ON FURTHER REVIEW: The Baron and the Bear

The 1966 NCAA men’s basketball championship game, in which a Texas Western College squad that started five black players shocked the world by beating the all-white and heavily favored University of Kentucky Wildcats, has been called a watershed moment in American sports and even “the Emancipation Proclamation of the civil rights movement.” But the milestone status that the title game enjoys today flew under the radar of many back then, David Kingsley Snell writes in his new book, “The Baron and the Bear: Rupp’s Runts, Haskins’s Miners, and the Season That Changed Basketball Forever.”

Snell, a former Associated Press correspondent, strives to scrape off layers of mythology that have coated the memory of that legendary contest and to tell a more nuanced story. Relying on contemporaneous news accounts and abundant interviews with former players and staff, and employing a highly readable, breezy reportorial style, he acquits himself admirably.

At a time when most Division I colleges fielded predominantly white players, and D-I programs in the Deep South recruited no black players, the ’66 season finale represented a tipping point in intercollegiate sports, Snell says.

And while “The Baron and the Bear” thoroughly delves into the racial angle of the season, it also offers a feast for basketball geeks. It’s a must-read for college hoops fans who obsess over X’s and O’s, those who’ll be fascinated by Snell’s account of the contrasting styles of the two teams (Kentucky’s high-octane approach vs. the deliberate, pass-first offense of Texas Western) and the defensive schemes they employed.

Additionally, the book provides many intriguing examples of what life was like on the road for college ballplayers a half-century ago.

In alternating chapters, Snell follows the fortunes of each team throughout the season. Neither had made the top 10 in the preseason rankings, but as the wins mounted, both rose steadily in the national rankings, with the Wildcats ending up at #1 and the Miners at #3.

The big story that year in Kentucky was whether legendary head coach Adolph Rupp, who had already bagged four championships (but none since 1958), would ever again stand atop the college basketball mountain.

Rupp, “the Baron of the Bluegrass,” was tackling what Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford had called “the only challenge left, trying to top himself.” Kentucky’s starters, including future NBAers Pat Riley and Louis Dampier, were dubbed “Rupp’s Runts” because not one stood taller than 6’5”. However, their relentless fast-breaking style made them a fearsome opponent for most teams at that time.

“The Bear” was Don Haskins, head coach of the much less heralded Miners of Texas Western (now known as the University of Texas-El Paso). The younger coach had made a fateful decision two years earlier: To ignore the unwritten rule against using too many African American players at once and to start the best five players he had regardless of race.

Nonetheless, the book makes a strong case that Rupp and Haskins were more alike than different. Both coaches exercised dictatorial control over brutally exhausting practices, and neither encouraged chummy relations with his players.

Snell provides abundant evidence of how different the mid-’60s sports landscape was from today’s. Emblematic of the racism of the time was the “gentlemen’s agreement” that governed collegiate hoops. Coaches at predominantly white D-I schools tacitly agreed to play no more than a certain number of blacks at any given time: “two at home, three on the road, and four when you’re behind.” In any event, it was “common knowledge,” Snell says, that no team that started five African American players could be successful; a team would need at least one white player to serve as the “glue” to bind an undisciplined group of blacks.

However, “[t]he glue for Haskins was preparation and the character of his players,” according to Snell. “They had discipline and grace under pressure with or without a white player on the floor.”

Texas Western’s black starting five “often fueled latent racism” on the road, Snell writes. But Haskins refused to acknowledge the vitriol spewed by vicious crowds during games in the Deep South, seeking to set an example for his players.

In the final four, Kentucky was widely deemed to be a shoo-in for the title after winning its semifinal matchup with #2 Duke. Texas Western, which had achieved just as much regular-season success as Rupp’s team, was an afterthought to most observers. Snell shows, however, that the era’s powerful undercurrent of racism wasn’t far from many people’s minds.

On the eve of the championship game, the Baltimore Sun didn’t mention ethnicity but invoked racist stereotypes, saying, “The running, gunning Texas quintet can do more things with the basketball than a monkey on a 50-foot jungle wire.”

Among the few sportswriters who did play up the Final Four’s racial angle was SI’s Deford, who had called it “noteworthy” that all the Texas Western regulars were black whereas both potential title opponents—Duke and Kentucky—had only white players. It was “unfortunate,” Deford wrote, that “some ethnics, both white and negro, are already referring to the prospective national final as not just a game but a contest for racial honors.”

