March Madness fans will remember the 2020 tournament as the competition that never happened. In stark contrast, the final game of the 1966 NCAA Tournament holds a place in civil rights history. NBA Hall of Fame Coach Pat Riley played a key role in the historic matchup that’s been immortalized in movies and books. He took a moment to reflect on its impact on college sports.
Kentucky vs. Texas Western
On March 19, 1966, fans packed Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland, to watch the matchup between Kentucky and Texas Western. They quickly realized it would not be an ordinary game of basketball when five white Wildcats and five black Miners stepped on the court.
It turned out to be one of the greatest nights in the history of college sports. Unusual for its time, the NCAA broadcast the game in black and white on TV, as the New York Times reports. The Wildcats were the favorite to win, despite the Miners’ 23-0 season.
Kentucky’s well-regarded coach, Adolph Rupp, was known for being racist. He was also certain his team would secure the championship. Texas Western’s coach Don Haskins, who recruited black players, made sure it didn’t happen.
Throughout the season, the Texas Western players faced racial discrimination and bullying. Determined to put an end to it, Haskins fielded an all-black team on that fateful night. Their tenacity paid off, and Texas Western won the game 72 – 65.
Coach Rupp’s racist comments
In the ’60s, many people believed black men would not be able to handle the pressure of playing at a collegiate level. Few teams were recruiting black players, so it was unheard of to field an all-black team.
Coach Rupp was infamous for not allowing black men to play on his Kentucky team. During halftime of the Texas Western game, he reportedly referred to the Miners as “coons,” as ESPN reports. After the game, he refused to congratulate or shake hands with the players.
Equality in the NCAA
After Texas Western secured the win, white Kentucky fans, who had been waving Confederate flags, sat speechless. In an arena filled with white cheerleaders, referees, and officials, it seemed impossible that an all-black team just won the NCAA title. Riley referred to the night as “the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966.”
At the game’s end, Rupp was defeated and humiliated by the loss, reports the Washington Post. The following season, several college teams started to integrate. Black players were no longer taboo, and basketball was never the same. Athletic directors began changing recruiting practices, and talent became more prevalent than race.
Pat Riley recalls the historic moment
A member of Rupp’s top-ranked all-white team, Riley scored 19 points for Kentucky that night. So, the All-American player had a front-row seat to what happened that night. Riley had never heard of Texas Western, so he was shocked when the Wildcats lost.
Afterward, he realized he hadn’t shaken hands with his worthy opponents. Riley worked his way into the Texas Western locker room on his own and remembers seeing pure joy, as USA Today details.
Now-President of the Miami Heat, Riley explained, “I just went immediately, quickly through there, said what I had to say and left them to have their moment. And what they did that night has resonated for 50 years since.”