on until he discovered new details and previously overlooked angles to be woven into the story.

Some eight years later, the fruits of all that labor are finally about to go public, in the form of “The Bison Project,” a meticulously crafted three-episode podcast series produced by Meadowlark (where his former ESPN boss John Skipper is a co-founder) and Campside Media set to release on Nov. 8.

As powerful as the documentary film’s treatment of the subject was in those 16 fleeting minutes, “The Bison Project” digs far deeper. Listeners hear the backstories of a team that represented both African-American excellence and the Black diaspora at the height of the Black Power movement, as well as the slings and arrows they endured due to so many factors beyond their control.

“They were all Black,” said Wright, “not from America, playing at an HBCU. So put that aside for a second. They have now stepped into a landscape that is all white. And then the fourth piece is the way they play. It wasn't kick and run, boot and kick bully-ball soccer. These guys were playing – and I'm not just saying this because they've told me this, I've seen videos. I have the full tape of the ‘74 championship game, to see how they played.

“There were nutmegs and they would play the ball back because they can, and the keeper was like a keeper-sweeper and they played with a passion and fun. So they were in the crosshairs for a lot of reasons, and of course, it's 1970-71 America: there’s racism.”

The 1971 national champion Howard University team in Jamaica with Michael Manley (top row, third from right), elected Jamaica's prime minister in 1972.

Wright, who now runs his own media production firm, estimates that he’s spent some amount of time on this effort every single day – “including vacations, including Thanksgiving, Christmas,” he said – since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic afforded him extra bandwidth to dive into it.

A neutral observer might even reckon that it just about consumed him.

“It’s a bit of an obsession, it's fair to say,” Wright admitted.

“Every time I get a chance to speak on the topic, I always have to open and say, ‘apologies to my wife and kids.’ Because I have spent many a moment, many hours tucked away in my office, getting up from the dinner table taking calls, because one of the legends, one of the elders are calling – because we didn't schedule it, but I have to take that call because there might be a nugget, a new nugget that I don't know that I have to document.”

Such as the unlikely footnote that the ‘71 Bison had at one point been extended a rare salutation from downtown – 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, to be specific.

“This team had a White House invitation from Richard Nixon after ‘71,” said Wright. “If you ask 10 players how that White House invitation came to them, did it come to them, where they were? Talking to 10 players on that time, you will get 10 different answers.

“I couldn't just fall in love with the best hot take, I had to go find out. And I did, and I think this podcast unearths what really happened relative to the White House invitation, because I got to speak to actual Cabinet members from Richard Nixon's cabinet who are still living in their late 80s and early 90s, whose memories I had to kind of tickle a little bit. But it's amazing how those guys just don't forget anything, and can recall. So I got to unearth that piece of the anecdote to this story that I want these guys to hear.”

After Howard beat Saint Louis, 3-2, in the 1971 NCAA Tournament final, ending the Billikens' 44-game winning streak, there was no call from President Richard Nixon, so Bison coach Lincoln Phillips faked one.

A desire for historical justice runs parallel with an urgent sense of modern relevance in “The Bison Project.” Members of the team are getting on in years – eight have passed away already – and many carry emotional scars from what they experienced as the callous, heavy-handed arrogance of the NCAA.

“Those are the moments that I had sitting these people down and bringing the story that's over 50 years back, which is full of pain and anguish and anger and remorse and forgiveness and sometimes a lack thereof, and bringing all that in one place,” explained Wright. “It was heavy, and it was probably some of the toughest interviews I've ever done.”

Mark W. Wright estimates that he’s spent some amount of time on "The Bison Project" every single day – “including vacations, including Thanksgiving, Christmas,” he said – since 2020.

Their stories still pack a punch, particularly as U.S. soccer at large has trended more diverse in recent years, with Black players well represented on the U.S. national teams after decades of struggle to transcend old perceptions as a white, suburban sport.

“This team and this era of players took the hit for players today, and opened the door for players today who look like them,” said Wright. “I mean, they're trailblazers in life, who often don't get credit for blazing a trail, right? I think this team, part of why Nov. 8 can't come soon enough for me is, I want that part of the story to be heard and appreciated.”

