It’s Been 50 Years Since Texas Western Changed College Basketball Forever

Constantly following Jordan’s Bulls and Lou Henson’s Flyin’ Illini from a small, central Illinois town as a young, basketball crazed kid, I tried to get my hands on every stat, fact and highlight I could get my hands on. I even made my own trivia game for my mom … on a typewriter … Yeah, I’m that old. 

I also remember studying a list of past NCAA champions. I remember looking at the 60s and seeing part of that list as follows:

1973 UCLA (30-0) 
1972 UCLA (30-0) 
1971 UCLA (29-1) 
1970 UCLA (28-2) 
1969 UCLA (29-1) 
1968 UCLA (29-1) 
1967 UCLA (30-0) 
1966 Texas Western (28-1) 
1965 UCLA (28-2) 
1964 UCLA (30-0)

Of course my first thought was — What made UCLA so special? What the HECK!? Did they cheat??!!

Then my next thought — Who in the hell is TEXAS WESTERN?!

I mean, there they were. Out of nowhere. “1966 Texas Western (28-1).” Never before. Never since. 

Of course I would later learn all about John Wooden and the magical dominance of his UCLA teams featuring guys like Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. But it wasn’t until much later when I learned about the true transcendence of 1966 Texas Western and the work of head coach Don Haskins — a season that never got the full attention it deserved until decades later.

If you’ve seen the movie Glory Road, you’ve seen the Disney version of what happened. An unlikely hero coach takes a job at a little-known school in the middle of the desert, and somehow recruits (legally) a bunch of badasses from around the country to come play in El Paso. The only catch? They’re all black. And until that point in history, no team had ever started five black players. There was an unwritten rule you could start one, two, possibly three. Never five.

What made the story better? They beat an all-white Kentucky team 72-65 (led by Pat Riley) in the national championship game that was, at the time, considered one of the biggest upsets in the history of the Tournament. For it was inconceivable that a team could be led to the pinnacle of the sport without a white leader.

The game, the moment, all true — five black players started on the same team, and won the national title — and it happened on March 19, 1966, 50 years ago Saturday.

Dubbed college basketball’s “emancipation proclamation” by Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson, a lot has changed since the team shocked the college basketball world in 1966. Texas Western now goes by UTEP (University of Texas El-Paso), and of course the sport is now largely dominated by black athletes. It’s inconceivable to think a player in 2016 would be kept from a scholarship or a starting spot because of his or her race, but 1966 Texas Western is a large reason as to why.

Haskins put his entire career on the line and five players bravely carried on the torch that Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell all bestowed years earlier. 50 years later, it’s important to still recognize what the ’66 Miners accomplished. 

Willie Worsley, Orsten Artis , Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Harry Flournoy and the rest of the historic Miners from 1966 will be honored at this year’s Final Four in Houston, Lattin’s hometown. In fact, Lattin, 72, may get to watch his grandson, Khadeem Lattin, play that same night if Oklahoma makes it to the final weekend. 

It’s all a perfect storm of ‘special’ that will culminate during one of the most important anniversaries in college basketball history. However, it’s no secret that race is still affecting our culture 50 years later. My hope is that my generation continues to carry that proverbial torch the Miners championed 50 years ago. I feel the only way I can help is with this public ‘thank you.’

1966 Texas Western Miners, thank you for opening the flood gates, for destroying archaic prejudice and enabling progress. Without your bravery, discipline, and mad dunking skills over Pat Riley (seen below), I was able to grow up in a small town in an Illinois cornfield and look up to players such as Kendall Gill, Kiwane Garris and Michael Jordan, and never even think about the color of their skin — something which may not have been the case in 1966.

David Lattin dunks on Pat Riley

Texas Western’s first bucket in ’66 national championship (2:30 mark)

Josh Helmuth is the editor of Crave Sports. Follow him on Twitter or like the channel on Facebook.

Cover photo: Screen capture via ‘History Day Documentary’