The Pioneer Press - Texas Western '66

Texas Western’s 1966 title ignites change in college basketball 

On March 19, 1966, Texas Western College became the first – and still only – “directional” school to ever win an NCAA men’s basketball championship. 

But that factoid is little more than an interesting footnote in the Miners’ historic run to the 1966 title. 

In defeating Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky Wildcats in front of 14,253 fans at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House, Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP) became the first national champion with an all-Black starting five – and forever altered the landscape in college athletics. 

At a time when few southern schools recruited Black players and unwritten rules governed the number of Black players who could even share the court at one time, Haskins challenged the status quo. 

A no-nonsense coach known as “The Bear,” Haskins searched far and wide for talent, including cities in the Midwest and Northeast. The Miners’ all-Black starting five for the battle against all- white Kentucky featured two players from Gary, Indiana (Orsten Artis and Harry Flournoy), one from New York City (Willie Worsley), and one from Detroit (Bobby Joe Hill). The fifth starter, David Lattin, hailed from Houston. 

A team with title aspirations 

Long before the 1966 NCAA Tournament began, Haskins knew he had a team capable of winning the title. Few others, though, shared Haskins’ optimism. Coming off a 16-9 campaign, the Miners – an independent program – entered the season unranked. 

When the Texas Western coach scouted a Top 10 Iowa team in advance of a scheduled December 30, 1965, matchup against the Hawkeyes, Haskins became even more convinced his team was a national contender. 

“I had heard a lot about Iowa and after watching them, I said to myself, ‘If that team is ranked in the Top 10, then we’re going to beat a lot of folks,’” Haskins said. 

The Miners did just that, winning their first 23 games of the 1965-1966 season, including an 86- 68 thrashing of #6 Iowa. While Texas Western dropped its regular season finale, a two-point loss at Seattle, Haskins and his squad marched into the NCAA Tournament the #3 ranked team in the country – and a group confident they could win it all. 

In the tournament’s opening round, Texas Western dispatched Oklahoma City 89-74. In the Midwest Regional Semifinal, the Miners edged Cincinnati in overtime, escaping with a 78-76 win over the Bearcats. With a Final Four spot on the line, Texas Western squared off against a Kansas squad powered by future NBA star JoJo White. The Miners won a back-and-forth, two- overtime affair 81-80 to reach the Final Four for the first time in school history. 

Texas Western’s title run 

After downing Utah 85-78 in the National Semifinal, the Miners entered the national title game opposite #1 Kentucky, a scrappy, undersized group aptly known as “Rupp’s Runts.” Four times Rupp had taken the Wildcats to the national championship game. Four times Kentucky hoisted the trophy after the final buzzer. 

Led by All-American guard Louie Dampier and Pat Riley – yes, that Pat Riley – the Wildcats steamrolled opponents all season, finishing the regular season with a 24-1 mark and a 17-point average margin of victory. The Cats seemed destined to bring a fifth national title back to Lexington. 

Haskins scoffed at Texas Western’s perceived role as a sacrificial lamb. 

“You know, we’ve got some talented boys. That’s something nobody’s mentioned yet,” he told reporters. 

After Kentucky scored the game’s first point on a free throw to take a 1-0 lead, the Miners scored the next basket and never trailed again. Texas Western led 34-31 at halftime and held off late Kentucky surges by shooting 28 of 34 from the foul line to earn the 72-65 victory. Texas Western’s all-Black starting five scored 67 of the team’s 72 points, as Hill led the way with 20, Lattin chipped in 16, and Artis contributed 15. 

“It was kind of a thrill for a young punk like me to even be playing against Mr. Rupp,” the 36- year-old Haskins told reporters after the game. 

An impactful victory 

But the impact of Texas Western’s victory was felt far and wide. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch, in fact, labeled Texas Western’s title-game win over Kentucky “the game that changed American sports.” 

The Miners’ victory sparked many other college coaches, including Rupp and many of his peers in the South, to aggressively recruit Black players. It also challenged archaic, unwritten rules about Blacks’ presence in college sports. Within two years, in fact, the ACC, SEC, and old Southwestern Conference had all integrated. 

“This victory made it clear to those schools that if they did not adapt, they would never win anything again when it came to football, basketball, track and field. And so they did ... pretty quickly and with little uproar,” sports and culture historian Stephen Mosher said. 

For his part, Haskins never considered himself or his team social pioneers. Rather, they were competitors chasing a national title. 

“I really didn’t think about starting five Black guys,” Haskins later reflected. “I just wanted to put my five best guys on the court. I just wanted to win that game.” 

And in winning, Haskins and Texas Western changed everything. 

--The Chucker