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The Impact The 1966 Texas Western Men's Basketball Championship Had On The Game And More

Mar 14, 2016

The 1966 Texas Western College Men's Basketball Team
Credit UTEP Communications

There are unique moments in sports where you may be realizing that you are witnessing history unfold, and sometimes that historic moment may even help spark change in the world around us.

On March 19th, 1966 the Texas Western College today known as the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Miners Men’s basketball team won the national championship by defeating Adolph Rupp’s University of Kentucky Wildcats 72-65 in College Park, Maryland.

The team made history by starting five black players for the game. At the time, public universities were starting to integrate, but major college athletic conferences, especially in the south still remained mostly white like Rupp’s Wildcats.

The Miner’s went 23-1 that season. Coached by Don Haskins, a defensive minded and later coaching legend, known as “The Bear.” Willie Cager was a 6-5-sophomore player on that historic team.

“All I wanted to do is learn how to play defense for Haskins. Once I learned how to play defense...offense…I took care of it myself,” says Cager.

Willie Cager says that the team had to deal with racism at the championship game when a confederate flag was being waved, but he says as a player he dealt with worse, like the time he received a death threat after picking up a hotel room phone in Lubbock, Texas.

“Don Haskins took over, and they called the FBI and stuff and it was ok after that, but it was very scary.”

Haskins may be in the history books for starting five African-American athletes, but according to Cager, Haskins just wanted his best players on the floor.

“Don Haskins said he’s going to start the best possible five he could start and it was all black so…what can I tell you? It just happened that way,” says Cager.

That color-blind approach to coaching was portrayed by actor Josh Lucas who played Don Haskins in the popular Walt Disney film, “Glory Road” released in 2006 about the historic team.

Joe Gomez was a student at Texas Western during that championship season, and he has worked much of his life since then to have the 1966 championship team recognized for it’s accomplishments and legacy.

Joe Gomez has worked for decades keeping the legacy of the 1966 Texas Western Men's basketball team alive.
Credit Anthony Moreno

Gomez recalls what the atmosphere was like in El Paso during that time. He says that after the Miner’s beat a top-ranked Iowa decisively that season the team became the hottest ticket in town.

“Everybody was excited. You got to remember that Texas Western was the town’s school, not just the team. It was the town’s school. So, the town wrapped their hands around this whole Final Four,” says Gomez.

The team’s victory against the legendary coach Adolph Rump and his top ranked Kentucky Wildcats is viewed as an upset, but if you ask Gomez, he says it wasn’t.

“Texas Western was the number one rebounding team in the country, and we were top three in defense. So we knew that anything they threw at them we could at least play defense, but we knew that Adolph Rump produced some pretty good basketball teams and he was going to come right at you,” says Gomez.

Gomez says there was a bonfire celebration and even police officers were celebrating nearby as they monitored the situation on campus.

Many view the team’s victory against the legendary coach Adolph Rupp and his top ranked Kentucky Wildcats as an upset, but if you ask Gomez, he says it wasn’t.

“Texas Western was the number one rebounding team in the country, and we were top three in defense. So we knew that anything they threw at them we could at least play defense, but we knew that Adolph Rump produced some pretty good basketball teams and he was going to come right at you,” says Gomez.

Credit UTEP Communications

The team’s victory was one that left a legacy, especially in the South, as schools across the country soon began recruiting African-American athletes and forever changing the game of basketball and major college and professional team sports.

The team was honored at the White House in 2006 and inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

In February the team was honored at a UTEP men’s basketball game celebrating the 50th anniversary, and at this year’s Final Four in Houston, it will be recognized for its accomplishments and the legacy it left on the game of basketball.