UTEP Plans ‘Once-in-a-Lifetime’ Celebration for ’66 Champions

Members of the Texas Western College (TWC) men’s basketball team that won the 1966 national championship will be honored during The University of Texas at El Paso men’s basketball game against Western Kentucky University at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016, in UTEP’s Don Haskins Center.

“There will be some tear-jerk moments and others that will stand your hair up,” said Chris Park, UTEP associate athletic director and the event’s lead organizer. “It will be a special game. Everything is tied to the historical significance of this team, top to bottom. It will be an awesome tribute.”

The contest between the Miners and the Hilltoppers will include special introductions of the 1966 players, an exceptional halftime recognition, and commemorative video tributes from national figures throughout the contest. Each fan will receive an orange or blue T-shirt with the 50th anniversary logo and 50 fans will leave with basketballs autographed by members of the 1966 team.

Nike has designed custom team warm-ups for the occasion and provided the players with special edition shoes. The Miners and Hilltoppers, who also were part of the ’66 NCAA basketball tournament, will wear “throwback” uniforms. Tickets for this historic celebration start at $15.

The ’66 team, which was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007, is acknowledged for its role in opening more opportunities for African-American student athletes. It was the first time that five black players started at an NCAA championship basketball game.

The Miners were led by future Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins, who often said he started his best players and his only motivation was to win the game against the heavily favored and all-white University of Kentucky Wildcats. The Miners won the game, 72-65, on March 19, 1966, in Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park.

The special Feb. 6 recognition has generated community and national interest. The County of El Paso will issue a proclamation on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016, recognizing the ’66 team, and the City of El Paso will offer a resolution three weeks later.

Businesses and school districts are encouraged to participate in an Orange Friday on Feb. 5, 2016, by wearing orange to show their support. Fox Sports 1 plans to do a 30-minute pre-game show from the arena, and CBS Sports Network will tape a panel discussion Feb. 5 that will be part of a special video package to be broadcast nationally later this winter.

“In 1966 we changed the face of intercollegiate athletics, at least in men’s basketball,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “For the past 30 years we have focused on changing the face of higher education, at least on our campus, and we are extremely proud that today’s UTEP student demographics mirror those of the surrounding region.

Like Coach Haskins, we didn’t set out to make a national statement either, but we ended up making one simply because we did our best to fulfill UTEP’s mission of creating educational opportunities for residents of this historically underserved U.S.-Mexico border region.”

The 1966 players are making their best effort to be part of what organizers are calling a “once-in-a-lifetime event.” Many will participate in a Feb. 4 media day and other associated activities. Also expected to attend are the team’s assistant coach Henry “Moe” Iba and Eddie Mullens, TWC’s sports information director.

“It is an honor that people still call me after 50 years and want to talk about that experience,” said Willie Worsley, a TWC sophomore guard who started in the championship game. The Spring Valley (New York) High School coach said he plans to participate in the Feb. 6 festivities.

Longtime UTEP fan Jimmy Rogers Jr., who attended the 1966 championship contest, will be among the dignitaries to welcome the team on the court on Feb. 6. He was ecstatic about the effort to celebrate the team.

“(Haskins) had his kids confident,” said Rogers, a retired El Paso business leader who recalled sitting about 15 rows above the hardwood floor of Cole Field House. “Being part of that was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. It was quite a thrill.”

Charles Martin, Ph.D., UTEP professor of history, said that the passage of time often heightens the significance of events. He said celebrations such as the 50th anniversary of the ’66 victory become more important as participants grow older.

Martin suggested that the team’s recognition from books, the 2006 “Glory Road” movie, and the election to the Hall of Fame served as ways to address the national race issue.

“It’s a way of saying ‘Look how far we have come,’” said Martin, author of “Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980.” “It’s a sign that we’ve moved on and come to accept our history.”

Aside from the game, the community can relive the team’s accomplishment by visiting “The Road to Glory,” a commemorative exhibit open from Tuesday, Jan. 19, through Friday, Feb. 26, 2016, in the Union Gallery on the second floor of Union Building East. Items come from UTEP’s Heritage House and UTEP alumni who have loaned pieces such as posters, newspaper clippings and autographed basketballs from their personal collections.

The University also will screen two related films on Wednesday, Feb. 3, in the Union Cinema in Union Building East. The free shows will begin at 6 p.m. with the award-winning 2002 documentary “And the Wheels Turned: The 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship” by UTEP’s Cotton Productions. The 2006 Disney film, “Glory Road,” based on Texas Western’s 1966 championship season, will be shown at 7 p.m.

The exhibit and movie screenings were organized by UTEP’s Office of Student Life.

Author: Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications

UTEP Communications Manager Lauren Macias-Cervantes contributed to this story.