By Gregory G. Reck and Bruce Allen Dick |
On a chilly late fall day in North Carolina in 1978, a 20 year old university soccer striker danced, pranced, and powered his way into NCAA record books. In the process, he and his teammates demolished an excellent George Washington University soccer team. He scored a record-breaking seven goals and one assist in an impressive 9-3 victory in the first round of the NCAA National Soccer Tournament. The individual record still stands as the most goals and points (15) ever scored in a single NCAA tournament match and the second most individual goals ever scored in any NCAA soccer match, period.
Who was this player who would later be described in a 1980 Sports Illustrated article as “…a transcendentally gifted striker and a leading candidate for the Herman Trophy – soccer’s Heisman?” And which university in North Carolina had recruited this magical striker who humiliated the elite, private GWU team? Was it Duke or UNC-Chapel Hill, both contemporary soccer powerhouses?
No. The school, which only a decade earlier had transitioned from a small teacher’s college into a four-year university, was Appalachian State University, tucked inauspiciously away in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
The striker’s name was Thompson Usiyan, who had been recruited from the Nigerian national team by Clemson and Howard universities, both soccer powers in the 1970s. Instead of selecting these already elite programs, the young Nigerian national chose to attend this little-known university located in the small mountain community of Boone, NC.
App State, as the university is often called, was largely invisible, both academically and athletically. But beginning in the early 1970’s the athletic department and young coaching staff scrambled and outhustled bigger and more prestigious collegiate athletic programs to fashion a soccer eleven that by the end of the decade was a national soccer powerhouse.
Today, 42 years after Usiyan’s jaw-dropping performance for the team known as the Mountaineers, the men’s soccer program at Appalachian State has been eliminated, a victim of the deep budget issues created by Covid-19.
As universities struggle to deal with the multiple financial issues created by the pandemic athletic programs are part of the mix. In the top ten collegiate athletic conferences, budgets range from the tens of millions to the hundreds of millions of dollars. Drastic measures forced by the pandemic are likely to impact collegiate sports both in the short-term and the long-term. How many important historical sports stories will be lost as programs are cut?
Thus, far, most cuts are in relatively small collegiate athletic programs and in sports that have little substantive history.
But the men’s soccer program at App State isn’t just another minor sport with little or no sports history. Looking back at that crisp autumn day in 1978, there is something hauntingly different about the sudden disappearance of ASU’s men’s soccer program. The Usiyan feat and the victory over GWU were no flukes. They were part and parcel of an amazing story, not just at App State, but in the history of collegiate sports.
Beginning in 1971, ASU soccer coach Vaughn Christian created a vigorous recruiting program that eventually brought international players from Nigeria, England, Chile, Israel, and Guyana to this relatively remote university in Boone, whose namesake is attributed to the explorer and heroic frontiersman, Daniel Boone.
Christian’s first major coup was the recruitment of a little-known Nigerian player named Emmanuel Udogu. Christian recalls that Udogu was “like poetry in motion.” His impact was immediate and the team, seemingly coming out of nowhere, vaulted to three straight conference Southern Conference championships. In his senior year, Ugogu was named to the All-South team selected by the region’s coaches. More importantly, he helped Christian develop an international recruiting effort, particularly with Nigerian players.
A year after Ugogu graduated, Christian and his team of international recruits won their fourth straight conference championship, and with a 12-1 record were nationally ranked in the top sixteen teams in the country. They made the university’s first-ever appearance in an NCAA post-season tournament championship. Meeting a Trinidadian-led l team from Howard University in the first round, the Mountaineers lost 3-1. Howard went all the way to the finals, settling for the runner-up position in the tournament.
The Cinderella story at AppState was just beginning. In 1977, Christian landed Thompson Usiyan who came from the same Wari Delta District in Nigeria as Udogu.
As a freshman, Usiyan led the App State soccer team to its fifth SoCon title in six years and its second NCAA tournament appearance. They made it to the second round of eight, but lost to the eventual national runner-up Clemson Tigers. Usiyan earned the SoCon Player of the Year title.
