After days of the kind of bone-chilling fog Northern California gets so abundantly at this time of year, on Sunday the sun emerged over Stanford Stadium, lighting up one of the most engrossing NCAA soccer title games in years. This was a matchup pitting a team consisting mainly of Nigerians enrolled at Alabama A&M against the University of Connecticut Huskies, a bunch as American as a Big Mac, which prevailed in overtime 2-1.
The final four at Palo Alto may not have been the Notre Dames of collegiate sport—besides A&M and UConn there were Eastern Illinois and Philadelphia Textile—but the weekend brought down some thunder nonetheless. A&M Coach Tim Hankinson watched, horrified, as his Bulldogs, who had taken a one-goal lead over Textile with less than a minute to play in one of Saturday's semis, gave the goal back in less than 30 seconds. There followed three scoreless periods of overtime and then a penalty-kick shoot-out, which A&M won, making the final score 3-2. When he was able to speak calmly, Hankinson announced, "As of now, I'm leaving Alabama. The job market starts on Monday."
So why is a man who takes his school to the NCAA finals job-hunting? Hankinson is 26, white, Manhattan-raised and privately educated, while the school he serves is predominantly black—as is his team. His difficulties began when the Bulldogs got off to a slow start—2-2-1—including A&M's first-ever home defeat. Says Hankinson: "A lot of people were saying, 'This is the worst team we have ever had; this is the ruination of the program.' It was my fault, it seemed. I didn't know how to recruit; I didn't know how to coach." Hankinson did, however, have an idea about what to do: Apply white handkerchiefs. The handkerchiefs had occurred to Hankinson on a recruiting trip to Nigeria in the spring, when he saw African players wearing colored scarves as good-luck symbols—jujus. "In the U.S. we might call it witchcraft," Hankinson says. In any case, once he had each of his players display a white handkerchief somewhere on his person, the Bulldogs started to win games again. "The handkerchiefs meant our love for each other," Hankinson says. "After we started to wear them, we scored 26 goals to one and went 12 games without losing."
The single goal the Bulldogs conceded in that spell was in a 1-1 tie with Connecticut, and it is revealing of the Huskies' ebullient coach, Joe Morrone, that he had scouted Hankinson's team in painstaking detail when it played the University of Vermont the previous day. "So," said Hankinson, "Morrone had spotted our white handkerchiefs, our juju magic. And when we pulled out ours, UConn pulled out white handkerchiefs of their own. And, strangely enough, it was a 1-1 tie! Magic against magic."
UCONN—AMERICA'S TEAM, some Husky fans had painted on a sheet at Stanford Stadium on Sunday, and the apparent chauvinism was, well, fair enough. There were 10 native U.S. starters on Morrone's team, plus a single Canadian, Graziano Cornolo from Montreal, who, Morrone emphatically pointed out, was referred to him, not recruited. And four of his players came to UConn straight from Joe's own backyard—E.O. Smith High School, which is right next door to the university.
Morrone has got more going for him than hanky-panky. "Connecticut soccer lives on defense," he said, after the Huskies defeated Eastern Illinois 2-1 in the other semifinal. "High-pressure defense. Most of our players don't have the skills of some of the A&M men. We don't have the speed. We make up for that by total commitment."
Morrone is quite modest about his own achievements also, though he has coached for 24 years, and his son, Joe Jr., was the No. 1 pick in the NASL draft last year and then Rookie of the Year with the Tulsa Roughnecks. His other son, Billy, a junior, is a starting midfielder on his Husky team.
On Sunday, the loud checked sports jacket Morrone often affects on the sideline was absent; instead he wore a blue blazer and a subdued blue shirt and tie. He even toned down the MacArthurism he had delivered in October at Stanford when his team had lost 3-0 to the Cardinals ("We shall be back!"). "I said that in a hopeful, not an overconfident way," he said.
In the first half hour of the title game both sides failed to make good on scoring opportunities. Early on, the Huskies' Pedro DeBrito was clear in front of the net but shot badly wide, while the A&M backs showed the same dangerously casual attitude toward defense they had displayed against Textile.
When the deadlock was broken, the reason was that for once Morrone's system of total defense came totally apart. "We overcommitted ourselves," he said later, and he was right about that, because what A&M Forward Solomon Shiferaw suddenly saw in front of him was a lot of daylight. Streaking ahead, Shiferaw scored after a magnificent 60-yard run, coolly putting a ground shot into the net to the right of Keeper Jim Renehan.
In the first minute of the second half, Connecticut retaliated and who should score but Morrone's boy Billy, who picked up a cross from the right from Graziano Cornolo and put the ball home from eight yards.
Now the game was open again, and the initiative had passed to the Huskies. Unlimited substitution is allowed by the NCAA, and Morrone is a master at it. While A&M substituted not a single player, a stream of Huskies went on and off the field. Said Morrone: "We had to play as a unit, build up and substitute. There was no possible way we could have matched them man for man for 90 minutes."
And the weakness of the Bulldogs manifested itself plainly as the game went on. There were 10 strikers, yes, but no one who could finish off attacking movements. Small, fascinating wars between pairs of players developed, notably one between A&M Striker Nathanial Ogedegbe and Husky Defender Ed Lynch, who played more than 50 minutes. But there was no breakthrough from either side and eventually came overtime, which A&M had experienced in all four previous playoff games.
Less than five minutes into the first sudden-death period, a very large man in a blue blazer was racing across the field, and the Huskies were the 1981 NCAA soccer champions. "I thought, 'God, shall I go out or not?' " Morrone said later. His players were jubilantly piling on each other on the turf near the A&M goalmouth. Morrone did go, of course, and even then he was busy thinking things through. "I went in at an angle," he said. "I tried to glide in so as not to hurt anyone."
The thought of the bulky Morrone gliding is somewhat hilarious, but there was only triumph in the air. What had happened was that the Huskies' Pedro DeBrito had gotten the ball on the right, chipped it to the left of the box to Jim Lyman, who crossed to Jim D'Orsaneo, who headed the ball home.
"I knew Jim would go up for the ball," Morrone said. "I knew their back four were tired, and I thought I saw their goalie hesitate. But for a second I couldn't tell if the ball was going into the corner or not. Then I was running. Heck, I never ran as fast in my life."
And it wouldn't have been Morrone had he not been sentimental for a moment. "It's snowing in New England now," he said, "but there'll be a lot of warm hearts for us there."
But discipline wasn't forgotten in the excitement. "We're catching an overnight plane," he said. "We have to be in classes by 11 a.m."
And there was a moment for pride, too. "We assembled a group of players from the Northeast," he said, "and we won. This will give hope to American players all over the country. We can compete!"
Even against white handkerchiefs.
Billy Morrone took the semi against Eastern Illinois in stride, scored once in the final.
Morrone's hug embraced son Billy (right).