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