Snell, David Kingsley. The Baron and the Bear: Rupp’s Runts, Haskins’s Miners, and the Season That Changed Basketball Forever. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 312. 20 unnumbered pages of plates and index. $29.95 hardcover, $14.99 e-book.
Reviewed by Tony Calandrillo
In The Baron and the Bear: Rupp’s Runts, Haskins’s Miners, and the Season that Changed Basketball Forever, David Kingsley Snell breathes new life into the historic national championship game between Don Haskins’s Texas Western Miners and Adolph Rupp’s University of Kentucky Wildcats, a game that featured a stunning victory by the Miners’ all African-American team against Rupp’s all white squad, right in the middle of the American civil rights movement and heightened racial tensions of the 1960s. Because this is such a famous episode in both the history of college basketball and American history writ large, it would be easy to dismiss this work as simply reiterating old ideas, and to some extent Snell’s book does that. This is a familiar story for anyone in this book’s intended audience. Yet, Snell manages to find a unique angle on this profoundly important moment in history.
The virtue of Snell’s book is that he takes an old story and tells the tale in a novel way, providing much-needed insight into not only the historic final game but also the building of two very different basketball teams. Over 50 years after this historic contest, most of the discussion is still about the individual game, Texas Western’s 72-65 victory over Rupp’s University of Kentucky Wildcats, or about the victory in a broad sense, i.e. it’s meaning within the civil rights movement. Yet, Snell takes a micro approach to this watershed event by dissecting both teams in alternating chapters tracking both the Wildcats and the Miners through early season practices and virtually every game on their respective schedules. Using this approach, Snell tells the day-to-day story of each team and its respective players both on and off the court. By doing this, Snell gives the reader insight not only into the two finished products that met on March 19 in Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, but also the raw materials that both Rupp and Haskins molded into the teams fighting for the national championship: the players.
To this end, Snell conducted interviews with 28 players and coaches from each team who were intimately involved either with that particular season or with one of the personalities involved, such as Hall of Fame coach Nolan Richardson who played for Haskins at Texas Western in the years before their championship season. All of these interviews provide valuable details that fill in the gaps of knowledge surrounding this event. It cannot be stressed enough that 1966 was a time when college basketball was not the popular sport that it has become today. This was also pre-Wooden dynasty at UCLA, and pre-Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird in 1979, two events that heightened exposure of the sport. At this point, the NCAA Tournament was only open to 24 teams, not 32, 48, 64 or even the 68 that have a chance at the title in the 21st century. It was a very different college basketball world in 1966.
On that point, Snell also dispels the notion that Texas Western was simply an underdog that had a great day to beat Kentucky. By following the team over the course of the entire season, Snell illustrates that the Miners were, in fact, a very good team, defeating other good teams during the regular season, as in the case of fourth-ranked Iowa in December, then taking on heavyweights in the NCAA Tournament. This was not a team that “got lucky.” They deserved the victory over Kentucky.
One of the fine parts of Snell’s book deals with the aftermath of Kentucky’s loss to Texas Western. As Snell points out, both coaches deserve credit for changing the game of basketball, but in very different ways: Rupp through tactics and Haskins through the African-American players he chose to play that championship game. Yet, Snell also deals with Rupp’s modern legacy, taking great pains to tear down the narrative that Rupp was racist, either through action, as portrayed in some newspaper and magazine articles, or through inaction, with Rupp being stuck in an almost impossible situation in the Southeastern Conference. For those who wish to see Rupp cast as a racist, Snell’s remarks will come off as excuses; for Rupp supporters, they will come off as explanations. In either case Snell at least makes the attempt to contextualize the events of that night and that season, hoping to provide a new understanding of complicated men dealing with complicated issues during a tumultuous time in American history.
An example concerning Rupp is seen in a reference to a biography of Rupp written by Harry Lancaster, one of Rupp’s assistant coaches. In the book, titled Adolph Rupp as I Knew Him, Lancaster recounts a meeting that Rupp had with University of Kentucky President John Oswald. Per Lancaster’s recollection, Rupp stated: “Harry, that sonofabitch is ordering me to get some niggers in here. What am I going to do?” (Snell, p. 245) While Snell quickly introduces evidence from players and Joe B. Hall, another UK assistant, the inclusion of this passage from Lancaster rightfully forces hard questions about Rupp. While Snell may not have set out to paint the man this way, Rupp is too important a figure to leave it at that. While he was a product of his time, as Snell and some interviewees note, the issue still needed to be discussed.
Based on these points, even with the slight deficiency on Rupp, this is a book that should be read by sports fans, especially those who enjoy college basketball. It is also for the general reader who wants to view the upheaval of the 1960s through a different lens, or, conversely, view an important episode in the history of college basketball in a very different context. It is difficult to tell a familiar story and make it new, yet Snell accomplishes this very task.
Tony Calandrillo is a Doctor of Letters candidate at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, whose research involves the intersection of American foreign policy and sports. His dissertation is an examination of baseball as a tool of American foreign policy in the context of International Relations theory.