The 1965-66 Runnin’ Utes

by STEPHEN LINDSEY

If Disney’s 2006 major motion picture Glory Road had had the time to tell the whole story, there would’ve been a team in red getting a pretty fair amount of screen time. The NCAA’s 1966 storybook championship game between little-known, mostly Black Texas Western and widely celebrated and all-white Kentucky was preceded by an equally enthralling Final Four, featuring head coach Jack Gardner and his University of Utah varsity squad.

Before the NBA’s 1980’s Bird versus Magic, Celtics versus Lakers golden age, college basketball was king, and in 1965-66, the University of Utah found itself very near the throne. Behind the strong showing of a 23-8 season and a Western Athletic Conference title, the Utes managed to make it all the way to the NCAA semifinal game, losing to Texas Western in a thriller, bookending a season that, though it ended in disappointment, was indeed, as the Daily Herald said in March 1966, “a campaign that won’t soon be forgotten.”

Jack Gardner and Jerry Chambers

To truly understand the magic of that season, one must understand the preceding few years in Utah basketball, and more importantly, that of the coach, James “Jack” Gardner. Recruited to become the Utes’ new coach in 1953, in 18 seasons at the university Gardner would compile a 339-154 overall record good for second all-time in Utes’ coaching history. After varying degrees of success for seven seasons, Gardner helped the Utes climb to the apex of college basketball’s proverbial mountain, getting them to the famed “Final Four” in 1961, behind the strength of All-American and future No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Billy “the Hill” McGill. Though that tournament too would end in another fourth-place finish for the pride of Salt Lake City, the Utes had discovered a key element of success, one that would help them years down the road: recruiting and signing to scholarship Black players, a habit not widely practiced in those days. (Sports-Reference)

Basketball was a burgeoning sport in the 1960s. Riding the waves of the somewhat recently created National Basketball Association (NBA) and the success of college programs like Kentucky and UCLA, the game was especially noteworthy for the number of Black athletes found in its ranks, as compared to other sports. McGill’s recruitment and subsequent acceptance of scholarship to the university, though not the first such incident of a Black man coming to play on “the Hill,” signaled the dawning of a new era for the Utes. Gardner, along with several other coaching counterparts, including Don Haskins, against whom he would coach in the 1966 semifinal, didn’t necessarily pioneer the signing of Black players, but they were some of its larger and more well-known champions. For the University of Utah’s part, Gardner was absolutely instrumental. “Bud” Jack, an employee in the athletic department during Gardner’s tenure and a future athletic director at the school, reminisced on his early days at the University of Utah in an interview with Everett Cooley. He reported that there was some level of worry concerning what was deemed “the black issue.” “We were very concerned,” he said then. “[But] I think Jack Gardner had all this planned very well. And we had very little problem. That’s where you have to give Jack Gardner credit.”

Gardner’s reputation as a man willing to be fair and sign anyone with talent was evident to everyone. In an interview granted to the Los Angeles Times in 1995, retired Black coach and Washington, D.C., resident Bill Butler said he was impressed by the Utes coach, whom he met in 1968 at a practice for an all-Black all-star game he had organized and invited Gardner to attend. After watching the practice, Gardner was noticeably impressed with the quality of play on the court, and went to work offering scholarships to a few of those present. “Those kids had D averages,” Butler was quoted as saying in the Times article. “They couldn’t have gone to Utah right away, so Jack Gardner arranged for them to attend junior colleges before they went on to play at Utah.” With a whole demographic of players available to him that many other coaches had never considered, Gardner and the Utes went to work on winning.

The seasons immediately following 1961 proved more difficult than to be expected, and the Utes were a middling team. The arrival of Jerry Chambers to the University of Utah in 1964, however, proved a steppingstone to the grand achievements that awaited in 1966. Chambers, a 6-foot-4 athletic guard, terrorized defenses during his time at the “U.” No season of his would prove more special than 1965-66.

“Smooth-shooting and lanky,” as he was described by the June 16, 1966, edition of the Daily Herald, the college transfer from Trinidad, Colorado, was voted Western Athletic Conference (WAC) player of the year after averaging around 28.8 points a game. According to the February 4, 1966, edition of the Daily Herald, “the guy, percentage wise, is the finest shooter in Ute history.”

