Gloried sports history runs deep at UTEP

By on February 23, 2014

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial story could not be told without including the century-long athletics program at the school. The same day the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy opened its doors in 1914, its mining students suited up for football practice as well. Over the next 100 years, UTEP athletes would win more than 100 national championships, earn spots and medals in the Olympics and go on to play with the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.The exhibit “Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP,” currently on display at the Centennial Museum and Welcome Center, is the third in the Centennial Exhibit Series designed to showcase different aspects of UTEP throughout its Centennial year. Designed in conjunction with the UTEP Athletics Department, the exhibit highlights all current sports at the university, as well as some of school’s milestone moments. The exhibit will be on display through March 18.

Drew Bonney, assistant media relations director with UTEP Athletics, helped research and design the exhibit with the museum. A UTEP graduate himself, he said he wanted others in the community to share in UTEP’s great athletic history.

“I feel it’s important to showcase the long and successful history of UTEP athletics,” Bonney said. “I think people who visit the exhibit will walk out knowing more about the history — sort of an educational visit. I like to think of it as a learning experience.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Keith Erekson, Ph.D., executive director of UTEP’s Centennial Celebration.

“Our Centennial Celebration provides the opportunity to reflect on all of the University’s accomplishments over the past century,” Erekson said. “The 1966 championship certainly stands out as a signature moment in which we defied the odds and achieved excellence. It is also part of a larger story in which our students, student athletes, faculty and staff continually strive for greater success.”

Indeed, an athletic exhibit about UTEP would not be complete without the story of the 1966 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship, when Texas Western College (TWC) stunned the nation by beating top-ranked Kentucky with a score of 72-65.

The game also was a turning point in college basketball and the nation, as TWC head coach Don Haskins started an all-black team against the all-white Kentucky players.

El Pasoan Joe Gomez, a UTEP alumnus, was a student at the school in 1966 and friends with many of the players on the 1966 championship team. He remembers watching the game as if it happened yesterday.

“We have accomplished many things in our history and we should be proud of all of them, but the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship made a wonderful contribution to civil rights in America,” Gomez said.

Over the next five decades, Gomez would go on to collect hundreds of items commemorating that win and other memorable sports milestones. Gomez loaned several of his prized items to the Centennial Museum for the exhibit.

“We will have many visitors to the University during the Conference USA Basketball Tournament, so the UTEP Centennial Museum will have an opportunity to brag about our place in collegiate sports history,” Gomez said.

One of Gomez’s items on loan is a team ring he commissioned from Henry Silverman Jewelers as a gift to each of the players and coaches for the game’s 20th in 1986.

Other highlights of the exhibit include interactive displays, such as a life-sized photograph of the tallest-ever player for the UTEP men’s basketball team, Matt Willms, who stands 7 feet 1 inch tall.

Additionally, UTEP track star-turned-Olympian Bob Beamon broke the world record in the long jump at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City when he jumped 29 feet, 3 inches. The incredible length of the jump is documented in the exhibit so visitors can witness Beamon’s feat.

The Centennial Museum and Welcome Center is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. It is located on the UTEP campus on the corner of University Avenue and Wiggins Road.

Published at

Maribel Villalva is the executive director of UTEP's Centennial Celebration and the director of its Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens.