Cole Field House does not look a monument to college basketball. From the back, it has the appearance of some antiquated airplane hangar misplaced in the middle of a college campus. From the floor, the University of Maryland's gymnasium has neither the aura nor charm of other, more famous arenas.
But 25 years ago, the building played host to history. Or so everyone who witnessed the championship game of the 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament -- and some who didn't -- will tell you.
Kentucky vs. Texas Western.
All-white vs. all-black.
The Baron vs. The Bear.
"The end of an old era and the beginning of the new," says Joe B. Hall, then an assistant to Kentucky's legendary Adolph Rupp and later the Wildcats' head coach.
Undoubtably, there turned out to be a great deal of social significance to Texas Western's 72-65 victory over the top-ranked and highly favored Wildcats. As a result, doors opened throughout the South, some more slowly than others, for blacks to get their chance at playing major college basketball.
Yet at the time, those who played in the game gave more thought to their place in the record books than the history books. They knew the stark differences between the teams and their respective programs -- in terms of racial makeup, tradition and playing style -- but they didn't really care.
"We were just a bunch of kids trying to win a basketball game," says Dave Lattin, Texas Western's ferocious 6-foot-7, 245-pound center who now is a public relations man for a liquor distributor in Houston. "About a month after the game, you started to hear some rumbling about it. For the players it wasn't such a big deal."
"I look at it as an athletic event, not from the perspective of having great social relevance," says former Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, then one of "Rupp's Runts" and now a commentator for NBC Sports. "It's what the people on the periphery made it out to be. I don't look at it as some watershed game. There were a lot more significant events in the country than Texas Western beating Kentucky."
It had been two years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It would be two years before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the civil rights movement, was gunned down by an assassin. Although the Miners were the first Final Four team with an an all-black starting lineup, they were not the first to have a majority of black players in prominent roles.
The University of San Francisco teams that won back-to-back championships in the mid-1950s were led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The Cincinnati teams that won titles in 1961 and 1962 started as many as three blacks.
The next year, the Bearcats lost in the championship game to Loyola of Chicago, which started four blacks. The 1964 UCLA team had Walt Hazzard in the backcourt, Fred Slaughter in the frontcourt and Kenny Washington off the bench.
"I'm not sure it's fair to tie any social movement to one event, as much to a period of time when attitudes in the country were changing," says ESPN announcer Larry Conley, a starting forward on the 1966 Kentucky team. "This particular game was totally magnified for social reasons, when in reality it was just a basketball game between two great college teams."
There was not much in the way of pre-game hype. The big matchup was supposed to have come in the semifinals, when No. 1 Kentucky played No. 2 Duke. After the Wildcats dispatched the Blue Devils, 83-79, Texas Western, ranked No. 3, was considered an afterthought. Hall recalls thinking differently after watching the Miners' 85-78 semifinal victory over Utah.
"I knew we were going to have trouble," he says.
While others were surprised by Texas Western's penchant fo discipline and defense, Hall was not. He knew Miners coach Don Haskins had played for Henry Iba at Oklahoma State. Haskins, then 36 and in his fifth year at the El Paso college, used to work his players extremely hard in practice.
"The games were easier for us than the practices," Lattin says.
Despite being heavy favorites, as much perhaps as Nevada-La Vegas is this year, the Wildcats were not at full strength. Conley had a fever of 102 degrees the night before the Duke game. Although the fever broke ("We fixed that up with some old-fashioned goose oil and vaporizer," Rupp said at the time), Conley had trouble running up and down the court. Star guard Louie Dampier also got sick.
"I haven't watched the tape of the game, but Riley told me that it looked like we were in a fog," Conley recalls. "We were supposed to be a quick team, but we looked like we were in slow-motion that night."
Certainly, the Miners played a part in Kentucky's sluggishness. Haskins made a lineup change for the final, switching forward Nevil Shed for another guard, Willie Worsley. The Wildcats, who got the "Rupp's Runts" nickname because they had no starter taller than 6-5, had difficulty contending with Lattin. Rupp didn't think that Texas Western had anybody to shoot outside, so he had Kentucky play a 1-3-1 zone. But it was Texas Western's defense that won the game.
Namely, two steals by sophomore guard Bobby Joe Hill early in the game ultimately shattered Kentucky's mystique. Hill first stripped Riley, a forward, then guard Tommy Kron.
"The steals come to mind because they broke our backs," says Hall, now a senior vice president at Central Bank in Lexington, Ky. "We lost our confidence after that."
Says Lattin: "When Bobby Joe got those two steals, they never recovered."
Although the Wildcats didn't trail by more than eight points in the first half, they were never the same team. Rupp stayed in the zone, and the Miners tore it apart. The guards, Hill and Orsten Artis, each hit two long jumpers -- three of them would have been three-pointers today -- and Lattin dunked in a miss by Artis for a 60-51 lead.
"When 'D' [Lattin] dunked, you could see the looks in their faces," says Hill, who would lead the Miners with 20 points. "It destroyed them."
The victory by Texas Western had debunked a few myths, most notably about the way blacks played the game. "I think it helped change things," says Hill, a senior buyer for the El Paso Natural Gas Company. "It showed that five black guys could play with discipline. John Wooden said we were one of the most disciplined teams he had ever seen."
The Atlantic Coast Conference had been integrated -- Billy Jones had been a freshman at Maryland that year, and Pete Johnson was redshirted by the Terrapins -- but the victory by the Miners made some coaches at big-time, predominantly Southern schools change their recruiting tactics.
Haskins said: "I wasn't aware of it [the impact] when it happened. Had they beaten us, it would have taken longer for blacks to be recruited."
