July 14, 2008
Once, after enduring a tirade about some long-forgotten aspect of a story I had written about one of his soccer teams, I justified my professional right to criticize by informing Coach I.M. Ibrahim that if it hadn’t been for him, I never would have gotten into the sportswriting business to begin with.
With just the hint of a smile, he quipped back that he was happy to take the credit – at least on what he judged to be my `good days;’ of which, he added, “this was not one.” We called it a stalemate, and moved on.
Some years earlier, I had dropped in at a Sunday night meeting at The Tiger newspaper offices, having decided to try my hand at writing about politics or perhaps some pressing or controversial social issue. Instead the new volunteer landed unexpectedly on the sports staff, with the initial assignment of interviewing Clemson’s soccer coach. The staff veterans passed a few knowing glances among themselves, hinting that I might find the subject of my first assignment to be a bit `eccentric’ or even `cantankerous,’ and cautioned that I’d have to schedule an appointment around his class schedule, since he was `some kind of a professor or something.’
And so, on a Tuesday afternoon, I trekked across campus to the P&A Building, found his cramped and cluttered office at the end of a narrow, dimly lit corridor, and entered the world of Dr. Ibrahim M. Ibrahim.
My arrival coincided with the release of the week’s latest regional soccer rankings, in which Ibrahim’s Clemson Tigers had been inexplicably shortchanged. So after a brief exchange of introductions, I was treated to my first full-blown Ibrahim rant.
My first lesson learned was an appreciation for coaches who say what they think, not what they’re supposed to say.
That appreciation lives on today, just a small part of Ibrahim’s legacy.
In the obituary written on the evening of Ibrahim’s passing, Tim Bourret fittingly dubbed him `The Father of Clemson Soccer.’
But Ibrahim’s influence extends far beyond historic Riggs Field, where the Tigers won the second of two national championships under his leadership.
Ibrahim stands as one of the founding fathers of the modern American college game. His early decision to import highly skilled international players was derided by a handful of rivals as a quick-fix shortcut to success. But Ibrahim’s vision was, from the start, wider than bringing championship soccer to Clemson.
“How will this country ever learn to love the game unless they see it played properly?” became part of his mantra.
To Ibrahim, soccer `played properly’ was a beautiful and passionate game, executed with the combination of deadly efficiency and dazzling flair.
He began searching the globe for players who could bring his vision to life.
He brought in on-the-ball magicians from South America (like four-time ACC player of the year `Big Clyde’ Browne and crowd favorite `Little Clyde’ Watson), traveled to the Caribbean for speedy goal-scorer Woolly Ford, and recruited crafty European technicians like Ron Geisbers, Mo Tinsley, Dick Landgren and John Lee.
Long before the world’s premier professional leagues tapped into the African talent pool, Ibrahim saw something special in the African game, and soon Nigeria became his primary recruiting base.
Led by players with exotic names like Nwokocha, Ogunjobi, Popoola, Ogbueze, Ebunam and Ogunsuyi, Ibrahim’s teams of the mid-70s stood head and shoulders above most of the competition in the Southeast. And soon, Clemson’s rivals took notice and engaged in a frantic and determined game of catch-up. South Carolina, with Mark Berson, and Duke, with John Rennie, were among the first to mount serious challenges. Virginia, then North Carolina, followed suit. And within the span of just a few years, the Atlantic Coast Conference was transformed into the nation’s premier soccer conference.
Two years ago – long after Ibrahim left the Clemson sidelines – ACC schools at one point held seven of the top eight positions in the NSCAA national collegiate poll.
That, too, is part of Ibrahim’s legacy.
Over time, the American game began to expand and develop, both in numbers of participants and the ability level of top players. Ibrahim was again at the head of the curve, integrating American-born players into his program, just as, from the start, he vowed that he would. Bruce Murray, recruited out of suburban Maryland, played on two national championship teams and became Clemson’s first Hermann Award winner. Another bit of legacy.
For me, Ibrahim’s legacy encompasses a personal love and appreciation of a game that, without him, I would never have discovered in the way that I did. In that, I am certain that I’m not alone.
There is no measuring the impact of his passion for sharing the game he loved with successive generations of children who came to Riggs Field as Tiger fans and departed as devotees – or aspiring participants – of `the world’s game.’
I know that Ib helped make my world larger. For that I am thankful.
May he rest in peace.
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