San José City College Centennial: Olympian Dr. André Phillips

Andre Phillips at 1988 Olympic Games

Before San José City College alum and Olympic gold medal winner, Dr. André Phillips won gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he made a very important decision in high school. Dr. Phillips turned down a full ride at UCLA to go to San José City College his first two years. And it’s a decision he has never regretted.

In high school, Phillips dominated the 330m hurdles at the California Central Coast Sectional (CCS) state meets during his junior and senior years. After winning his race at the CCS meet held at UCLA his senior year, UCLA recruited him, giving him a four-year scholarship. UCLA was Phillips’s dream school ever since he saw Lew Alcindor, who is now Kareem Abdul Jabbar, play for UCLA as an 11-year-old. It was a dream come true.

Then he got a call from Bert Bonanno, City College’s head track coach at the time, who said to Phillips, “look, we’re going to have all these great athletes at City College to train with. I’ll be here,

Dr. Andre Phillips at the Seoul Olympic medal ceremony after winning gold in the 400-meter hurdles.

and Coach Poynter will be here.” Coach Bob Poynter taught Phillips history at Silver Creek High School. He was also the sprint coach at both Silver Creek and City College, who had recently coached Millard Hampton, an alum of both schools, to win at the Olympics. “Going here first is where you could take that next step,” concluded Bonanno.

Phillips took a day to think about it. He knew he was ready for UCLA athletically, but he wasn’t sure if he was ready academically. City College seemed like the best place to move up to that next rung on the ladder. He told Bonanno the next day he wanted to go to City College, and UCLA deferred his scholarship for two years. It was a decision Phillips never regretted.

Olympic gold medalists Dr. André Phillips and Millard Hampton, at right, hold the commemorative plaque as San Jose City College celebrates its 100th anniversary at San Jose City College on Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, in San Jose, Calif. (Photo by Jim Gensheimer)

Weighing only four pounds, eleven ounces, Phillips was born in Milwaukee, WI, as the fourth of ten children. He and his family moved to San José when he was four years old, to a house directly across the street from Overfelt High School where future Olympian and San José City College alum Lee Evans was going into his senior year. At Overfelt, the legendary Lee Evans ran for the track team and was coached by Stan Dowell who would eventually become Phillips’s coach.

Phillips attended Silver Creek High School (SCHS) and was recruited by Coach Stan Dowell who had started coaching track at SCHS. At the time, Phillips enjoyed the high jump and didn’t like the idea of running around a track. He constantly turned down persistent attempts by Coach Dowell to run hurdles, and even intentionally missed races because he didn’t want to run them.

One day, Coach Dowell personally brought Phillips over to the start of a 330m hurdle race. He told Phillips to run the race one time, and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have to run it again. Phillips ran the race and won. He went up to Coach Dowell and said, “I don’t want to do that anymore. That race tires you out.” Coach Dowell looked at him and said, “that’s your race. From now on, that’s your race.”

After winning the gold medal in the 400m hurdles at the ’88 Olympics, besting his idol Edwin Moses who hadn’t lost a race in almost ten years, Dr. Phillips soon retired from racing. He went into teaching special education students and later became a high school principal in Stockton for seven years. He’s now in his third year working for the Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento as the director of Student and Family Support Services and Special Services.

“Out of everything I’ve ever done in my life, I have no regrets about going to City College – ever. Not even a thought of, ‘hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have gone there.’ It was the best move I could have made for myself.”

Dr. André Phillips on going to San José City College

In light of the Tokyo Olympics recently ending in the same year San José City College celebrates its 100-year Centennial, we wanted to take a look at a few of the Olympians who were student-athletes at City College. We had the opportunity to talk with André about why going to City College was the best move he made for himself.

What happened once you started running hurdles in high school?

I didn’t like running at first. But by the end of my sophomore year, I started to enjoy it – probably because I got into some shape. It didn’t hurt to win a few races, too. It also helped to have been on the same team at Silver Creek with Millard. He was a senior when I was a freshman. He was that tangible person we all looked up to. He was the best in the state and in the nation. With him and Coach Poynter, Lee Evans, Coach Bonanno, and others, we were surrounded by greatness. We heard the stories growing up. That’s why when they said Speed City if you wanted to be a track and field athlete – mostly because of San José State or San José City – it was raw.

