The 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship pitted the Kentucky Wildcats against the Texas Western Miners. It stacked Kentucky's coaching powerhouse, Adolph Rupp, against Texas Western's upstart, Don Haskins.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with NBA coach Pat Riley and actor Jon Voight, as Adolph Rupp, on the set of "Glory Road." Riley played on the 1966 Kentucky team featured in the film. (Disney)
And it saw five whites from Kentucky take on five blacks from Texas Western. That was the first time five African-American players were given the opportunity to claim a championship on hardwood.
Forty years later, the story of that Texas Western basketball team is the subject of a new movie from Walt Disney Pictures and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.
"Glory Road," which opens nationwide Friday, features Josh Lucas ("Sweet Home Alabama") as Coach Don Haskins, who risked reputation and personal safety by predominantly recruiting and playing black players at a time when such was unheard of in the South.
"Glory Road" begins with Haskins being plucked from his post coaching high school girls' basketball to take the Texas Western job. It follows the team on their legendary season—one that included a run at the championship as well as being targeted by those who didn't appreciate the integrated and successful team.
The movie zips along with fastbreak action, but swirling around the athletics are serious issues of racism and civil rights.
"I just like stories about individuals that make social change for the better," said producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who also produced the sports movie "Remember the Titans" for Disney, as well as 2004's PG-rated "National Treasure" ("Glory Road" is PG).
Haskins is obviously being touted here as a civil rights leader, even if an unintentional one. Haskins, now 75, has repeatedly said he played only black players in the final game thinking only of basketball—not activism.
Seven of the 12 players on the Miners team were black, and they're the only ones who played in the final game against Kentucky. In fact, statistics indicate that the black players were the highest scorers on the team.
Some of those who know and have talked with Haskins simply don't believe his stated reasoning. They suggest his coaching strategy in the championship game was at least partially political.
Bruckheimer said Jerry Armstrong, a white player, had won the game for the Miners that actually put them in the finals against Kentucky. But Armstrong didn't play in the final game.
Bruckheimer and Lucas, in support of the theory that Haskins based his decisions on more than just basketball, pointed to the fact that one of Haskins' high school buddies—an African American—was passed over for a college scholarship, while the lesser (athletically) Haskins was chosen. That always bothered Haskins, they say.
Lucas also allowed for the possibility that Haskins' decision to play only black players was part of a psychological mind game the coach was playing with Adolph Rupp.
"I know that Rupp said things that made Haskins very angry during the press conference" prior to the game, said Lucas. Lucas said Haskins was such a competitor that he would have looked for any edge over the Baron of the Bluegrass, as Rupp was known. Rupp had already led Kentucky to four national championships by the time he met Haskins on the court for the 1966 title.
Rupp's legacy on race has been debated ever since his death in 1977. Discussions about Rupp engender terms and phrases like "racist," "segregationist," "realist" and "a man of his times," as well as vehement statements from those who knew him that he was not a racist in any way.
Though Rupp's 1965-66 team was all white, Rupp had, in fact, coached black players before in high school ball in Illinois. He also chose to play against integrated teams, whereas some other coaches would not. Some sources suggest Rupp "refused" to recruit black players, whereas other sources indicate he tried, but the players chose not to attend Kentucky. Others propose that Rupp, coaching in the SEC, was simply afraid of the South's racial climate and didn't feel comfortable taking black players to states like Mississippi and Alabama.
Theories aside, Bruckheimer said no one involved with the film actually found information or evidence that Rupp was a racist.
Said Jon Voight, who plays Rupp in the movie: "He wasn't a racist. Period."
"He was a person who had worked from being a very, very poor person to establishing himself as a great coach," said the Oscar-winning actor, who most recently portrayed Pope John Paul II for a TV movie.
Voight spent hours mastering Rupp's mannerisms, accent and personality by watching footage, reading books and listening to tapes. Voight is known for in-depth research on the real people he plays, like the Pope or Franklin Delano Roosevelt ("Pear Harbor").
Director James Gartner said Voight came to him with all sorts of ideas about Rupp, and they spent between six and eight hours going over every last line Rupp would utter. As a result of Voight's precision and ability, the role of Rupp expanded beyond what the script originally called for.
"Rupp became bigger because Jon was just so filled with Adolph Rupp," said Gartner. "He brought so much, I think, to this movie." Voight also stayed in character as Rupp on the set.
Many in the Bluegrass State have been chattering about "Glory Road" and Rupp's portrayal for months, not wanting the man's legacy tarnished by what they feel is an "agenda movie" that paints Rupp as a villain.
The filmmakers say Rupp isn't made the villain in the movie. Audiences will decide that for themselves.
One of the writers, Christopher Cleveland, tried to encapsulate the controversy thusly: "What he [Rupp] was afraid of doing, Haskins does."
The movie's marketing frames the game as a moment that "changes everything"—in society at large and certainly in sports. People who lived through that season and game tend to say the championship was just another game, but history isn't seeing it that way … and neither will audiences come Friday.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie's official Web site is here.