In the 1966 NCAA basketball championship game, an all-white University of Kentucky team was beaten by a team from Texas Western College (now UTEP) that fielded only black players. The game, played in the middle of the racially turbulent 1960s—part David and Goliath in short pants, part emancipation proclamation of college basketball—helped destroy stereotypes about black athletes. Filled with revealing anecdotes, The Baron and the Bear is the story of two intensely passionate coaches and the teams they led through the ups and downs of a college basketball season. In the twilight of his legendary career, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (“The Baron of the Bluegrass”) was seeking his fifth NCAA championship. Texas Western’s Don Haskins (“The Bear” to his players) had been coaching at a small West Texas high school just five years before the championship. After this history-making game, conventional wisdom that black players lacked the discipline to win without a white player to lead began to dissolve. Northern schools began to abandon unwritten quotas limiting the number of blacks on the court at one time. Southern schools, where athletics had always been a whites-only activity, began a gradual move toward integration. David Kingsley Snell brings the season to life, offering fresh insights on the teams, the coaches, and the impact of the game on race relations in America.
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About the Author
David Kingsley Snell was a correspondent for ABC News covering everything from the Vietnam War to presidential campaigns to Apollo lunar missions. He is the author of Mike Fright: How to Succeed in Media Interviews When Mike Wallace Comes Calling. Nolan Richardson played for Texas Western under Don Haskins from 1961 to 1963. The first African American coach at a major southern university, he had a Hall of Fame coaching career at the University of Arkansas from 1985 to 2002 and led the Razorbacks to a national championship in 1994.
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The Baron & the Bear
Rupp's Runts, Haskins's Miners, and the Season That Changed Basketball Forever
By David Kingsley Snell
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 David Kingsley Snell
All rights reserved.
A Drop of Water
Adolph Rupp looked down at the handsome watch he'd just been given and shook his head. He didn't need another watch. What he needed almost more than life itself was a fifth national championship. An hour ago that still seemed possible. That was before the Texas Western Miners pulled off what came to be known as the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. Now, as the team bus made its way through the flickering lights of late-night traffic from Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland to their hotel in Silver Spring, Rupp and his team were in a daze.
Later, Adolph would say in an interview, "They beat us fair and square." What he said now, in the quiet of the bus, was "Harry, this looks like a nice watch, but I'm not going to wear the damn thing because every time I'd wear it, I'd be thinking about this fucking game."
Everyone on the bus that night — players, coaches, and one student manager — had been given identical watches as mementos of their Final Four experience. Gold, waterproof, shock-resistant Bulova watches, each with the inscription NCAA Basketball Finalist 1966. While the watch represented failure to Rupp, for his team it was a reminder of the Rupp's Runts season and that day in late November when the prospects of a successful season seemed bleak.
Coach Rupp was standing in a low crouch, staring at the center circle.
"GET ME A GODDAMN TOWEL," he growled, in a voice that was part southern and part Kansas twang.
"THERE'S A GODDAMN DROP OF WATER ON THE FLOOR."
A student manager dropped to his knees and toweled up the offending drop.
"Must be a leak in the goddamn ceiling," Rupp said, looking skyward. "'Cause none of these sonsabitches are playing hard enough to work up any kind of a sweat."
Practice had been lethargic. The White Shirt Team, supposedly Rupp's best five, was moving up and down the floor in a funk, like zombies in a slow-motion movie. It was as if they were already drowsy from tomorrow's turkey dinner. The Blue Team — substitutes in Rupp's limited rotation — wasn't much better. Everybody was looking forward to the traditional Thanksgiving break. It didn't happen.
On the sideline Coach Rupp was fuming the way he always did when practices were sluggish. With his freshly starched khaki shirt and pants and black high-top Converse All-Star basketball shoes, balding with a hook nose and a potbelly spread that strained his belt and blood pressure, he could have passed for one of the janitors anywhere else. This wasn't anywhere else. This was Memorial Coliseum, on the campus of the University of Kentucky. Here he was the Man, the indefatigable, infallible pope of the state's true religion. Idealized in Kentucky, Adolph Frederick Rupp was known wherever the game was played as the winningest coach since James Naismith hung a peach basket in that Massachusetts YMCA.
