More than a half century later, the significance of one national championship game in Maryland’s Cole Field House is beyond debate. The night it happened, not so much.
When UTEP and its all-African-American lineup brought down all-conquering — and all-white — Kentucky in 1966, college basketball would never be the same. So many closed doors of the past soon opened, and a trickle of black players to many of the top programs eventually turned into a gusher. The 72-65 upset was a landmark event, in every sense of the word.
The beaten Wildcats considered it a crushing loss at the time, not a mile marker on the long road of social progress. “It really didn’t become what it became until years later,” Pat Riley, a Kentucky player that season, once said. “That night, it was simply misery.” And UTEP coach Don Haskins would say then, and for the rest of his life, “I was just playing the best players I had.”
No one understood the moment better, or quicker, than the players themselves, remembering the hard journeys they had taken to get there. As for the rest of the sport, well, it took a while. Now everyone knows.
A good bit of time has passed to fog recollections. So here are 11 things that might not be remembered about that feat, or known at all.
1. It was Texas Western College back then. That sounds like even more of an underdog than UTEP.
2. In 1965-66, the paths of the Miners and the Wildcats that would cross so dramatically at the end had modest beginnings. Kentucky was 15-10 the season before, Texas Western 16-9, and neither was ranked when they began play. By that night in College Park, the Wildcats were ranked No. 1, the Miners No. 3.
3. Both teams were 23-0 and suffered their only losses of the regular season on the same day — March 5, 1966. Texas Western was beaten 74-72 at Seattle, Kentucky 69-62 at Tennessee. Neither Seattle nor Tennessee were invited to the NCAA tournament. Nor, for that matter, was UCLA — the only time in John Wooden’s last 14 seasons that the Bruins were left out. Lew Alcindor was playing on the freshman team that season. Had freshmen been eligible, there’s a good chance much of the nation never hears of Texas Western College.
4. Texas Western came very close to never having the chance to make history. Twice. The Miners had to come from 10 points back to edge Cincinnati 78-76 in overtime in its second tournament game, then barely escaped Kansas 81-80 in two overtimes in their next game. Kansas’ Jo Jo White appeared to have hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer of the first overtime, but an official ruled he was out of bounds.
5. The movie Glory Road suggested Haskins tinkered with his lineup to start five black players in the championship game. Uh, no. Texas Western’s top seven scorers that season were all African-American.
6. The officials weren’t going to use their whistles to save Kentucky from the Texas Western revolution. A factor in that game was the Miners shooting 21 more free throws. Kentucky had five more field goals, and lost by seven points.
7. Only five years before he helped create one of the most significant games in NCAA tournament history, Haskins was a high school coach in Texas. Five years before that, he coached a girls high school team.
8. This was the first of two Final Fours to be held in Cole Field House. The second was 1970, when upstart Jacksonville stayed in the same hotel used by Texas Western. The magic didn’t rub off once the Dolphins had to face UCLA.
9. For all the historical significance of the victory, Texas Western didn’t even have the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. For that matter, neither did Kentucky. It went to a player from Utah, who lost twice, 85-78 to Texas Western and then 79-77 to Duke in the third-place game. Jerry Chambers had 70 points and 35 rebounds in the two defeats and won the award — the last time the MOP did not play in the championship game.
10. Kentucky and Texas Western had never played before. They have never played since. The Miners are still 1-0 all-time against the Wildcats.
11. The Associated Press account that night of the championship game didn’t mention one word about the racial breakdown of the lineups, or what it might mean. Not one word. Try to find a story about that game in the past 40 years that doesn’t mention it. You won’t.