Newswise — As the nation commemorates Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January and Black History Month in February 2006, the University of Texas at El Paso is preparing to celebrate an event in its own history which championed tolerance, opportunity and perseverance.
In 1966, UTEP " then named Texas Western College " changed the face of collegiate athletics forever by starting an all-black lineup for the first time in NCAA championship history. The Texas Western Miners, led by Hall of Fame Coach Don Haskins, upset the University of Kentucky to win the national title. The win symbolized a breakthrough for blacks in college sports.
The story of that 1966 team is depicted in the Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films' "Glory Road," set to open in theaters nationwide on Jan. 13, 2006, forty years after the historic win. To celebrate this anniversary, Wheaties unveiled its newest "Breakfast of Champions" cereal box featuring the TWC 1966 team at UTEP in November.
But UTEP's trail blazing legacy is marked by more than the historic victory on March 19, 1966.
In 1955, Texas Western was the first state college in Texas to integrate its undergraduate classes.
Later, the college became the first in the University of Texas System to hire a black administrator. TWC became known for opening the doors of opportunity for blacks.
Today, that spirit is still alive at the University of Texas at El Paso. We are nationally recognized for changing the face of higher education.
As a major research university located in the heart of the U.S.-Mexico border, our student demographics closely represent the population of the greater El Paso area. Nearly 72 percent of the university's 19,000 students are Hispanic, 3 percent are African American and another 10 percent are Mexican nationals. The majority are first-generation college students.
Whether it's on the basketball courts or in the classrooms, UTEP remains committed to its mission of providing access to a higher education to an underserved population and offering excellence in education with top-notch academic, research, athletic and student programs. UTEP ranks third in the nation in awarding undergraduate degrees to Hispanics, and has been named the top graduate engineering school for Hispanics in the nation.
With Hispanics now the fastest growing demographic group in the nation, UTEP is educating our country's future leaders.
With our achievements in educating the nation's newest majority minority, there could well be a Hollywood movie in the works much like 1988s "Stand and Deliver," where a group of Hispanic students labeled as unable to learn overcame the odds and proved they could succeed and exceed even the highest of expectations.
For now, Hollywood takes us back to the mid-1960s through "Glory Road," a film about the struggles of a basketball team that had to stand strong and persevere at a time when the civil rights movement to end discrimination against blacks was in full swing.
Though the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed institutional racial segregation, it was still common to find all-white college sports teams, particularly in the South.
But in the remote desert city of El Paso, where a melting pot of cultures on the U.S-Mexico border had existed for years, race wasn't an issue for the Texas Western College basketball team. Winning was.
Led by Don Haskins, a gruff, straight-talking coach known as "The Bear," the Texas Western Miners lit up the 1965-66 regular season with a 23-1 record. A tight-knit group of blacks, whites, and one Hispanic, the Miners played their way to the NCAA championship game against Adolph Rupp's No. 1-ranked Kentucky Wildcats, an all-white team.
So history was made on the night of March 19, 1966, in College Park, Md., when Haskins started, for the first time, an all-black lineup in the NCAA championship. In a game punctuated by David "Daddy D" Lattin's thunderous dunks and Bobby Joe Hill's lightning-quick steals, the Miners upset Kentucky 72-65 for the national title.
After the '66 championship, college teams throughout the South began aggressively recruiting black athletes, ending years of shameful segregation.
In 1967, Texas Western College changed its name to the University of Texas at El Paso, popularly known as UTEP.
Haskins, a humble and private man who does his best to avoid the public spotlight, has always said that color of skin was never an issue when he put his Miners on the court against Kentucky.
"I was simply playing the best players I had. It was what I had done all year," Haskins said.
Haskins endured hate mail and death threats during a bitter period after the '66 championship. He went on to produce many more winning teams and NBA stars before retiring from UTEP in 1999.
Following a private screening of "Glory Road" in El Paso in November, Haskins turned to a group of friends and some of the 1966 team players in attendance and said, "I remember it like it was yesterday."
For more information about the University of Texas at El Paso, visit http://www.utep.edu.
For more information and photo galleries about the 1966 TWC NCAA champions or the film "Glory Road," visit http://www.utep.edu/gloryroad.