“I grew up around the red towel and (E.A.) Diddle,” McDaniels said in 2014, “and I just knew one day if I ever got good enough to play ball I’d want to go to Western Kentucky and be a Hilltopper. It was already in my DNA.”
The red towel McDaniels grew up with is also in Western Kentucky’s DNA thanks to Diddle, one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. He clutched a red towel through 1,062 games in 42 seasons on the Hilltoppers bench. And when he retired in 1964, Diddle had more victories than any coach in NCAA history (759).
The red towel, which became a symbol of WKU’s basketball excellence, has been the Hilltoppers’ logo since 1971. That was the brainchild of John Oldham, Diddle’s successor who recruited McDaniels to WKU in 1967.
And in 1971, Oldham, McDaniels and WKU’s all-black starting five led the Hilltoppers to the NCAA Tournament’s Final Four and the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.
The Hilltoppers played Kentucky for the first time on March 18, 1971, and routed Rupp’s Wildcats 107-83 in the NCAA Tournament’s Mideast Regional semifinals. “One now can better understand why Baron Adolph Rupp has been ducking Western Kentucky all these years,” wrote the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader’s Gene Granger.
Five years earlier, Kentucky lost in the NCAA title game to Texas Western, the first team with an all-black starting lineup to win a national championship. Diddle integrated WKU’s basketball team in 1963 with Clem Haskins and Dwight Smith, who led the Hilltoppers to the 1966 NCAA Tournament.
Rupp finally followed in 1969, when Tom Payne became Kentucky’s first African-American basketball player. But in 1971 an all-black starting lineup was still a big deal in the South.
Oldham told The New York Times that before the season a member of the university’s board of regents approached him and coarsely asked if he was going to start five black players.
“We’ve come a long way, haven’t we?” Oldham said. “Like any coach, I was just trying to play the best guys.”
Oldham also remembered posting a letter on the team’s bulletin board that said McDaniels and Jim Rose “weren’t either smart enough or good enough to play.”
“That was such a big deal to these kids in my mind,” Jim Richards, one of Oldham’s assistants that season, said in 2014. “They never said it to me, but full well knowing that they were African-American athletes and knowing they were not recruited in essence by the University of Kentucky. They may say they recruited (McDaniels), but they really didn’t recruit him.
“I think they wanted to show coach Rupp they should be there. They made sure that they showed them.”
McDaniels poured in 35 points, Rose scored 25 points and Clarence Glover added 18 as WKU shot 51% from the field. Rex Bailey and Jerry Dunn, the other two starters, each scored nine points. The Hilltoppers led 51-38 at halftime and by 24 points three times in the second half.
“When we saw Kentucky written across their jerseys,” McDaniel said after the game, “we were ready to play.”
The Hilltoppers rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Ohio State 81-78 in overtime to reach the Final Four, where they lost to Villanova 92-89 in double overtime. UCLA beat Villanova 68-62 in the championship game for its fifth consecutive NCAA title.
The Hilltoppers beat Kansas 77-75 in the third-place game and McDaniels finished as the tournament’s leading scorer with 147 points in five games. He and his teammates also got the better of Rupp and Kentucky.
“He was way behind E. A. Diddle and Western Kentucky,” McDaniels said of Rupp. “We were a leader in that time of integration.”
Above and on the cover: Western Kentucky’s Jim McDaniels and Kentucky’s Tom Payne battle for a rebound in an NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional semifinal game on March 18, 1971. The Hilltoppers won, 107-83. (Courtesy University of Kentucky Archives)
THIS WEEK’S GREATEST MOMENTS
• Monday: Western Kentucky and Western Michigan
• Tuesday: William & Mary and Winthrop
• Wednesday: Wofford and Wright State
• Thursday: Yale and Zips (Akron)
• Friday: The Judge