What does ex-Aggie basketball coach George McCarty have in common with the great Adolph Rupp, Phog Allen, Frank McGuire, and John Wooden? Answer? They all brought teams to the 1952 NCAA Basketball Tournament.
It was the Aggies first NCAA tournament, though NM A&M did have a strong tournament tradition, having played in the NIT in 1939 and several NAIB Tournaments in the 1930s and early 1950s, including the NAIB in Februrary 1952 just prior to the NCAA tournment. The NAIB, or National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball, held a tournament for "small colleges" each year. It was not unusual for schools to play in both the NAIB and NCAA tournments in those days.
George Courtney McCarty had an unlikely background for a basketball coach. Recruited from the Texas JC football ranks in 1937, he had a scholarship offer from Oklahoma A&M. Instead, he chose to accept one from NM A&M. An undersized, but very tough guard on the fine Aggie football teams of the late 1930s, the 160-lb, 5'8" McCarty never played college basketball, but he was a student of the game and a fan of the great Aggie basketball teams of the late 1930s.
McCarty's academic progress at NM A&M was interupted by WWII. He enlisted in the Army and became an Air Corps pilot, reaching the rank of Lt. Colonel by the age of 30. With his obvious, recognized skills as a leader, teacher, and motivator, the Army kept McCarty stateside during the war. He crisscrossed the country to train air crews at a half dozen air bases. These young crews played a huge role with the mighty 8th Air Force in Europe and the 5th and 13th Air Forces in the Pacific.
Following the victories over the Axis in 1945, and as promising as his military career was, McCarty resigned from the military in 1946. He then spent a year coaching high school football in his hometown of McLean, Texas, before returning to NM A&M in 1947 to complete his college education. Vaughn Corley, head football coach at the time and an assistant when McCarty played for the Aggies in the late 1930s, liked what he saw. McCarty was hired as an assistant to coach freshman football.
When a vacancy occurred as freshman basketball coach in 1948, McCarty was asked by head coach John Gunn to fill that position. Luckily, WWII Navy veteran Jimmy Viramontes, an all state basketball player at Las Cruces High, was on that squad. He would leave to play for Texas by the following season. The matureViramontes was not just a fine player. He understood basketball strategy and fundamentals and was a great help to McCarty in learning and teaching the college game. McCarty, who was a notorious "quick study," buried himself in basketball books and coaching clinics. He particularly liked to read Hank Iba's philosophy.
In 1948-49, the Aggie freshman team was a sensation, finishing the season at 21-3, with the three losses coming by a total of four points. Two of those losses were avenged with wins. When Coach Gunn was fired after a 9-15 season in 1948-49 (he later coached at Santa Fe High), McCarty was offered and accepted the head job at NM A&M.
The Lobos and Miners were soon in trouble, as were other teams in the Border Conference. From 1949-52, McCarty's teams were 58-38, played in three NAIB Tournaments and the 1952 NCAA Tounarment. Besides Texas Western (UTEP) and UNM, their Border Conference foes included Texas Tech, West Texas, Arizona, Arizona State, and Northern Arizona. The Aggies also had a tough out of conference schedule that included Oklahoma A&M, Oklahoma City, Wichita State, Missouri, Bradley, and Pepperdine.
Well known players from the early McCarty years included Bob Porter, long-time head of the NM Farm and Livestock Bureau in Las Cruces and Tom Donnelly, ex-NM Court of Appeals Judge in Santa Fe. Porter recalled playing Western NM in the Sunshine Basketball Tournment in Portales on December 30, 1949, an exhausting 5-overtime game eventually won by the Aggies 37-32. The previous evening, the Aggies had prevailed over Eastern NM, 54-52, and the day before had won a close game from Howard Payne.
With his team near physical collapse, McCarty inserted the seldom used 6'7" Donnelly in the overtime periods against Western. There was no shot clock in college basketball then. McCarty told Donnelly to get the tap, receive an occasional return pass as the rest of the team played keep away until the end of the overtime period. Eventually, it worked, much to the dislike of the Portales fans. Though delighted with the title, McCarty vowed it was the last time his team would come to Portales.
McCarty's 1949-50 Aggie team went 17-13, and won an NAIB playoff game from Eastern NM before losing to Tampa at the NAIB tournament in Kansas City. McCarty's 1950-51 team was 19-14 (11-6, second in the Border Conference) despite playing eleven of the first thirteen games on the road. Invited to the NAIB again, they beat W. Virginia St.and Central Michigan in Kansas City, before losing to Hamline.
The stars of the 1951-52 team were Mike Svilar, Bob Priddy, and Jim Tackett. Each was named all Border Conference for at least one year (Tackett for two) during their stay at NM A&M. Svilar was an undersized, though very strong, 6'1" post man with a Boston Blackie moustache and a sweet hook shot. McCarty discovered Svilar playing intramural ball on campus, persuaded him to join the team and gave him a scholarship. He graduated in mechanical engineering, later got a law degree, and became a prominent lawyer and Wyoming State Senator.
Priddy and Tackett were stout 6'3" forwards recruited out of junior college by McCarty, and away from Oklahoma A&M's Hank Iba. Both were later drafted by NBA teams – Priddy by Baltimore and Tackett by the Milwaukee Hawks (later St. Louis and Atlanta). Both suffered career ending knee injuries soon thereafter, though Priddy played 16 games in the 1952 season with Baltimore before being forced to retire. Priddy graduated in PE and became a high school coach. Tackett got a degree in agriculture, worked as a consultant in that field for many years. He passed away several years ago in Alabama.