Even though I got into UCLA with a full ride, I decided to go to San José City College. One of the major reasons why I did was Coach Bonanno. He sold me on it. Coach Bonanno is a character – he could sell ice to Alaska. I had a great experience at City College.

What made City College such a great experience for you?

One thing you have to learn as a student-athlete, or even just a student, is when you go to college, people aren’t waking you up to go to school. They’re not calling home to say you’re truant. You have to get up on your own and make it to class. It was getting adjusted to everything and needing to be self-motivated.

Practice was where we lived. For the first three months at City, all of us trained under Coach Poynter who did the base work, running us at Hellyer Park for three months straight. Coach Bonanno became the athletic director between the time I was recruited and when I started at City College. He was incredible as the athletic director.

Steve Haas was hired to take over as head coach. Once I started at City College, I went to work with Coach Haas as the 400m runner, as Coach Poynter had all the sprinters. Coach Haas was the first hurdle coach I ever had. He taught me patience, and he taught me stride patterns and race preparation. He was an exceptional man in so many ways.

I didn’t have a major at City College, but I loved biology and anatomy courses and wanted to go into kinesiology at that time. I also really enjoyed my psychology class and a music fundamentals class where I learned a lot about timing and syncopation that was interesting to me. It’s similar to running hurdles because it’s all about timing. Just like studying instruments when they are playing together, some instruments are at a different time than others. It gave me a new perspective.

Top Left: Phillips at San José City College; Top Right: Phillips with Coach Haas; Middle Left: Phillips with Lee Evans (left) and Coach Stan Dowell (center); Bottom Left: Phillips running for City College at a meet against Diablo Valley College; Bottom Right: Phillips at UCLA.

At City College, I started running the 400m hurdles, and both years I won that race at the California Junior College state meet. My sophomore year, I broke the National Junior College record for the 400m hurdle.

Out of everything I’ve ever done in my life, I have had no regrets about going to City College – ever. Not even a thought of, “hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have gone there.” It was the best move I could have made for myself.

Why was that?

I saw a lot of other athletes come to UCLA and really struggle academically. My mom and dad did not graduate high school. However, I received my work ethic from my father and my will to persevere from my mother. Great lessons to have as one goes through life. I’m the only one of all my siblings that went to college and graduated. It took some time to learn how to study and be self-motivated in the way it is done in the academic world. Going to City College was that next step up. I think I might have freaked out academically as a freshman at UCLA, that big old school with all its demands.

Not only that, we had a great support network at City College. Even after I left, I kept in contact with Coach Bonanno, Coach Haas, Coach Poynter, and Coach Stan Dowell who was still a high school coach. They were still my mentors. I would call them, or they would come to see me.

Whenever I saw Coach Poynter, he did not care where I traveled. He didn’t care whether my race was good. The first thing out of his mouth was, “did you get that degree?” And if it was no, you just turned around and said, “I’m still working on it!” I’m not kidding. That was the first thing out of his mouth, “did you get that degree? Where’s that degree?” “Okay, I’ll bring it to you.” He held you accountable for that degree. I think a lot of that might have had to do with some of his experiences. He wanted us as his pupils or mentees to do better.

Everyone kept you grounded, and they held you accountable. They did not care if you were the top person on the team or an athlete who was struggling a bit to keep up. They didn’t care. You were all the same. You were held to the same standards and same rules. There was no prima donna. There was none of that; they were not having it.

How did you get to the Olympics?

I’ve had some bad luck at the Olympic Trials. In the finals at the 1980 Olympic Trials, my foot caught the tenth hurdle and I fell. In 1981, I went on to win the NCAA my senior year at UCLA. After that, I trained with Bob Kersee who was training Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Florence Griffith-Joyner, and Greg Foster, some of the top people in track. I trained with Coach Kersee from the summer of 1981 to 1987.

“I saw a lot of other athletes come to UCLA and really struggle academically…. Going to City College was that next step up.”

Dr. André Phillips on why he chose to go to San José City College

The three years leading up to the 1984 Olympic Trials, I was ranked number two in the world behind Edwin Moses. I was 16 years old when I remember first seeing Edwin at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. That was so cool. He became my idol because you wanted to run like Edwin Moses. I ran against him for the first time my sophomore year at City College. Immediately after that race, I thought to myself, “now you have to see every single person in this race, not just Edwin, as a goal.” They were my stepping-stones to get to where I needed to go, and of course, Edwin was the peak of the mountain.