The Start of Something Special

Utah’s schedule that season was fantastic, even by today’s standards: the Utes would play most games in their home gym, the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, seemingly avoiding road trips to better their record. The few road trips they did make, however, would find them playing in some of the more prestigious gyms in the world, against some of the more prestigious teams. Not including the NCAA tournament, the Utes would play away games against Arizona, Arizona State in conference, as well as against Cincinnati, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Miami (Florida) on their lone East Coast road trip. Though the Utes would only manage one victory in that four-game stretch, against NC State, their play dazzled local newspapers. Of their sole victory, the New Years’ day 1966 edition of the Ogden Standard Examiner would report, “The fast-breaking Utes, amazingly quick for their size and their height, dominated State as few teams ever do.” Chambers would manage 30 points, key to postseason recognition and accolades, as national press got to see the Utes star.

RunninUtesImage

The cover of the 1965-66 Runnin’ Utes men’s basketball team guide. Pictured are George Fisher (top) and guard Jerry Chambers. Courtesy of Special Collections, J. Willard Marriott Library, The University of Utah.

As the regular season wound down and the Utes were crowned WAC champions over the likes of nemesis Brigham Young University, the “Redskins,” as they were frequently called in those days, had astounded even the local pundits. A March 21, 1966, edition of the Provo Daily Herald reported, “In gaining the title, the surprising Utes [had] lifted themselves from last place to first place in a year.” Their status as WAC champions would afford them an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, where they would face off with the “underrated” Pacific University Tigers.

The Utes, though, had been dealt a blow in the conference clincher. Starting forward George Fisher, one of the team’s best players, was lost to a broken femur against New Mexico. There was doubt surrounding the Utes, who, despite having already been guaranteed the conference title, had lost to BYU in their regular season finale. The lone bright spot, according to the March 9, 1966, Daily Herald, was Chambers, who had torched the Cougars for 48 points. Luckily for the Utes, his hot play would continue, and he rang up 40 points against the Pacific University Tigers, spurring his team to a nine-point, 83-74 victory in round 1 of the tournament. Chambers’ good play continued, and after a 70-64 win over Oregon State University, the Utes were headed to the Final Four. Battling injuries (Lyndon Mackay, another Ute starter, hurt his knee in the OSU game), a lack of national respect, and constant fatigue due to lack of reserves, the Utes had made it to the big time. “This is a hungry basketball team and they’ve suddenly developed a lot of pride in themselves,” Gardner told local papers. “They think they can get the job done.” (Smilanich)

The Final Four

“The rag-tag Redskins,” observed the March 15, 1966, edition of the Standard Examiner, would “find themselves in the familiar role of underdog against tough and talented Texas Western, and that’s just the way the Utes like it.”

The Utes and Miners, though separated by what many considered a talent gap, shared a unique history, one begun by their coaches. In the fall of 1965, and less than six months away from a fateful matchup in the NCAA semifinals, Gardner and Texas Western head coach Don Haskins shared a weekend of basketball discussion and philosophy when the Miners football team traveled to Salt Lake to face the Utes. Haskins made the trip, and during his three-day stay with Gardner, picked his brain. “Jack was very nice to me. He couldn’t have been nicer,” Haskins told Deseret News sports editor Lee Benson in 1993. “I’d always been so impressed with him growing up. Back then, we weren’t in the same league. Utah was in the WAC and we were independent. Anyway, I came up to meet him and learn something about the fast break. He took me to dinner the night before the football game and we talked for hours. The next morning I went to (basketball) practice. Jack took me in his office, he showed me all kinds of break films, he showed me his drills.” As Benson so cheekily wrote in his 1993 article about the story: “Basketball historians know where this is going.”

Fate had now guided the two teams back together, and armed with a heavy scouting report on the Utes and their tactics, Texas Western managed to squeak out a victory over the underdog Utes. Chambers opened the game with a 24-point first half, and the Utes were in it as they headed to the locker. The second half would prove more difficult, though. Chambers cooled down, the officiating tightened, and the Utes just couldn’t stay with the bigger, stronger Miners. The team lost 85-78. A total of 47 fouls were called, none of them more critical, according to Gardner, than the technical foul called on him by official Lenny Wirtz late in the first half, something he would lament in his post-game press conference. “The little guy, Lenny Wirtz, has rabbit ears and big ones,” Gardner told the Daily Press after the game. “The technical foul he called … I didn’t get off the bench … I didn’t swear. I don’t swear. He has big ears to call a tech on me for saying you missed that one.” Said Haskins, “I can’t believe they would call the game that tight.”

