Eddie Mullens Remembers
Eddie Mullens, long-time sports information director at Texas Western College and UTEP, recently wrote a retrospective on the Miners' 1966 national championship season.
Although we had howdied, probably at a high school basketball tournament the previous year, we did not begin laying the foundation for our friendship until Don walked into my bailiwick, the city room of the first newspaper in Texas to win the Pulitzer Prize.
We were a couple of young Turks. Don Haskins was employed at Hedley High School where he coached the boys and girls basketball teams and drove the school bus. I was a member of the Amarillo Daily News and Globe-Times sports staff. Since I was the new kid on the block at the time, my assignment was covering the smaller schools in the Panhandle, one of which was the Hedley Owls.
A few years after that get acquainted meeting at the coffee shop off the Daily News' city room, Don Haskins as the Texas Western College basketball coach and I as the Sports Information Director, traveled together thousands of miles, to hundreds of cities and hotel rooms and many, many basketball games leading up to the one that occurred March 19, 1966 when Don's team beat the Kentucky Wildcats 72-65 at College Park, Maryland.
That one game... No. Perhaps that one win, by an all black Texas Western starting lineup against Kentucky for the NCAA national championship probably did more to change college basketball than the jump shot, the three-pointer or, maybe, those short skirts of today's cheerleaders.
It is not my intention to expand upon what the game did for college basketball. That has been done hundreds of times by much better qualified people than this ol' retired sports information director. I feel what Jeff Darby, the UTEP SID, wanted for this website was a tour down memory lane by someone who lived it, recorded every game and was privy to many of the behind-the-scene events.
After we opened the season at home against Eastern New Mexico and won 89-38, several members of the media-then it was "the press" - and I gathered at the Pancake Cottage, a block from Memorial Gym, the site of Texas Western's home games and Don's and my small offices. I recall someone asking me that night if I thought we had a good team. I did. No one asked, and I would have wondered what they were smoking, had the subject of a national championship been mentioned.
Perhaps I began to get some idea this was a special team after it dismantled fourth ranked Iowa 86-68 to win the Sun Carnival Tournament. As the score indicates, Iowa was never in the game. Texas Western's defense was so tight, it looked like, the Miners had picked up the Hawkeyes when they got off the plane. Sports Illustrated came to El Paso to see the Hawkeyes. Instead it got a look at a Haskins team that was tougher than leather spaghetti and, before the season was wrapped up at College Park, had left 28 teams bluer than a sailor's tattoo.
Indeed, it was a fun time. But there were some hairy moments, like that time at New Mexico when the Lobos wired together a 20-point lead with 14 minutes to play. A very gifted Mel Daniels had the Miners hollering like Tarzan with his loin cloth on fire before Bobby Joe (Slick) Hill told his much bigger teammates, "If you guys can't handle that turkey, I'll take him." That got the attention of David (big Daddy D) Lattin, Nevil (The Shadow) Shed, and Harry (The Cricket) Flournoy. Shed later would steal an inbound pass in the closing minute of regulation, and the Miners won 67-64 in OT.
I still chuckle about an incident that occurred during, and moments after, that game. When it became evident the Lobos were a serious challenge, a lady and her male companion, who sat immediately behind me, began giving me a hard time. The Lobos had not moved into The Pit in 1966 and their home games were played in much cozier Johnson Gym with the scorer's table, where I sat, very close to where the seating began.
As the game progressed, my chair was constantly kicked by the lady, and she often leaned much closer to yell just how overrated the Miners were and how much better the Lobos were. After Shed made that steal and scored as regulation time expired, I turned around to look at my hecklers. The lady...lady? Anyway, I was told to do something to myself that, despite medical technology advancement, is still impossible. And as the Miners ran their record to 18-0, I was given two No. 1 salutes. Only the pair used the wrong finger.
A week prior to the Lobo overtime affair, we were involved in a helluva game at Colorado State. It was tied at 66 as the Miners ate up the clock in the closing seconds, wanting to take the last shot, and Haskins called a time-out. Some member of the press slipped down to where I sat at the scorer's table to inquire as to who would take the last shot. "It'll probably be Orsten (Artis)," said I. Right. I was such an expert that when the ball was back in play, ol' "Slick" hit nothing but net and the Miners were then working on a 16-0 record.
It was almost three weeks later that the Miners beat this same Colorado State team, 72-55, at home to give Don Haskins his 100th college coaching win. His record that night was 100-25, not bad for an ol' boy who was driving a school bus a few years earlier. (When Don finished his career at the same university, now known as UTEP, his wins totaled 719.)
There were so many other incidents that I always referred to as "Games Outside the Games," things that have stuck permanently in my memory bank. One is a night in Rock Island, Ill., a few hours after we had beaten South Dakota 88-42 in the opening round of the Rock Island Tournament. A few members of the media, including the late Bob Ingram, sports editor of the El Paso Herald-Post, the late Jud Milton, our play by play voice of KTSM, and Roger McKown, of the El Paso Times, among others, were enjoying an after game toddy in the saloon, I guess it was called a bar, at the hotel where we were staying.