"All right, hold it!" he called out, bringing things to a halt.
That started a routine his players knew very well. Coach walked across the floor — his belly bouncing along, a scowl on his face — to check the stats, the way he always did. The players lined up to shoot free throws, the way they always did. The student managers scrambled to make sure everyone had a ball, the way they always did. That was when the normal routine of the closely choreographed Rupp practice veered into a different dimension. Digging deep into his formidable arsenal of scatological invective, Coach Rupp called that single drop of water every name in the book. "A goddamn drop of water. Shit, damn sonofabitchin' water. Where the hell did it come from? Jesus H. Christ, a fucking drop of water right here in the middle of the coliseum. Goddamn it all to hell."
Words used on the water were reused with added venom on this team of miscreants who'd been weighed in Adolph's inestimable balance and found wanting, worthy of condemnation by God, country, and, most especially, the Big Blue Nation, Kentucky's fan base that was the biggest and most loyal in the country.
For the past several years there had been talk that Adolph Rupp was losing his touch. The headline in one Kentucky paper put it bluntly: "One SEC Title in Past Seven Years! A Clue to Cage Decline at Kentucky." Rupp, they wrote, was a "basketball anachronism" and suggested that he confine his animal interest to livestock (he bred prize Hereford cattle) rather than Wildcats. Since this was essentially the same team that struggled through the previous season with a mediocre 15-10 record, there was cause for concern.
All across the SEC, teams like Georgia, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt had twin-tower forwards and sky-scraping centers. Rupp had Thad Jaracz (rhymes with "Harris"), a six-foot-five sophomore about to get his first varsity playing time as the team's center. Larry Conley and Pat Riley were six feet three, Tommy Kron six feet five, Louie Dampier six feet even. It was beginning to seem possible this could be the first losing team since Rupp arrived at the University of Kentucky from Illinois's Freeport High School in 1930. Coach Rupp didn't think so. "You're going to read a lot of stories about how you're not going to be very good," he told the team in an uncharacteristic courtside homily on the first day of practice. "Don't believe that. You're going to be very good. I'm going to get things out of you that you don't know you have in you."
From the start Rupp upped the ante with first-ever double practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They were practicing seven days a week, but, somehow, it just wasn't working. Since October 15 good practices following bad ones must have had Rupp feeling like Sisyphus, condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up the mountain only to have it fall back of its own weight.
Now he looked at the stat sheet. "You sonsabitches ever play this game before? Dampier: turnover. Kron: turnover. Goddamn it, Jaracz, think you could go get a rebound? Just one? Hell, my grandma can block out better than that." Ripping the damning evidence into tiny pieces, he threw it over his shoulder and stomped back across the floor, giving the now dry spot in the center circle another glare and a few more expletives. "All right, let's go."
Over his thirty-six years as Kentucky's coach there had been countless times when a Rupp Rant worked its magic. Not this time. This time the scrimmage was getting uglier by the minute. Rupp's face was flushed, and his hands were balled up into tight fists, red on the outside, white in his blood-starved palms.
On the floor the White Team was stuck in the mud, while the Blue Team, rising to the occasion, looked like All-Americans on a romp. Their defense was stifling, their offense whirring along like a finely tuned instrument. It went on that way for five, ten, fifteen minutes, with the coach becoming increasingly agitated. Suddenly, there was a loud crash, and everybody turned toward the sound. Coach Rupp had picked up the front row of seats — three folding chairs with padded seats and backs — and hurled them into the stands.
"None of you sonsabitches are getting any goddamn turkey tomorrow." He paused for the reaction he knew wouldn't come. In a Rupp practice players didn't talk. Ever. "Thanksgiving be damned, you're staying right here on campus, running your asses off until you learn to play this fucking game."
While Rupp was being hyperbolic, on some level everybody in the gym that day understood that he was dramatizing an essential truth: his players weren't fully committed to the level of effort required for them to become the team he envisioned. Rupp had his virtuosos. He had Louis Dampier and Pat Riley, who were big scorers. He had Tommy Kron, whose height made him a matchup nightmare for opposing guards. He had Thad Jaracz, who was proving himself capable of running the court and pounding the boards. And he had Larry Conley, one of the best passers of his era. There was the potential for beautiful music, but heading into that Thanksgiving weekend it was, to quote the biblical definition of faith, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen."CHAPTER 2
"No Good, Even If It Goes!"
