A Season to Remember
The Final Four was set. It would be University of Kentucky, Duke University, University of Utah and ... who? Texas Western College? Who was this commoner among royalty, this pipsqueak of a school from the sticks somewhere in the Southwest? Certainly it was a joke.
By Ray Sanchez
To say coach Don Haskins' Miners were the underdogs at the NCAA Final Four in 1966 would be putting it mildly. Kentucky had won four national championships and Utah one while Duke had been a runner-up. All had made several trips to the NCAA playoffs. The Miners, on the other hand, had been in the NCAA playoffs only twice and had never advanced past the first round.
Every sportswriter at the scene picked Kentucky to win the championship. The tournament is a gathering place for college coaches throughout the nation. They, too, overwhelmingly picked Kentucky, although a few leaned toward Duke. The first game matched Kentucky against Duke and the general consensus was that it would really be the championship contest.
Kentucky defeated Duke 83-79 and gained even more supporters. The Miners beat Utah, 85-78, in the other game but it made little impact on people's views. Even Henry Iba, who had coached Haskins at Oklahoma A&M and thought highly of his former pupil, picked Kentucky to win. "Coach (Adolph) Rupp has a great shooting team," he explained.
A capacity crowd of 14,253 crammed into Cole Fieldhouse on the University of Maryland campus on the night of Saturday, March 19, to watch the expected coronation of the mighty Wildcats. Not only had Kentucky lost only one game all year but the Wildcats were coached by a man who was then considered the greatest basketball mind in the history of the game, Adolph Rupp. Few had heard of Haskins.
But Haskins made a last-minute move that was to make a big difference in the game. Although Kentucky was a great shooting team, it didn't have much height. In fact, the Wildcats were nicknamed "Rupp's Runts." Haskins decided to start a small lineup of his own, replacing 6-foot-8 Nevil Shed with 5-foot-6 Willie Worsley. He figured such a lineup would be quicker than the Wildcats.
And he was right. From the start, it became a battle of speed versus shooting, and after 5-foot-10 Bobby Joe Hill stole the ball from Kentucky guards and went for layups on two Kentucky possessions in a row, it was obvious the Wildcats were in trouble. The Miners went on to pull the most startling upset in the tournament's history, 72-65.
The Miners' victory was celebrated with cheers, horns and bonfires throughout El Paso that night. And the next day, thousands of El Pasoans turned out to greet Haskins' heroes at the El Paso airport.
The final game also had great social significance. Haskins had started an all-black team, the first time any school had started five blacks in the finals.
The results showed blacks could function as a team as well as individually and opened doors for blacks to colleges throughout the South, which was still mostly segregated. Wholesale recruiting of blacks began soon thereafter.