A young lady came down the steps to the bar, strolled over to where the glasses were stacked, gathered up an arm load, stepped back and began throwing like Roger Clemens, the famous baseball pitcher. Glass shattered and moments later a man galloped down the stairs, grabbed the lady and escorted her out. We were still shaking our heads when the lady again came down the stairs, came to our table and asked if we had seen how they mistreated her. Again, the man arrived. He wasn't as nice this time. He grabbed the lady by the hair and pulled her upstairs. I remember remarking that if our guys would attack the glass as well as the lady and be as aggressive as the man, teams would have a tough time beating us.
There were a few things about the trip to Seattle for the last game of the regular season where the Chieftains ended our 23-game winning streak 74-72 that still stand out. In the dressing room, afterwards, the players sat with their heads down and a few tears were rolling down their cheeks. Haskins observed them and then said something like, "Okay, you've lost one game. You can go out there and win five more and win the whole thing." Although we did not know it at the time, this would turn out to be a truly prophetic statement.
I walked out of the arena that night with two new acquaintances, the O'Brien brothers, Johnny and Eddie, who had played baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates. One was then an attorney and the other was the athletic director at Seattle University. On our way to my car, one of the brothers said something like, "You've lost a game tonight. But you just watch. It'll help you win the national championship."
I could also relate how the players were not in the rooms that night when Moe Iba, Don's young assistant, and I made bed-check but that funny story would take far too much space than Jeff Darby probably wanted. So, I'll save it for another occasion.
Four days after the Miners had beaten Oklahoma City 89-74 in Wichita to open the NCAA playoffs, we were pitted against Cincinnati in the first of two games at Lubbock to determine the Midwest Regional winner. The team coming out of there would make reservations for College Park, Maryland and to what is now referred to as "The Final Four."
Highlight of the overtime win against Cincinnati was Shed being escorted off the floor for decking a Bearcat. Shed said the player was constantly holding his jersey. The New York native retaliated with a very good right jab, which sent the Cincinnati player to the canvas...oops, I mean the floor.
Surprise! Surprise! Haskins was somewhat upset and sent Shed to the locker room with instructions to change his clothing and NOT sit on the bench when he returned. After the Miners had finally put the Bearcats away 78-76, Shed was not given a ride back to the hotel. I found him wandering around the arena after I had finished my duties. Yes, he was hungry. Yes, he would like a ride to the hotel and could he use my phone to call his "momma." He was more concerned, I still believe, with the reaction of his mother than he was of his coach. And, believe me, that's saying something. If you doubt that statement, ask Nevil. He lives in San Antonio.
The Kansas game, the following night in Lubbock, was wilder than a lone deuce in a college poker game and, to this day, stands out in my memory bank as THE GAME. In the first overtime, Kansas' Jo Jo White hit a 35-foot runner just as the buzzer sounded. But referee Rudy Marich immediately blew his whistle as he went to one knee and pointed to the spot where White had stepped out of bounds with Hill in his face. For all these years I have admired Rudy's integrity because not every official would have had the courage to make that call under those circumstances.
Again, I was seated at the scorer's table as White trotted back to his bench where he was met by coach Ted Owens. It appeared from where I sat that Owens asked White if he was, indeed, out of bounds. White nodded his head and Owens immediately turned back to his huddle. All business. All class.
In the second overtime period, the Miners hit a series of free throws, and played tough defense. Kansas scored five late points, two at the buzzer, but the Miners won 81-80.
This is strictly my opinion, and Don Haskins and Moe Iba might disagree, but looking back, I still think the final two games of the season, against Utah and Kentucky, were anti-climatic after the Kansas heart-stopper.
Don't get me wrong. Utah and Kentucky were great opponents but, truthfully, if Rudy Marich hadn't made that call, Kansas would have been in College Park that weekend. And the 1966 trophy, which now resides in El Paso, could easily be sitting alongside all of the other hardware in Lawrence, Kansas.
In those days, the NCAA tournament games were played back-to-back. No day in between games. We opened the tournament on Friday night and again it was one of those white-knucklers. Utah's Jerry Chambers was as dangerous as a pit bull at a cat show. The Washington, D.C. native, who finished with 38 points, had several of the Miners in foul trouble while attempting to cover him. Off the bench came husky Jerry Armstrong, the Missouri lad, who, thankfully, quickly shut Chambers down. Chambers was later named the tournament's MVP, and rightfully so. But "Slick" Hill wasn't any slouch.