Perhaps the biggest player in this saga is the one we’ve heard the least from: The NCAA itself. The governing body didn’t provide so much as a formal ‘no comment’ on the ‘71 team’s case when approached for “Redemption Song.”

Soccer America was less than a year old when it published this report by New York Daily News reporter David Hirshey on the 1971 NCAA final four in Miami. NASL commissioner Phil Woosman called the Howard-Saint Louis final the greatest collegiate match ever played.

Wright said he got “a little bit more traction” with persistent inquiries over the past few years, and while official word remains sparse, he’s hopeful that “The Bison Project” can advance the conversations towards the ultimate desired outcome: An honest reappraisal of what really went down, and why, at NCAA headquarters back then.

“The players, almost to a man, all they want out of this, or the biggest thing they want out of this, is for the story to be told,” he said. “So I think that's going to be the biggest win. A secondary win would be that this story gets back on the radar, and in all the apps, with me being their pitchman.

“All we ask is that you take a second look at our story. Take a second look at our case, and don't judge us by 1970 NCAA, judge us by 2023 NCAA. And if you were to fast-forward us to today, and all these egregious sins that we allegedly committed, how would you judge us and grade us today? And if your conclusion is the same as it was in 1971, so be it. But give us that opportunity.”

The Bison Project: Podcast

Photos courtesy of Mark W. Wright.
11 comments about "Howard University soccer, Mark Wright and the 'obsession' of 'The Bison Project'".
  1. frank schoon, September 22, 2023 at 9:41 a.m.

    Hope to see that...That was a great team with Keith aqui and Alvin Henderson at Howard 3years after we won the NCAA at Maryland in '68 after having knocked out St.Louis Univ. in the earlier round. 

     St.Louis was the Powerhouse of soccer at time and I hope they likewise get some contemporary recognition of those 'yesteryears'.  I wish a book would be written why St.Louis became the powerhouse of soccer  was in those days....

    Ian Bain was a great player, I almost forgot about him with time. The last time I saw him was when we worked at Lincoln Philips soccer camp one summer. I learned from him why rubbing coco butter was so good for the legs.....

    Good Luck on your Project ,Mark

  2. Wooden Ships replied, September 22, 2023 at 9:59 p.m.

    I look forward to this documentary. I wasn't at the 71 game but had heard of Howard's quality. I think there is a misconception regarding technical abilities of many in St. Louis. The Lou, perhaps like other cities, had turf wars. Quite often the more creative, great in small ball was not chosen over the athletic player. The US for going on 60 years now has prioritized the athletic component. Some of it had to do with British and German influences but also the idea of what an athlete is to look like. Myself in the Lou, I admired the Italian and Yugoslav and Hungarian skills. We truly had a kaleidoscope of players. 

  3. Tim Schum, September 22, 2023 at 11:05 a.m.

    In my book "Relentless: The Story of American Soccer and the Coaches Who Grew the Sport", I discuss the entire Howard University story from the perspectivre of the then-suspicous incollegiate coaching community. A sad chapter for all concerned.

  4. humble 1 replied, September 22, 2023 at 11:35 a.m.

    Tim - I have your book in my pile of soccer books to read - been getting dusty all of them - just moved "Relentless..." to the top.  Thank you for pointing this out.  This was before my time following soccer.  Did not know about this drama - look forward to reading.  Thank you again.    

  5. Kevin Sims, September 22, 2023 at 11:33 a.m.

    Looking forward to diving into the podcasts ASAP. Thank you, Mark ... for chasing your passion, with meaning to those who lived the stories and those who will learn and grow from the stories. Bravo! 

  6. Denny W, September 22, 2023 at 11:47 p.m.

    It's amazing how the 1971 team became victims vs the team that used illegal players all season long. They want you to believe the NCAA picked on them because they were black. The fact is they broke the rules, not small infractions as again they want you to believe and suffered the consequences. The NCAA didn't pick on the Texas Western basketball team, who had five black starters when they beat the white starters from KY for the 1966 NCAA championship.  They did it with eligible players according to the NCAA standards.  Quit playing the Black vs white game and abide by the rules like they did in 1973 when the same SLU team beat them in the semi finals of the NCAA tournament and in 1974 when they beat SLU in the finals. There are no small infractions, there are only infractions.  Illegal is illegal, rules aren't meant to be bent. They should have believed in the very good players that they had instead of adding a couple of illegal players and causing self destruction for cheating. 