Charlie Scott became a star at North Carolina, and others followed him down Tobacco Road. It took a while for Kentucky and the Southeastern Conference to catch up with the times. Rupp didn't recruit a black player until four years later, when he signed 7-footer Tom Payne. But young black players throughout the South realized that they could stay close to home.
Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who had played for Haskins at Texas Western a few years before the NCAA championship game, said of his former coach, "To me, he's the guy who opened the doors, not only for black players but for black coaches. What he did took a big guy with a big heart."
Not to mention a thick skin. For a few months afterward, Haskins received sacks of hate mail from those who accused him of ruining the game. "About 40,000 pieces," says Eddie Mullens, then and now the school's sports information director. "They delivered them in 55-gallon containers."
Billy Jones, a former coach at the University of Maryland Baltimore County who works in private industry in Orlando, Fla., watched the 1966 game from the stands at Cole Field House. Like the players on the court, he saw no great social significance in the black-vs.-white-theme as he did in something else.
"It was the first time that style won over substance," says Jones, a resource manager at Martin Marietta. "It put some juice in the game."
Texas Western, which a year later changed its name to the University of Texas-El Paso, could not sustain its success. Although the Miners were a young team -- Artis was the only senior to start -- they struggled at times the next season.
Hill got married shortly after the Final Four, left school and went to work. Shed had used his eligibility because he had played as a freshman at another school. Others just lost their focus. The Miners finished 22-8 and were upset in the second round of the NCAA tournament by Pacific.
"Once you get to the top, there's no place else to go but down," says Lattin, who became the team's star and later played nine seasons of pro basketball. "We lost some key players. We only lost eight games, but we really struggled. Everyone was shooting for us."
Nine of the 12 players went on to receive their degrees, which, until Riley went back to graduate at Kentucky, was one more than the Wildcats. Most of the players on both teams have done well professionally, and, with the exception of Texas Western's Willie Cager, who suffered a stroke six years ago, have stayed in relatively good health.
It wasn't merely coincidence that both teams held silver anniversary reunions this year, several weeks apart. It was the second for the Miners, who had done the same thing five years ago, and the first for the Wildcats.
Last week -- a day before the NCAA tournament returned to Cole Field House for the first time in 14 years -- a plaque was presented in honor of the 1966 championship game.
This week, when the Final Four comes to Indianapolis, there will be no talk about the racial makeup of the teams. Then again, nothing much was said, on or off the court, on a spring night in College Park a quarter century ago.
"We felt we had something to prove, but not because of the color of our skin," Lattin says.
"Nothing was said on the court," Riley says. "It was two teams that respected each other."
But it became much more.
Where are they now?
A look at where the starters for the two teams involved in the 1966 NCAA title game are:
! Texas Western
Bobby Joe Hill, El Paso, Texas, senior buyer for gas company.
Willie Cager, El Paso, Texas, teacher.
Orsten Artis, Gary, Ind., police detective.
David Lattin, Houston, public relations for a liquor distributor.
Willie Worsley, Pomona, N.Y., deputy director of school for mentally handicapped.
Pat Riley, Los Angeles, basketball television analyst.
Larry Conley, Atlanta, basketball television announcer.
Tommy Kron, Pittsburgh, bank employee.
Louie Dampier, Louisville, Ky., runs video distributorship, coaches AAU team.
Thad Jaracz, Louisville, Ky., retired from military, works for Humana.
The box score
9/Kentucky.. ..Min..FG.. .FT.. Reb..A..PF.. .Pts
Dampier.. ...40.. 7-18.. 5-5.. 9...1..4.. .19
Kron.. .. .. 33.. 3-6.. .0-0.. 7...3..2.. ..6
Conley.. .. .35.. 4-9.. 2-2... 8.. 1..5.. ..10
Riley.. .. ..40.. 8-22.. 3-4.. 4.. 1..4.. ..19
Jaracz.. .. .28.. 3-8.. .1-2.. 5.. 0..5.. .. 7
Berger.. .. .12.. 2-3... 0-0.. 0.. 0..0.. .. 4
Tallent.. ... 7.. 0-3.. .0-0.. 0.. 0..1.. .. 0
LeMaster.. .. 3.. 0-1.. .0-0.. 0.. 0..1.. .. 0
Gamble.. .. ..2.. 0-0.. .0-0.. 0.. 0..1.. .. 0
Totals.. .. 200..27-70..11-13. 33..6.23.. ..65
Percentages: FG -- .386; FT -- .846. Turnovers: 16 (Dampier 6, Kron 5, Riley 2, Jaracz 2, Tallent 1).
Tex. West.. .Min..FG.. .FT.. Reb..A..PF.. Pts.
Hill.. .. ...40...7-17..6-9.. .3..3.. 3... 20
Artis.. .. ..40...5-13..5-5.. .8..0.. 1.. .15
Lattin.. .. .32.. 5-10..6-6.. .9..0.. 4.. .16
Cager.. .. ..30.. 1-3.. 6-7.. .6..0.. 3.. ..8
Worsley.. ...40.. 2-4.. 4-6.. .4..1.. 0.. ..8
Shed.. .. .. 12.. 1-1.. 1-1.. .3..0.. 1.. ..3
Flournoy.. .. 6.. 1-1.. 0-0.. .2..0.. 0.. ..2
Totals.. .. 200. 22-49.28-34..35..4..12.... 72
Percentages: FG -- .449; FT -- .824. Turnovers: 18 (Hill 6, Worsley 6, Cager 3, Shed 2, Artis 1). Halftime: Texas Western, 34-31. A: 14,254.