A week before the ’84 Trials, I was at San José City College for the US Championships and had somehow caught the flu. I ran the first round and felt like I was going to pass out. I had a 100-degree temperature, so I decided to go home to rest and get it out of my system.

I still had the flu the next week at the Olympic Trials. I ran all three rounds with a 102-degree fever, and just kept saying, “just let me make the team and I’ll be okay.” In between rounds, I remember Lee Evans and Coach Dowell coming to my room to cheer me up as I was in bed shaking, drinking orange juice. I really appreciated that. That’s what I mean about that connection to City College. Lee Evans went to City College and Stan Dowell coached there, and there was still that connection of them caring about you long after you’re gone.

I took fourth at the ’84 Trials by maybe a yard. It was harder to take fourth than if I would have taken eighth because I was right there. That was probably the most difficult period, in terms of athletics for me. I thought about quitting. I didn’t come out of my house for a week. I didn’t come out of my room. I just contemplated quitting. I was 24 at the time, and thought, “I’m not going to train four more years. It’s just too much.” Then, as soon as the Olympic flame went out on the ‘84 games, boom, my internal flame clicked back on, and I trained again for four more years.

Then in 1987, I got a stress fracture in my shin in a race in Germany. I did so poorly that I didn’t run the rest of that summer. I came back to Los Angeles and called Coach Dowell, and I asked him if he would he coach me. I don’t think it registered with him, because, over the years, I would still get workouts from him. He probably thought, “yeah, I’ll send you workouts.”

I told myself, “Go all out. The chips are all in. Just go. Go home.” So, I came home. I packed up everything, sold everything, and moved back to San José. I went back to where I got my start and trained at either Independence High School or Los Gatos High School with Coach Dowell. I blocked out all the noise and just focused on that goal, which was to win the gold because I knew this would be it.

At the Olympic Trials, I took second behind Edwin. It was probably harder to make the USA Olympic team than it was to make the Olympic finals because the U.S. had eight of the top ten hurdlers in the world. My goal was just to make the team. I was feeling really good.

Top Row – Top Right: Jumbotron of the finalists about to run the 400m Men’s Hurdle at the 1988 Seoul Olympics; Top Right: Nearing the finish – Phillips edging out the charging Dia Ba (middle) and Moses (left – with Winthrop, Schmid, and Young in the back row); Top Bottom-Right: Phillips winning the race, Dia Ba 2nd, Moses 3rd, USA’s Kevin Young 4th; Middle Row – Left Top-Middle: Phillips after winning gold; Left Middle: Medal Ceremony with Dia Ba (left) from Senegal who came in second with a national best time of 47.23, Phillips (center) with an Olympic Record of 47.19 and the gold, and Edwin Moses with the bronze and a time of 47.56; Middle Right: San José Mercury News article The Torch Passes with Phillips and Moses; Bottom Row – Bottom Top-Left: SJCC’s marque after Phillip’s Olympic win; Bottom Middle-Left: Principal Phillips at Stagg High School; Bottom Left: Phillips with fellow Silver Creek High and SJCC alum Millard Hampton and Silver Creek and SJCC faculty Coach Bob Poynter; Bottom Right: Dr. André Phillips at the ceremony for his doctorate degree with his gold medal.

My final workout before leaving was just an amazing workout. I can’t even describe it. It was a feeling where I just knew I was ready. It was the first time after a workout that Coach Dowell didn’t say anything. He just looked at me and I looked at him. It was like, “We’re ready.” I hugged him and left the next day.

I decided to stay at a hotel away from the Olympic Village. But guess who else was in the hotel with me? Edwin Moses. Later, I saw Edwin’s manager while I was eating breakfast with Gail Devers and Valerie Brisco-Hooks. Edwin’s manager walked by our table and said hi. He then came back and advised us to only drink bottled water and not drink water outside of the hotel, because the water could be bad.