"Coach, I've been invited to have dinner with one of the local families," said an anxious freshman the Monday before Thanksgiving 1961, Haskins's first year as coach of the Texas Western Miners. "When will we be practicing on Thanksgiving?" "Nine, one, and six," growled the Bear, a nickname he earned because of his hulking size and often grizzly disposition.
That was how it was for Texas Western roundballers. As long as Haskins was coach, his teams enjoyed (endured) three-a-day Thanksgivings, without complaint. "I was too tired to eat anybody's turkey," said Nevil Shed, a six-eight forward on the championship team. And if anybody thought to complain (and nobody ever did), the Bear had a ready response. He was actually going easy on his players. During what he referred to as "four years of hell" playing for "Mr. Iba," as he called Oklahoma A&M coach Henry "Hank" Iba, Thanksgiving was always celebrated with four practices. Otherwise, Haskins's practices were perfect replicas of the ones he'd suffered under Iba in the early 1950s. Defense, defense, defense, with no water breaks.
Where Adolph Rupp had his team running and rerunning offensive drills, Haskins concentrated on defense. Two, three, up to four hours each practice, his teams worked on his meticulous defensive strategy: a helping man-to-man. You denied your opponent the baseline and the sideline and turned everyone into the middle of the court. "The defense was like a zone," said David Lattin, the six-foot-six center on the championship team, "but it wasn't a zone because you followed your man through." Follow is too soft a word. A Haskins player learned to fight through screens. You didn't switch. You didn't go behind. You fought your way through. "He had rigid, specific rules," said Steve Tredennick, a point guard who graduated a year before the big game. "You followed them or you sat."
The Haskins defense sounds simple enough. Making it work was a matter of repetition; tedious, mind-numbing repetition. It was the same thing over and over and over again. The physical demands were one thing; young guys were used to running. The mental fatigue was worse. It was boring, monotonous, demanding.
"No, no, no!" Haskins would shout two steps into the drill. "Do it again." The drills were designed to program minds and muscle memory. When the ball went to one side or the other, players away from the ball — on the weak side — had to adjust. "Your reaction had to be without thought," said Tredennick. "It had to just happen. If you had to stop and think, you were too late." Little by little, with repetition after repetition, "and somebody constantly yelling at you, all of a sudden, it just becomes part of your deal." When Haskins stopped one drill and switched to another, his players knew the Bear was finally satisfied.
And if your man beat you, there was always someone there to help. If an opponent drove into the middle, he was driving into a gauntlet. There was going to be a foul, and it was going to be the kind of foul that would make him think long and hard about whether he really wanted to go in there a second time.
Looking back, Haskins's players talk of "the joy" of watching the flow of a helping man-to-man much as ballet impresario George Balanchine might have referred to a perfectly executed Nutcracker or Swan Lake. It was a beautiful thing to watch. An opponent would drive into the middle, and the helping defense would close in, meaning there had to be somebody open. There had to be ... somebody ... but ... he couldn't find him.
"I think Coach Haskins loved practices more than games," said Fred Schwake, a student trainer on the team who would go on to a career as a trainer in the National Football League. "In games he had to mess with officials, he had to worry about time-outs, he had to worry about fouls and substitutions. In scrimmages he coached both teams, made all the substitutions he wanted to, and didn't have to worry about fouls or officials. He controlled the whole thing."
With Haskins offense seemed almost an afterthought, which came as something of a surprise for the New Yorkers on the team. Nevil Shed recalls the moment when he and six-foot-five Willie Cager arrived in El Paso, meeting Coach Haskins for the first time. "The heat and wind said whoosh!" as they stepped down from the plane. "Coming through the dust toward us was this hulking bear of a man [Haskins] and [assistant coach] Moe Iba." It was like a scene from a spaghetti western. "Grab your luggage," said Haskins. "Let's go down to the gym and see what you can do."