After the 1977 season, Coach Christian chose to return to teaching. He left with a seven year record of 71-22-4, five conference championships, two NCAA tournament appearances and four SoCon coach-of-the-year awards. Most importantly, he left the next coach with a nationally ranked team.
Hank Steinbrecher took the coaching reins in 1978. He later observed, “I inherited one of the best teams in the United States. I was lucky.”
Lucky or not, Steinbrecher led the team to two additional national tournament appearances in his three years of coaching, in 1978 and 1980. Going into the 1980 tournament, the team was ranked number eight in the country, counting the 1979 NCAA runner-up Clemson Tigers as one of their victims. Steinbrecher and Usiyan would have undoubtedly made three straight NCAA tournaments except for the fact that the striker sat out half of the 1979 season with a knee injury.
Between 1975 and 1980, the Mountaineers were ranked in the top sixteen teams in the country four years. Their four NCAA tournament appearances are unmatched in AppState athletic history. The team would have had a shot at a fifth tournament appearance had Usiyan not been injured his junior year.
During this run, the soccer program at App State not only blossomed into a first-class national contender, but it was the first sport at ASU to integrate significantly, both racially and internationally. In a small North Carolina university town like Boone, this feat was no small achievement.
Steinbrecher, who coached Usiyan in the record-setting 1978 NCAA tournament victory against GWU, said of the Nigerian: “He was the first guy at practice and the last player to leave…He was brilliant…I never saw a more gifted player at that age.” He would “come at you like a NASCAR car, but you never heard him.”
Usiyan still dominates the NCAA record books, unlike any other collegiate athlete in any sport: Most goals scored in a career – 109; most career points – 255; most goals in a season – 49 in 1980; most points in a season – 108 in 1980; top collegiate goal scorer in 1978 (34) and 1980 (49). Usiyan is the only university soccer player to average more than 6 points a game in a season – 6.35 in 1980 and 6.0 in 1978. No other player is even close.
In 2019, the NCAA listed Usiyan’s career records as among those most unlikely to ever be surpassed. The NCAA concluded that Usiyan was “the greatest offensive men’s college player in the history of the sport.”
And all of this happened at a small college nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, an unlikely place to make U.S. collegiate soccer history.
Yet, after that final NCAA tournament appearance in 1980, the athletic program at AppState took a turn toward the pot of gold at the end of the collegiate football rainbow. Steinbrecher, who later became Secretary General of the United States Soccer Association, observed, “They started talking to me about reducing scholarships (to three) at a time when we were outdrawing the football team.”8 He read the writing on the wall and left to coach soccer at Boston University.
As Coach Steinbrecher reminisced, “I think ASU had a goldmine and they wasted it.”9
Today, most collegiate sports’ fans know about the Mountaineer football team. Their three consecutive FCS national championships in 2005-07 set a record. The 2007 victory over the then fifth ranked Michigan Wolverines made the cover of Sports Illustrated and is considered one of collegiate sports biggest upsets. The team’s move upward into the FBS division has led to numerous post-season bowl appearances and even a national ranking of number 24 at the end of the 2019 season.
Yet, the achievements of the ASU men’s soccer program in the decade of 1971-80 is arguably unsurpassed at the university. Eight conference championships, four NCAA tournament appearances. Four season national rankings and the greatest collegiate soccer player ever.
A primary question is whether a program with such an illustrious history, even if the university abandoned it after 1980, should have been so unceremoniously abandoned a second time?
And another question is whether the memory of this unsurpassed achievement will remain alive for a program that no longer exists.
Of course, sports stories come and go. Some last and many don’t. Some even become legendary, others are buried. But the story of the ASU eleven in the 1970’s, like all good sports’ stories, deserves the best. Hopefully, the epitaph on its tombstone won’t read “Gone and Forgotten.”
*Gregory G. Reck and Bruce Allen Dick are co-authors of the 2015 book, American Soccer: History, culture, Class, published by McFarland Press.