As he started to walk away, he took a step back and said, “because we want to make sure you’re strong enough to push Edwin ahead.” I looked at Gale, “are you kidding me? Psychological warfare? Is that what we were trying to do here?” I thought the gall of him. I won my first heat. Edwin won his. The next day, I won my semi-final heat, but I clipped the 10th hurdle. I saw Edwin in the hotel that evening, and he said, “you better not hit that hurdle tomorrow.”

The story of SJCC’s legendary track and field program, featuring André Phillip’s dramatic win at the 1998 Olympic Games in Seoul.

I found out I would be in Lane 6 and everybody else who was anybody was inside of me. Edwin was in Lane 4; Amadou Dia Ba was in Lane 5; Winthrop Graham in 4; Kevin Young was in 3; Harald Schmid was in 2. I knew that I was the rabbit. That’s just the way the draw went. I knew the two guys outside of me, Kriss Akabusi and Edgar Itt, were young hurdlers and by the third or fourth hurdle, I would probably catch them and be by myself.

When you come out onto the stadium, you start hearing the crowd. You hear them yelling your name, or Edwin’s name, or “go Amadou,” whoever. I was trying to get a psychological advantage. I was counting how many calls I got versus Edwin. “He only got four Let’s go’s and I got five.” I was trying to get any advantage I could get.

I knew what my strategy was supposed to be between Coach Dowell and Bob Kersee who was still my manager. Kersee was a great hurdle-technician coach and strategy coach. We had a strategy going into the race. Then just before the starter said, “On your mark,” I changed my strategy right then and there because I knew what they knew. They knew I was going to catch Edgar Itt and Kriss Akabusi. They knew I was a rabbit, and I was going to go. So, I decided I was just going to go when the gun goes off. My motto was, “if you want me, you’re gonna have to come get me. If you want me, you’re going to have to come get me.”

The gun went off. We’re running. I knew going over the seventh hurdle that that was where Edwin always made his move. I got over the seventh, and as I was running, I didn’t see him, and I swear I had blinders on for the first time. For a split second, I thought, “was it a false start and I just kept going?” I didn’t feel anybody until after I got over the 10th hurdle which I took too high because I missed it the day before.  

“I decided I was just going to go when the gun goes off. My motto was, ‘if you want me, you’re gonna have to come get me. If you want me, you’re going to have to come get me.'”

Dr. André Phillips on his changed race strategy before winning gold at the 1988 Olympics

It slowed my momentum down. I tried to get it back as Amadou Dia Ba was coming up really fast. I could see him on the jumbotron. I just held him off and won the race. My first thought wasn’t that I won the gold. It was, “I finally beat Edwin. You finally got him.” Then it hit, “Oh, and you got to gold, too.” The carrot wasn’t the gold for me, it was finally beating Edwin. The gold didn’t hurt.

I stopped running in April 1992. I had some nagging injuries, and after getting a sports hernia going over a hurdle, I thought, “you know what? I had a good run.” Then I just retired the spikes.

Figuring out my next step was difficult. It’s probably the most difficult time for anybody who has ever started over after doing only one thing. It doesn’t have to be athletics, but for anybody who switches to a different field. There’s this transition, this, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do. This is all I’ve been doing all my life.” So, what do you do? You got a degree, but what do you do? I started substituting in Stockton and thought, “Man, I don’t want to be a full-time teacher. This is crazy. These teachers don’t get paid enough for these kids.” After subbing a couple years, I decided I did want to work with kids and went into special education.

My wife and I live in Patterson with my youngest son. I have a blended family with six kids. Three of my older kids live in Georgia, one son lives in the Bay Area, and my stepdaughter is going to UC Davis.

I’ve been a principal in Stockton and now I’m working for a school district in West Sacramento. I recently got my doctorate. My dissertation was about mentoring African American males. Coach Poynter, Coach Bonanno, Coach Dowell, and Coach Frank Slaton, who also coached me at Silver Creek, all had a chapter devoted to them. In it, I explored what made me different even though others in my family had similar opportunities with different outcomes.

It makes you start to reflect on the choices people make over their lives, thinking would we change this or change that? I think for me, going to City College, there’s absolutely nothing I would have changed about my decision to go there. My relationships with all the athletes and the coaches there allowed me to use that as a springboard to move on to bigger and better things at the time. We had great chemistry, the coaches, and the athletes. It was probably some of my best years. I have no regrets whatsoever, not an iota. My experience at San José City College was awesome.

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