Kragthorpe: Utes’ 1966 Final Four team to be honored Saturday

First Published      Last Updated Mar 03 2017 12:19 pm

In the movie about the famous 1966 NCAA Final Four, the only sighting of Utah is a shot of the banner listing the four semifinalists.

That's one reason the '66 Utes deserve more recognition. Some of those players and assistant coaches Jerry Pimm and Morris Buckwalter will be honored Saturday afternoon with a video tribute and jersey presentation at halftime of the Utah-Stanford game at the Huntsman Center. The math may seem odd, considering this is a 51-year reunion. But it certainly is worth the effort.

Until the 1998 team reached the NCAA championship game, the '66 Utes were the school's last Final Four contestants. Technically, that stage of the NCAA Tournament was not yet called the "Final Four," with the semifinals and championship game (and the third-place game) played on consecutive nights in Maryland's Cole Field House.

Texas Western's title is historically significant because the Miners, coached by Don Haskins, started five black players. The societal breakthrough was chronicled in "Glory Road," a 2006 movie. At the time, "Nobody knew the impact of it," said Utah's Rich Tate. "We were just playing."

Tate, who died in 2015, was interviewed by Jason Hansen in "Utah Basketball: A History of the Runnin' Utes Since 1908." The recently published book is written mostly as an oral history of the program, and the '66 team — which averaged 95.3 points during a 23-8 season — is prominent.

The '66 team appears four times in Hansen's ranking of Utah's 100 greatest games:

No. 85 • Gene Lake's steal with 38 seconds left in a tie game at New Mexico enables Utah to play for a last shot, and Tate makes a 25-footer at the buzzer in a 57-55 victory.

No. 74 • Tate makes two free throws with 2 seconds remaining in overtime in a 93-91 win at Wyoming. The Utes went on to win the Western Athletic Conference championship, giving them the only access to the NCAA Tournament.

No. 54 • The Utes beat Oregon State 70-64 in the West Region title game, advancing to the Final Four, behind Jerry Chambers' 33 points and Jeff Ockel's 14 rebounds.

No. 23 • With a bye into the round of 16 in Los Angeles, the Utes take an 83-74 victory over Pacific as Chambers scores 40 points, then a Pauley Pavilion record.

The Final Four games failed to make the list because Utah lost. But those were memorable games, coached by the late Jack Gardner. Chambers scored 38 points in an 85-78 loss to Texas Western, sending the Miners into the championship game against Kentucky. Duke beat Utah 79-77 for third place, despite Chambers' 32 points. Chambers was named the Most Outstanding Player, having scored 143 points in four tournament games.

Chambers' fame aside, George Fisher might be the best-remembered player on that team. In a 2006 Salt Lake Tribune interview, Chambers repeated the Utes' often-cited belief that the Utes would have won the championship if not for Fisher breaking his leg late in the season.

Ockel replaced Fisher and played well, but the Utes fell short. In Hansen's book, Ockel tells the story of Gardner's postseason interviews with the players, and how the coach said Ockel needed to shoot more. Ockel responded, "You told everyone to get the ball to Jerry."

That was good strategy, after all. Chambers went on to a pro basketball career, playing for six teams in the NBA and ABA. The late Merv Jackson played for the Utah Stars of the ABA. Tate appeared in the NFL with Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers.

The Utes always will wish they had received more attention in "Glory Road." As Pimm said in the book, "They made a movie on it, and Utah wasn't even mentioned."

At halftime Saturday, the Utes will be in the spotlight.


Twitter: @tribkurt



Utah’s 1966 roster

Leonard Black

Jerry Chambers

Ronald Cunningham

Steve Cotterell

Joseph Day

George Fisher

William Ivey

Mervin Jackson

Eugene Lake

Lyndon MacKay

Jeffrey Ockel

Eugene Rogers

Kent Stepan

Richard Tate

Coach » Jack Gardner

Assistant coaches » Morris Buckwalter, Jerry Pimm.