In the past few years, there has been a movement to use games to commemorate significant historic events. One example of this occurred last season when Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis arranged a game between Mississippi State and Loyola (IL) to honor the 1963 NCAA regional semifinal where the Bulldogs traveled beyond state lines in violation of a court order that forbade them from playing a team with African-Americans. While many such games remain in the memory of sports fans, few actually become landmark events that even a casual sports fan can identify. The 1966 National Championship game between Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El-Paso) and Kentucky is one such classic game. So when current UTEP coach Tim Floyd announced yesterday that the two schools hope to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the original Brown vs. Board of Education game with a rematch, we were intrigued. The details are still in question, but it is believed that the game will take place in Maryland (the original game was played at Cole Field House in College Park) on Martin Luther King Day, in 2016.
For anyone unfamiliar with the story of this game (and didn’t see the 2006 movie chronicling the event, Glory Road), Texas Western, a relative upstart led by fiery young coach Don Haskins, started five African-American players in its lineup. Its opponent in the national championship game, Kentucky, was led by legendary four-time national champion head coach Adolph Rupp, who started five Caucasian players. Texas Western won the game, 72-65, and in so doing set in motion a slow but steady revolution involving race relations in the sport. Some 31 years later, the integration of the game had come so far that Kentucky hired an African-American, Tubby Smith, as its new head coach, and never thought twice about it. Smith, who won his own national title at Kentucky in 1998, is now in the same Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame as Rupp.
The reasons for why this game ultimately took on such significance are complex and numerous, but as anybody who has sat through a high school American history class is aware, the mid-1960s were the height of the activism and tensions of the civil rights era throughout much of the country. This was particularly so in relation to the integration of schools, for which athletics often served as public theater. Over time (and fairly or unfairly), two giants in college athletics — Kentucky’s Rupp and Alabama football head coach Bear Bryant — came to symbolize a tacit but legitimate resistance to athletic integration. Some of the criticism lobbed at both highly successful southern coaches was certainly earned, but to a large degree, it now serves as an easy literary crutch for journalists to discuss the era.
Still, should this event occur in three years, the 50th anniversary rematch between these two schools should serve as an interesting history lesson for those not familiar with the story behind it. We just hope that the lesson that they will take from what would no doubt be a nationally-televised blockbuster game will be a positive one of inclusiveness and integration, one derived from the spirit of the Texas Western squad and the pioneers who paved the way for them rather than another negative historical narrative built around the misgivings of Rupp.