Nonetheless, the Utes had lost. The team would get a chance at consolation glory facing off with Duke in the third-place game, but still couldn’t manage a victory. Chambers was yet again fantastic, scoring 32 points, but it wasn’t enough, as the Utes lost 79-77. Still, the senior collegian had established what was then the all-time tournament scoring mark, posting 143 points in four games, good enough for a 35.8 average and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. (“Utes Return”) In addition, the Daily Herald reported on March 29, 1966, that Chambers had been recognized by Texas Western as the best player they had faced all season, even after the Miners’ win over Kentucky.

Filled with accolades and boasting a tremendous individual repertoire, Chambers would go on to the NBA. The Utes, meanwhile, had performed admirably. Said the March 21, 1966, Daily Herald, “The Utes returned home with the satisfaction of a job well done since no one expected the running Redskins to get as far as they did.” Unfortunately, they would never again, at least during Gardner’s tenure, make it to the top of the mountain.

The Squad’s Legacy

Gardner would remain at the University for five more seasons before retiring, none of them as successful as that of 1965-66. Though his 1967-68 squad would attain an AP ranking of 5 during the season, even it couldn’t match the success of the previous team. (Sports-Reference) Chambers’s 1965-66 campaign was dubbed by local press as the best shooting exhibit in Utes history to that point. The March 10, 1966, Daily Herald reported that Chambers had broken at least five standing WAC records, including leading the league in scoring, rebounding, and field goal percentage. Though not officially listed by the Associated Press, he was also considered by many outlets an All-American, and invited to several All-Star games before being drafted No. 7 overall by the Lakers in the 1966 NBA Draft. The Utes had surprised many, but not themselves.

For Haskins’s part, he would name Gardner one of the best he’d ever coached against. “I still put Jack Gardner in the top five coaches all-time,” he would tell Benson in 1993 (Gardner was scheduled to be inducted into the WAC’s Hall of Fame days later). “He deserves everything they’re giving him.” Gardner remains the only coach to ever lead a WAC school to a final four. (Benson) He died in 2000 at the age of 90.

Strangely enough, the 1966 Utes were largely forgotten, until just recently. Fifty-one years after their historic run, they were honored at the halftime of Utah’s March 4,  2017, game against Stanford (the Utes won 67-59). Honorees included assistant coaches, among them Jerry Pimm and Morris Buckwalter, and players such as Chambers, Mackay, Fisher, and others. (Facer)

Nearly half a century later, the 1965-66 Runnin’ Utes legacy still stands, enduring through the ages. A few of the members of that famed squad have died, yet those who remain continue to impress all, especially those employed in continuing the fine tradition of Utah basketball. “Pretty neat,” Utah Head Coach Larry Krystkowiak said of the honored squad in his post-game remarks. “We got a good dose of all those parts of some Utah basketball tradition.” (Facer)

Stephen Lindsey is a junior at The University of Utah. He is majoring in journalism.

Sources 

Steve Smilanich, “Jerry Chambers Named WAC Athlete of the Year,” The Provo Daily Herald, June 16, 1966, 11.

“Chambers Gains Another Honor,” The Provo Daily Herald, March 29, 1966, 9.

“Utes Return from NCAA Test,” The Provo Daily Herald, March 21, 1966, 6.

Tommy Seward, “Texas Western Conquers Utah, 85-78, Despite 38 by Chambers,” Daily Press (Newport News, Virginia), March 19, 1966, 15.

Steve Smilanich, “Utes, Miners vie in semis,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner, March 15, 1966, 9.

“Utes Advance in Western Cage Tourney,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner, March 12, 1966, 4.

“Chambers Breaks 5 WAC Records,” The Provo Daily Herald, March 10, 1966, 8.

“Redskins’ Hope Lies with Gangly Center,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner, March 9, 1966, 13.

“Utes, Cougars Poise for Big Cage Tilt,” The Provo Daily Herald, February 4, 1966, 6.

“Running Utes Upset North Carolina State,” The Ogden Standard-Examiner, January 1, 1966, 4.

Sports-Reference. “1965-66 Utah Roster and Stats,” http://bit.ly/2oA1TYn.

Benson, Lee. “Haskins Learned Well from Gardner.” Deseret News, March 14, 1993, http://bit.ly/2ooVih9.

Fulwood III, Sam. “Blacks Find Support in Sports but Not as Scholars.” Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1995, http://lat.ms/2opabQD.

Jack, James R. (Bud). Interview by Everett L. Cooley, August 13, 1984. Everett L. Cooley Oral History Project. J. Willard Marriott Library Manuscripts Division. The University of Utah. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=822251

Facer, Dirk. “Utah notes: 1966 Final Four team honored at halftime,” Deseret News, March 4, 2017, http://bit.ly/2o79cCQ.

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