After our game with Utah, Duke and Kentucky played, and according to the media, this was the game that should have decided the championship, giving the Miners about as much hope of winning the NCAA title as a jackass at the Kentucky Derby. I watched the first half of the Duke-Kentucky game and was on my way to the Press Room for a cup of coffee when I ran into Don and Moe. What did I think of Duke and Kentucky, one of them asked.
"I don't think either team can beat us," I replied. Whereupon I thought both Don and Moe were going to physically attack me. "Whatta you mean, they can't beat us? You gotta be outta your mind. I hope you don't say anything to the players," someone declared. "Hell, the players aren't blind. They know what they've seen," I replied but I was talking to the backs of the coaches who were on their way to watch the second half of the Kentucky-Duke game.
The Wildcats beat Duke and certainly Kentucky was the pick over Texas Western. They had a large following that night. A lot of blue and white. Great tradition. Lots of support, but hey, ol' Texas Western wasn't shut out. There were a number of Texans in the crowd, some wearing orange and white, the school colors at the time. Some of Haskins' former players were there. I remember Steve Tredennick, now an attorney practicing near Austin, sat behind our bench. Steve had graduated the previous year and, no doubt, wished it had been one year later.
When I walked into the dressing room prior to the game, I found the players as relaxed as if they were ready for practice instead of the biggest game of their careers. Some appeared to be asleep, others would have been playing cards, no doubt, if they thought Haskins wouldn't walk in on the game. Hill was stretched out on a bench, a toothpick in his mouth and I thought his eyes were closed. Instead, he looked up at me and inquired, "What's happening, Judge?" Yeah, Don's team was really uptight.
Prior to sending his team out for the game, Haskins told Lattin to dunk the ball the first opportunity. He didn't care if the big Houston sophomore drew a foul. He wanted to get Kentucky's attention. Lattin responded with one of his thunderous dunks not long after the game started and did, indeed, get the attention of the Kentucky players, bench and fans. And the media.
But it was Hill's back-to-back steals at mid-court, turned into easy lay-ups, that was the turning point. On the second steal, Kentucky's legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, quickly bolted from his chair and demanded a time out. I was seated at the scorer's table, and had a good view of both benches. As his players approached his bench, Rupp said a few things that could not be printed in family newspapers at the time.
In those days, we did not bring players to the press room after the games. Instead, only the coach spoke with the media. Any questions for the players were given to a team representative, normally the ol' SID. The most asked question? "Was Kentucky the best team our players had faced?"
I took all of the questions to our dressing room and when I asked about the best team they had faced, it was unanimous, "Kansas."
As I was walking back from the dressing room to courtside, I passed the press room where Rupp was speaking. "Coach," someone asked, "was Hill the best little man your team had faced?" As I recall, Rupp didn't hesitate. "Oh, Hill is a good little boy. But every team has a good little boy this year." Yet, Hill had just scored 20 points, had three rebounds, and made two steals at mid-court to help prevent Rupp from adding another national championship to his school's trophy case.
It was some time after the game, perhaps nearly two hours, before I was able to climb in my car and return to the Interstate Inn, where we were staying. It was dark, very quiet when I arrived, which was surprising under the circumstances. Frankly, I had expected a lot of activity. As I approached my room, Don and Moe burst out of Don's room with big smiles on their faces. Haskins grabbed me and swung me around as if I were a doll.
Where was everyone? Why, some fans, headed by Jimmy Rogers, I was told, had put together a victory party and Don and Moe had waited for me before they too would join the celebration.
Fan mail began arriving at our office. The volume was so great that the mailroom put it in black plastic bags. Much of the mail was of the hate variety because of the racial prejudices that existed in the country at that time. Many people were vilifying Don for using an all black lineup against Kentucky's all white team. There was so much hatred spewing from those letters that at one time Don told me he wished he hadn't won "the damn game." Of course he didn't mean it, but it certainly was discouraging at the time.
Now, nearly 40 years later, Don still lives in El Paso and has been inducted to both the Texas and Oklahoma (his native state) Halls of Fame. And, rightfully so, he was finally ushered into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, ending one of the most frustrating projects I ever worked on.
Moe moved on to head coaching jobs, but is retired and living in Fort Worth. Don and I still see the players, from time to time--Don more often than I, since I no longer live in El Paso. And even with all these memories I have shared in this report, I didn't scratch the surface of what I remember about that remarkable and historical season.
1966 was a special year and it is strange how it keeps cropping up in my life from very important things to the mundane. I have always marveled that one of my beloved stepdaughters, Shelley, was born in 1966. This coincidence seems to even extend to random incidents that occur. For instance, when my wife, Reba, had surgery recently, one of her nurses casually mentioned that she had graduated from Roswell (NM) High School in 1966. Reba and I just looked at each other.
And of course I was privileged to be part of, and witness to, a basketball game in 1966 that has been credited with opening up opportunities for African-American athletes and with turning the world of sports into what it is today.
It was a helluva ride.