Few NCAA Championship games have been contested by teams whose coaches were, at the same time, so similar and so very different. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, in twilight of a Hall of Fame career, had started coaching at University of Kentucky the year Texas Western's Don Haskins was born. At the time of the game, there was little reason to believe that Haskins would one day share Hall of Fame honors with Rupp. Both men were intensely passionate about winning, yet their emphasis (Rupp on offense, Haskins defense) was completely opposite. And, because of the game that brought them together, both men are forever linked.
Long before the 1965-’66 Adolph Fredrick Rupp had established himself as the number one college coach in the country. His teams had won twenty-seven SEC championships and, over the course of a single decade, won a then unprecedented four NCAA national championships. John Wooden had just notched his second NCAA championship and would go on to eight more, but Rupp’s coaching achievements were legendary, his status in the basketball- obsessed state, iconic. In Kentucky he was known as The Man in the Brown Suit, The Baron of the Bluegrass. His won/loss record over his forty-two year career was an eye-popping 876-190, for 82%.
Setting the numbers aside, Adolph Rupp’s importance to the evolution of basketball is beyond question. When he began his coaching career, basketballs were stitched together out of brown leather and had laces that made for sometimes erratic bounces. There was a center jump after each made basket. There was no three second rule in the foul lane, no ten second requirement for crossing the center line. By comparison with what was to come, the game was a tortoise with no hare in sight until the center-jump after made baskets was eliminated in 1936.
Other coaches were slow to adapt, but Rupp introduced an up-tempo brand of basketball that revolutionized the game. His teams blocked out, got defensive rebounds, and beat opponents up the floor. The Fast-Break was born. He also initiated advanced techniques of ball movement involving intricate patterns of screens and pick-and-rolls. In the half-court, he ran a motion offense based on some ten basic plays, each with variations to respond to differing situations. While he built his defense around a tight man-to-man, he was among the first coaches to harness the potential of a trapping 1-3-1 zone (in those early days they called it “two-timing”). And, more than any coach in his era, Adolph Rupp ran precision, no-nonsense practices where repetition was a constant and sergeant's vocabulary.
The Coaches In Brief;
Adolph Rupp and the Purple People Eater
Two men who knew Adolph Rupp well had essentially the same answer to the question, Was Rupp a Racist? Both said, Rupp would have recruited a Purple-People- Eater from Mars if he thought it would help him win basketball games.
Don Haskins, The Game Changer
At the memorial service one speaker put the question: “How many of you guys played for Coach Haskins? If you did stand up.” Fifty or sixty former Texas Western players from before and after the school became The University of Texas El Paso (UTEP) stood. “Now, here’s the next question. How many of you liked Haskins when you played for him?” Everybody sat down.Mission Accomplished.
By contrast, Donald Lee Haskins was a relative new-comer to the ranks of college coaches. Five years before the game that won him national attention, Haskins plied his trade in small West Texas high schools coaching boys, girls and six-man football teams while serving as principal and bus driver. “I’m kind of a young punk,” he told reporters after the big game, “and to play a game with Mr. Rupp is quite an honor, let alone win it.”
On the day of the championship game, reporters were predicting Rupp’s Wildcats would run Haskins’s Miners off the floor. Virtually everyone believed that Kentucky’s semi-final win over Duke was, “for all intents and purposes, THE title game” (The Washington Daily News) and “A fitting end to a perfect season” (The Washington Post). To underline how hopeless things were for Texas Western, the Daily News added: “If the Miners upset the Wildcats, they’d better be ready to take a saliva test.”
What few people seemed to realize before the game was that Texas Western was exactly the kind of team that had given Kentucky its only challenges in an otherwise perfect season. Ten times in the regular season they’d scored in the eighties; four times in the nineties; six times they topped a hundred. Their only loss came against Tennessee that held them under seventy. When they ran they won, but Coach Haskins had been schooled by the legendary Hank Iba who taught Control and Defense.
Although Haskins played only blacks in the championship game, his team was the antithesis of run and gun presumed to be in their DNA. Once against Kentucky they passed the ball twenty times before working it inside to the open man. “We were more white-oriented than any of the other teams in the Final Four,” said Willie Worsley, a 5’6” guard who is black. “We played the most intelligent, the most boring, the most disciplined game of them all.” Kentucky, used to racking up points on Rupp’s vaunted fast break, was held to only one fast-break basket against Texas Western. Forcing them to play slow-ball made the game much shorter than the Wildcats were used to and ultimately brought them defeat.