Although legend, and the movie Glory Road, tell us that on the eve of the title contest Haskins told his squad he had decided to play only black players, Snell considers the story apocryphal.

Regardless of the two teams’ feelings about the racial aspects of the championship game, though, the crowd packing the University of Maryland’s basketball arena was a “vast sea of white,” Snell notes. However, he says, “If there were racial taunts from the Cole Field House crowd that night, nobody noticed.”

Once the game got underway, it became obvious Haskins’s players were anything but the undisciplined, no-defense gunners some had painted them to be, Snell says. With Texas Western up by 3 at the half, Rupp was beside himself. Years later SI’s Deford would allege that the Kentucky coach barked, “You’ve got to beat these coons,” but no one in the Wildcats’ locker room remembered him saying it.

The contest was tight most of the way, but the Miners led virtually the entire game and ultimately prevailed 72-65. Late that evening, Rupp was heard to tell his players, “You boys were part of something that’s world changing tonight.”

For their part, the Texas Western players weren’t thinking about the historical significance of the game afterward, Snell says. “At that moment none of the Miners could have imagined how their win would change basketball,” he writes.

In the post-game press conference, neither coach was asked a single race-related question, according to Snell. “In retrospect, history had been made, but it would be years before the game would be recognized as an important event in the struggle for civil rights in America,” he says.

The book makes a compelling case that Texas Western’s win was a seminal moment in college sports. It “precipitated a very gradual change in the recruiting practices of previously segregated colleges,” Snell explains. “If schools were going to be competitive, the barriers that walled out African American athletes would have to be breached.”

Despite the protestations of UK players and staff, Sports Illustrated’s 25th-year anniversary article about the ’66 title game painted Rupp as a racist, a reputation that dogs his legacy today. But Snell persuasively argues in an epilogue that this characterization is unfair.

“Adolph Rupp was a man of his times who never posed as anything but a basketball coach with an insatiable appetite for winning,” he writes. Contemporaneous accounts of the championship game made little or no mention of race, he notes, and “perhaps more important, not a single person who spent any time around Rupp during his forty-two-year coaching career believes the racist charge.”

While Rupp may have dragged his feet in recruiting black players, “here context is essential,” Snell says. In those days African Americans were barred from most hotels and restaurants in the Deep South, and crowds in that region were virulently racist. (Indeed, another Southeastern Conference champion had opted out of the NCAA tournament rather than take the court against blacks.) An effort by UK’s president in 1961 to enable SEC schools to recruit black players “was soundly defeated” and prompted other colleges in the conference to threaten to drop Kentucky from their schedules.

Nonetheless, even before 1966 Rupp had taken steps in the direction of integrating his program, including hiring a black coach as an assistant, Snell notes. He had also sought guidance about breaking the color barrier from Branch Rickey, who had integrated Major League Baseball by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers. And Rupp had attempted in 1964 to recruit future NBA star Wes Unseld to be his own Jackie Robinson, prompting death threats and fierce resistance from Wildcats boosters. (Unseld declined the offer, some say out of concern for his own safety.)

In fact, it was Rupp’s standoffishness with all recruits—black or white—that may have posed the biggest stumbling block to that effort, Snell suggests. “His inability to relate to players on a personal level played an important, sometimes decisive, role when it came to recruiting a black player to become his Jackie Robinson,” he writes.

While Rupp has been criticized for failing to use the power he had to push for change, “the same might be said of all presidents before Lincoln and all Baptist ministers before Martin Luther King,” says Snell.

And ironically, Texas Western coach Haskins “underwent his own time in cultural purgatory for the alleged sin of ‘exploitation,’” Snell notes. He was pilloried in the press for allegedly taking advantage of black athletes’ prowess before casting them aside once their eligibility was up. Members of his ’66 squad strongly deny that charge, however.

The personalities and motivations of the two head coaches aside, though, it was the outcome of the championship game that ultimately mattered. “By beating mighty Kentucky, tiny Texas Western helped to destroy invidious stereotypes about black athletes and open the door to their greater participation in colleges and universities across the country,” Snell says. “It also sounded the death knell for whites-only athletics, long considered essential to maintaining the southern way of life.”

An inevitable tidal wave of change had arrived, and the monumental impact of this “history-bending game” is apparent throughout collegiate sports to this day. Snell’s book is an invaluable account of the earthquake that triggered that tsunami.

***

Mike Moore is a lifelong ACC basketball fan who was raised in the Church of Dean Smith. You can follow him on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *