For weeks Don Haskins had splitting headaches—frightful, bursting pains that seemed to cleave his brain. The closer Texas Western (see cover) came to the national basketball championship, the worse the headaches became. Perhaps his suffering was attributable to the implausibility of it all, for near the end Haskins really began to wonder if maybe he wasn't knocking destiny just a little bit out of joint. He savored the situation, of course. He loved it. But now and then he would stop to muse on the "once in a lifetime" aspect, toying with the idea, mulling the whole amazing thing over in his aching mind. Did this happen to Jack Fleck? Or Roger Maris? What was Henry Moreno thinking when he held Dark Star up over Native Dancer?
For here, at the end, was Don Haskins—a young coach at a school that had never before even challenged for a national title in any sport—standing brazenly in the way of Kentucky and Adolph Rupp, a combination that spread-eagles both the history and glory of college basketball. Not only that, but Kentucky '66 was really a team touched by fate, a team overlooked by nearly everyone before the season, but everybody's favorite now.
Not that Texas Western had exactly been glorified. No Miner player had made an all-district team, much less an All-America. But the team just kept on winning and finally met Kentucky in the finals. And instead of Adolph Rupp winning his fifth national title, Don Haskins won his first. "I'm just a young punk," Haskins said. "It was a thrill playing against Mr. Rupp, let alone beating him."
The beating was sound as well as thrilling. Kentucky was a worn, haggard ball club when it faced Texas Western Saturday at College Park, Md., but that was no alibi, for Texas Western had come through a hard season, too. Essentially, the final game pitted Kentucky's offense against Texas Western's defense, and it was the defense that held up. After only three days east of the Mississippi, Haskins and his Miners returned to El Paso with Texas' first national basketball title.
They had arrived on Thursday, St. Patrick's Day. Besides the headaches, Haskins had also been restless, sleeping uncomfortably amid the distractions. When a friend approached him during the nonstop flight from El Paso to Washington, Haskins said, "Hi, when did you get on?" Somebody gave him a 20-peso gold piece made into the shape of a money clip, and all the players received green string ties, which they looped about their necks. "My name's not Mick Shed, but I'll wear one anyway," said Forward Nevil (The Shadow) Shed. At their motel in College Park, which they shared with Duke, the Miners were like interlopers. The Duke fans overran the place. A huge banner, LET'S GO, DUKE, hung across the front windows.
A few minutes down the Beltway in Silver Spring, the Kentucky Wildcats already were ensconced in a motel. Pat Riley wore a fuzzy little shamrock in his lapel. " Conley's Irish, too," he said, "but he doesn't make as much of it as I do." If Riley resembled a happy Hibernian, Larry Conley didn't. He was a sick Hibernian. "The only green I've got is down in here," he said, coughing and pointing to his chest.
Like Bob Verga, Duke's star shooter, who just that morning had been released from the hospital, Conley had been ill all week. In fact, the whole Kentucky team was tired. Only Rupp, a remarkable old man hungry for his fifth NCAA championship, remained eager for the last two games of the season.
Haskins had a healthy team and an easier semifinal game. (TW played Utah, while Kentucky met Duke.) Still, Haskins was edgy. He yelled at Shed through much of practice, and even benched Bobby Joe Hill in disgust. "Isn't this the laziest bunch you've ever seen?" he asked. There is no pretense about Haskins. He is a Smokey Bear of a man, who walks in a shuffle, his feet pointed out. His wife was along, but Don has an understanding with Mary Haskins that when she goes on a basketball trip, she must stay away from him. He was rooming in Maryland with Bill Cornwall, an El Paso construction-supply executive, who is the team's lucky charm. Cornwall missed one road trip this year—to Seattle—and that was the only game Texas Western lost. After dinner on Thursday with Cornwall, Haskins agreed to take some sleeping pills, and he had his first good night's rest in weeks. Over in Silver Spring the Kentuckians were up much of the night caring for Larry Conley, who had no rest at all.
But Friday was to be Kentucky's day. Conley got out of bed around noon to take a walk with Spike Kerns, the Kentucky trainer. In College Park, Bob Verga was stirring "for a little sunshine," too. By now Rupp and his assistant, Harry Lancaster, had decided that if both invalids could play, sick Conley would guard sick Verga.
Conley came back from his walk with Kerns. His fever of 102� the night before had responded to treatment with what Rupp called "goose oil"—that's Vick's Vaporub in your neighborhood drugstore. But Conley had lost four pounds and a lot of strength, and it still hurt to sit down because of all the shots he had received.