This is the ninth post in our ongoing series of the Top 10 What Ifs in college basketball history.
Texas Western’s victory over Kentucky in 1966 was an important watershed moment in sports in this country, but it had much greater impact on America than just basketball.
The game happened right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and completely changed how most Americans viewed the sport.
Kentucky had beaten Texas Western in the NCAA Championship Game?
Much has been written on the game. It has been documented in print, on film, and through oral history.
And it should be well-documented. The game, the moment, was that important.
With all that said, the purpose of these “what if” articles is to travel down the road and guess at what could have happened if the event had unfolded differently. In no way do I want to trivialize the cultural and historical impact that Texas Western’s victory had on college basketball and America in general.
Again, these are hypotheticals. It’s a great thing that Kentucky didn’t beat Texas Western. But it could have happened.
And that’s what makes it our #2 “What If” on the list.
We would remember Adolph Rupp completely differently.
No matter how you slice it, Rupp goes down as one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.
- Four national titles.
- 876 wins (4th all time).
- 82% winning percentage (2nd all time).
However, to this day, he is nearly universally vilified and criticized (except in the state of Kentucky of course) for his backwards philosophies. In fact, if you type “Adolph Rupp” into google, “Adolph Rupp racist” is the second suggested search to come up, which shows how popular the sentiment is.
As it is now, we remember Rupp for refusing to recruit black players until his AD absolutely forced him to do so. We remember how bitter he was over the loss to Texas Western and all of their “ineligible players” (his words, not mine).
How Texas Western achieved its victory, specifically its all-black starting lineup juxtaposed against Kentucky’s all-white roster, set up Rupp as the bad guy. He was the unsympathetic figure that was stuck in the past and blatantly wrong. The rest of the country could move forward and leave the grumpy old man in the past.
Had Kentucky won, not only would Rupp have added another championship to his resume, but his ideology would have been vindicated, and he may have never recruited a black player for the rest of his coaching career. And he would have been…right (in the eyes of many).
Instead, his legacy is forever tarnished, and it actually set up this next guy as the new American hero…
The UCLA dynasty may not have been received the same way either.
John Wooden and his teams, on the other hand, are pretty much untouchable today.
You could search the internet for a long time before you found anybody that had anything negative (other than jealous haters) to say about UCLA, Coach Wooden, and the way they dominated basketball in the late 60s and early 70s.
It’s easy to think of the UCLA Bruins as a squeaky clean program that had no blemishes or reasons to despise it (obviously this was before the Ben Howland era), but a closer look at the program finds some things that may not have been glossed over had Texas Western not set America down the right path.
Before Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Hazzard had changed his name to Mahdi Abdul-Rahman. Let’s just say that America wasn’t exactly the most “Muslim-friendly” nation in the 70s and 80s; just ask Muhammad Ali.
Concerning Alcindor, while college basketball had seen its fair share of fantastic African-American athletes (Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson to name a few), no black athlete’s star had ever shown as brightly as Alcindor’s did at UCLA. Without the Texas Western victory in 1966, Alcindor’s teams from ’67-’69 may not have been received as openly as what they were.
But because Texas Western pulled out the victory, and John Wooden happened to be the guy that openly accepted black athletes, Wooden became the coach who was right…not Adolph Rupp.
Had Rupp’s Wildcats won in ’66, Wooden and the Bruins may be remembered completely differently.
The racial ramifications can’t possibly be over-stated.
I realize this angle has been repeated ad nauseum (with good reason), but to ignore it would be asinine.
While John Wooden had been supportive of black players all the way since 1947 when he coached at Indiana State, this was not the general consensus.
In 2012, it’s hard to really understand what uninformed and offensive people were actually thinking back in 1966, but let me just give you two quotes from newspapers leading up to the game:
- “They can do everything with the basketball but sign it.” ~ former West Virginia and Lakers star, Rod Hundley
- “The Miners, who don’t worry much about defense but try to pour the ball through the hoop as much as possible, will present quite a challenge to Kentucky. The running, gunning Texas quintet can do more things with a basketball than a monkey on a 50-foot jungle wire.” ~ The Sun’s James H. Jackson.
If those disgusting ideas don’t send chills down your spine, I don’t know what will.
It didn’t matter that more of Texas Western’s starters graduated from college than their counterparts from Kentucky.
It also didn’t matter that it was Texas Western that played the methodical, slow-it-down style of play – they held opponents to an average of 62 points per game, while Kentucky averaged almost 90 points as Pat Riley and his teammates ran people off the floor. Stereotypes were stereotypes, and nothing else could possibly be true.
Before the game, the “facts” were that every team needed at least one white guy on the floor in order to keep “the blacks” from going out of control. Fortunately for us all, Texas Western won 72-65 and opened our eyes and minds to the idea that basketball didn’t have to be a purely white man’s game.
It’s fun to mythologize the Fab Five, Larry Johnson’s UNLV team, and John Thompson’s Georgetown dynasty as the teams that led the real racial breakthroughs in college basketball. However, the fact is that without Texas Western’s important victory over Adolph Rupp and Kentucky, none of the previous teams may have ever been given a chance.
Of all the what ifs, this is the one that makes me the happiest to say…boy am I glad that it happened the way it did.
Top 10 College Basketball What Ifs of All-Time Series (All)
10. What if Hank Gathers hadn’t died in the middle of a game?
9. What if Christian Laettner had been suspended for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
8. What if Houston hadn’t been upset by NC State?
7. What if the NCAA rules had been different for Pete Maravich?
6. What if Chris Webber hadn’t called timeout?
5. What if Gordon Hayward’s shot hadn’t rimmed out?
4. What if Coach K had been fired from Duke after 3 seasons?
3. What if LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?
2. What if Kentucky had beaten Texas Western?
1. What if there wasn’t a snow storm to keep John Wooden from going to Minnesota?