Unaware at the time of NCAA rules regarding practice time, the Bear was holding a full-scale August workout. "I got the ball off the backboard and took off dribbling," Shed recalls, only to be brought up short. "He was yelling at me — 'Ah, Shed. We don't sprint down the floor like a wild man. We pass the ball.' I thought the guy was crazy."
It was a new kind of basketball for Shed, Cager, and another kid from the Bronx who would join the team the following year, Willie Worsley. In New York you ran, ran, ran. In El Paso, if you wanted to play for the Bear, your offensive pace needed to be slow and deliberate. "Pass the ball fifteen times before you shoot," said Cager, exaggerating the Haskins approach only slightly. "That wasn't for me." The way Lattin tells it, "We were like a Porsche, but we had to go fifty-five miles an hour." Or slower, more like a Model A with a governor to retard its speed.
Haskins loved the dunk, and Shed, Cager, and the five-foot-six Worsley could all "flush it." Otherwise, the Haskins offense was simplicity itself. Shoot an ill-advised shot, and you'd hear him yell, "That's no good, even if it goes!" Whether it went in or not, you'd get a lecture: "You had no damn business shooting that shot."
There were very few drills in a Haskins practice, but he ran them again and again. Post-and-pick drills, three-man weaves. It was the kind of thing you might have taught to a junior high team, said one player. "Nothing complicated about what we did. Nothing strange."
One Haskins rule was a bit strange. He wanted two-handed passes and only two-handed passes. No bounce passes. "If you can't hit the man with a two-handed chest pass," Haskins said, "you don't need to be passing to him." If the fast break isn't your game (and it wasn't his), one basket at a time makes the passing game absolutely essential. The Texas Western Miners were a pass-and-move, screen-and-roll team. Period.
Bobby Joe Hill was the exception. After two years of chewing on him about his Fancy Dan behind-the-back dribbling and passing, Coach Haskins gave in. A five-foot-ten point guard who'd led his Highland Park, Michigan, high school team to the state championship his junior year, Hill became a better passer under Haskins's guidance, but his style of play was uniquely his own, and finally allowed. A left-hander, B.J. had the kind of quickness that made even the quickest cat seem somewhat lethargic. When B.J.'s defender forced him to the right, he obliged with a few quick right-handed dribbles, then crossed over to his left hand, leaving his hapless defender pawing air. With a minute and a half to play in a game and a lead of only a few points, Haskins would sometimes say, "Okay, Bobby, put it on ice. Dribble it out."
That was offense. Where Bobby Joe Hill really shined was defense, defense and acting. "Nobody could limp like B.J.," said Lou Baudoin, a six-foot-seven forward his teammates called Flip. "He'd come up on somebody, and they were convinced this guy was going to die right there in front of them, nailed to the floor. All of a sudden they wouldn't have the ball anymore, and he'd be shooting a lay-up," usually with a satisfied little grin on his face.
Excerpted from The Baron & the Bear by David Kingsley Snell. Copyright © 2016 David Kingsley Snell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Prologue 1. A Drop of Water 2. “No Good, Even If It Goes!” 3. A New Direction 4. Brothers against the Bastard 5. The True Religion 6. The Big Change 7. A Synchronized Leap 8. Finding His Team 9. He Didn’t Recruit; He Chose 10. Never Gave It a Thought 11. Intensity, Thy Name Is Adolph 12. The Haskins Way 13. “Quite Improbable” 14. The Games Were the Break 15. Seeing Things I Really Like 16. Things That I Can’t 17. Give Iowa a Try 18. Neutral-Court Advantage 19. The Break from Hell 20. “The Secret of Basketball” 21. Togo Time 22. Clyde and the Commodores 23. They Could Be Very Good 24. The Naked Truth 25. Working Hard and Hardly Working 26. Tennessee Two-Step 27. Seattle Surprise 28. The Mountain Man and Cazzie 29. Time and Overtime 30. Larry Conley’s Ass 31. The Runnin’ Utes 32. The Real Championship Game 33. The Smart Money 34. And Then There Was David 35. An Unreal Thing 36. A Matter of Pride 37. He Changed Basketball Epilogue Where Are They Now? Acknowledgments Appendix: 1965–66 Team Rosters and Season Results Index