Fans driving around with their heads sticking out of the windows (some of them on top of cars) yelling, cheering and honking their horns – that’s the way Ray Sanchez remembers it.
Sanchez was an assistant sports editor at the El Paso Herald Post the evening of March 19, 1966, when Texas Western College (TWC), now The University of Texas at El Paso, won the men’s NCAA basketball title against the University of Kentucky, 72-65.
Forty-eight years after the men’s basketball team won the NCAA championship in 1966, UTEP remains the only university in Texas to have a NCAA championship trophy for men’s basketball.
“I actually fell out of my chair with excitement,” Sanchez said. “It was really something. It was such a happy moment that a lot of people cried, actually wept in joy, to greet these national champs here at the airport.”
The game had a big impact in El Paso and at TWC. Head coach Don Haskins — in a first for college basketball – started an all African-American lineup in the NCAA championship game.
“We knew it was a historical game, but we didn’t understand the impact of the game,” said Harry Flournoy, senior forward for TWC in 1966. “(Don Haskins) was one of the great leaders of all-time. He doesn’t get enough recognition. One thing that he had over all the other coaches was that he had the courage to do what he knew was right.”
Forty-eight years later, Flournoy still feels nostalgic every time the men’s NCAA basketball tournament comes around.
“We had gotten a lot of pressure from people outside of the University, from other parts of the country,” Flournoy said. “We had gotten up to and including death threats, just for playing a game. It got to the point where coach cut all the phones off in our rooms … but we worked so hard to get to that position that we had learned how to block everything out and just concentrate on the task at hand.”
Mary Haskins, Don Haskins’ widow, remembers the charter flight back to El Paso the Sunday morning after the title game.
“Everyone was running up and down the aisle of the plane and just talking and chatting. It was just a celebration all the way,” she said. “There was a celebration at the airport, also a parade downtown.”
An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 fans gathered at El Paso International Airport, where there was a special welcoming stand.
Thousands of fans lined the streets along the drive from the airport to the dormitories.
On the UTEP campus, students started a big bonfire. Some people carried down lumber to add to the fire.
“(The bonfire) was getting out of hand, so the firemen came and they tried to put it out, but the students would park their cars on the hoses,” Sanchez said. “It was the most wonderful time in my history of covering sports.”
In the glow of the championship game, TWC and the players still experienced racism and negative press.
For instance, 1966 was the first year the National Basketball Association broke its tradition and did not pick any graduating seniors from the NCAA championship team. As a result, Flournoy, Orsten Artis and Jerry Armstrong were not drafted.
“What we had to fall back on was the teachings that we got from coach Haskins, that as long as we knew that we were right, we could overcome any of those obstacles they put in front of us,” Flournoy said. “Any of those stumbling blocks, we just use them as stepping stones. It was tough, but we fought our way through that.”
UTEP remains the only Division I men’s team in Texas to win a men’s NCAA basketball national championship.
“Here we are, the largest state in the nation, out of all these wonderful universities in Texas and still we’re the only one’s who have the national championship,” Mary Haskins said. “Here we are stuck way out here in the corner of this little tip of Texas. I am still so proud of it. I really, really am.”
Published on March 14, 2014 at http://news.utep.edu/?p=23331