  7. Wooden Ships replied, September 23, 2023 at 10:43 a.m.

    Very good comment Denny. 

  8. frank schoon replied, September 23, 2023 at 11:14 a.m.

    Denny, I likewise didn't like the angle going towards victimization of Howard which turned me off a little. I don't know the circumstances of what happened with Howard breaking the NCAA rules, but I do know the overal NCAA rules have been watered down since. I lost a year playing due to transferring from UT Knoxville  to Univ. Maryland and I didn't even a play a NCAA sport at UT, which didn't offer soccer other than club soccer. NCAA was much tougher in those days with the rules when it came to transferring to another college as compared how lacks it is with transferring from one college to another while playing an NCAA sport...

  9. Kent James replied, September 25, 2023 at 4:12 p.m.

    The Wikipedia entry for the rule violations is below; assuming it's right (it is sourced, for those who want to check that), it seems like the violations were in gray areas that were ambiguous because of the international status of many of the players. Describing the team as "cheaters" seems unnecessarily harsh. Most of the rules they theoretically violated were later changed.

    "The first violation stemmed from the NCAA's "1.6 rule", which required incoming athletes to score highly enough on the SAT or ACT toe predict a 1.6 GPA. Some of Howard's international players had been admitted with scores from other exams (such as the General Certificate of Education)that Howard believed were sufficient to meet this rule.[6] Because of previous lobbying from Ivy League universities, the 1.6 Rule was repealed the same month as the NCAA announcement; however, the change did not go into effect until the 1974–1975 season. The second violation stemmed from an NCAA rule that limited schools from admitting older international players with athletic experience in their home countries.[6] One Howard player admitted playing in the Port of Spain Football League for three years, but argued that the league was not professional and was more similar to "guys from the neighborhood playing ball". The application of this rule was later found to be unconstitutional, as it penalized international students for participating in amateur leagues that American students were able to play in. The final violated rule limited player eligibility after enrollment at academic institutions in their home countries. In Aqui's case, Howard argued that the relevant school, Mausica Teachers’ College on Trinidad, did not grant four-year degrees and thus should not count as a college for the purpose of this rule. Based on these violations, the NCAA vacated the 1971 national title and the 1970 semifinal appearance, and banned the Bison from the 1973 playoffs. According to the NCAA, the Bison were the first national champions in any collegiate sport to have their title vacated."

  10. Wooden Ships replied, September 25, 2023 at 9:16 p.m.

    Thank you for the work Kent. 

  11. Ric Fonseca, October 2, 2023 at 6 p.m.

    Due to personal home duties, plus my part-time college history professorial duties, I've just finished reading this excellent "memoir"s.  Thus, I shall try to be as brief succinct and to the point (as one of my old mentors would tell us in our history seminars:) In December 1970, I rtravelled to Edwarsville, Illinois with the UCLA team that had advanced to the final four, and lo and behold, our first opponent of the tournament was none other than Howard University, whom we beat to advance for the final vs. St. Louis.  That weekend is seared in my mind, as well as many other teammates - even though I was the team manager that was coached by UCLA's soccer/rugby mentor, Dennis Storer, and assisted by Hugh McCracken, both English lads.  Our team was a mishmash of players from Mexico, colombia, England, and Ethiopia, an excellent group of players!  And, yes!, as Mark Wright says we too were very mindful of the NCAA and its pickayunish rules and regulations, to also include the side glances we all got from the local folks that attended the game, and of course, the tremendous amount of suspicion as to our team's players age, and soccer playing pedigrees in their home countries.  That Howard was forced to vacate it's NCAA championship is not surprisinggiven the time we were living.  Unfortunately we - UCLA Bruins - did not win that year, 1970, and lost to the Billikens of St. L, and it took us another four tries before we finally beat the Billikens in a game when they took a trip from their home to the far west.  Anyhow, this is but one collegiate soccer historical tid bit tied to Mr. Wright's work, which I shall look forward to seeing and reading about.  Muchisimas Gracias!

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