The 1951-52 Aggie team finished 22-11 and 11-4 in the Border Conference – good for a first place tie. Victories included two over Texas Western and Arizona State, and one each over UNM, and Texas Tech. They had tough losses to Oklahoma A&M and Missouri. In the NAIB tournament, Jim Tackett's 31 points paced the Aggies to an 86-70 win over Southern Mississippi. The next night, Bob Priddy's 20 were not enough against rugged SW Texas, who beat the Aggies 69-52.
But all was not lost. By virtue of their first place tie with the West Texas Bulls in the Border Conference and a playoff game with the Bulls won by the Aggies, NM A&M was invited to the NCAA tournament. Like the NAIB, the NCAA Tournament in 1952 was played in Kansas City, and was the first to have a true regional format. The winners at four regional sites advanced to the 'Final Four' in Seattle. It was also the first tournament to have extensive television coverage. The Aggies, who were one of only 16 teams invited, played Saint Louis University in the Kansas City Regional, losing 62-53 after a hard fought game.
The 1952-53 Aggie team finished with their worst record under McCarty, 7-17. But like Marvin Menzies' 2007-08 Aggie team, the squad had many newcomers and played a murderous out of conference schedule that included Oklahoma A&M (twice), Tulsa, Bradley, Oklahoma City, Pepperdine, and Wichita State. But the season was still considered successful (some things never change) because they beat the Miners and Lobos each twice.
McCarty, who had added duties as Aggie Athletic Director and line coach in football in 1951, was very popular in Las Cruces. Problem was, he was also popular in El Paso – at least with the Texas Western administration. McCarty was offered the position of head basketball coach at Texas Western at a nice increase in pay. Unexpectedly, the unthinkable had happened – McCarty accepted and left Las Cruces to coach the Aggies' arch rival. It was sometimes ugly. There are several still around who have not forgiven him to this day. The 1953 Aggie yearbook, The Swastika, summed it up well…
Fans and players alike are extremely sorry to see McCarty leave and want to wish him the best of luck. However, circumstances being what thay are, there are many varied feelings and confused wihes about McCarty's future.
McCarty started slowly at Texas Western. His 1953-54 team was 8-14, including a 1-1 record with the Aggies, now coached by Presley Askew. Askew came by way of the University of Arkansas. He would be a fine Aggie coach into the early 1960s.
McCarty's post-1954 Miner teams went on a roll. They were 13-8 in 1954-55 and a combined 54-36 through 1959. The Miners won a Border Conference championship in 1957 and a conference co-championship in 1959. In 1959, McCarty stepped down to become Dean of Men at Texas Western. Shortly thereafter in 1960, he was asked to take over as Miner Athletic Director, a job he held until 1970.
As AD, McCarty saw the Miners win some in football, and spectacularly in basketball. He was personally responsible for hiring Don Haskins as Miner basketball coach over the strenuous objections of more than a few others. Haskins, who played for Hank Iba at Oklahoma State, was an unproven high school girls coach when McCarty offered him the Miner job in 1961. The rest is history.
"I was coaching New Mexico State when Don was a senior," said the 93-year-old McCarty. "They beat us in double overtime on a Saturday night. We stayed and worked out with them on Sunday. I kept up with Don after that." Haskins recalled that "George really liked the way Mr. Iba coached. I followed Don everywhere he went," McCarty recalled, "and that sucker had success everywhere he went." When the UTEP head coaching opened up in 1961, McCarty contacted Haskins and asked him to drive to El Paso. McCarty was absolutely sold on Haskins and they made a deal.
In the 1950s under McCarty's leadership, Texas Western had recruited and played black players at a time when all-white college sports teams were common, particularly in the South. When Haskins arrived in El Paso, he inherited three black players, including El Paso's Nolan Richardson who would later go on to win a national championship as coach at Arkansas.
The Miners improved quickly under Haskins, reaching the NCAA Tournament in 1963 and 1964 and the NIT in 1965. The 1966 team was to be immortalized in the movie Glory Road. With five black players starting, Haskins' 1966 National Championship team represented the changing of the guard in college basketball.
The Miner football program during McCarty's administration, while not measuring up to the basketball program, had good success – rare for Texas Western in those days. The Miners, under head football Bobby Dobbs won 21 games over the 1965-67 period, including Sun Bowl victories in 1965 and 1967.
In 1970, McCarty was contacted by the University of Wyoming and accepted the job as athletics director. Wyoming had recently been a big winner in football under Coach Lloyd Eaton. Eaton's teams compiled a record of 57-33-2 over the 1962-69 period, with banner years in 1966, 1967, and 1968. In the first two years, the team posted back-to-back 10-1 seasons, including a 14-game winning streak from November 5, 1966 to January 1, 1968, then followed with an undefeated season in 1968. Wyoming won the 1966 Sun Bowl and played in the 1968 Sugar Bowl.
Lloyd Eaton was coach during the 1969 "Black 14" episode in which 14 Wyoming players were kicked off the team for planning to wear black arm bands during a game against BYU. The players were protesting the racial policies of the Mormon Church, which were soon changed to allow black athletes at BYU. The controversy raged, and by 1970, Eaton was gone.
The "Black 14" incident caused a major crisis at Wyoming. Black athletes soon stopped coming and Wyoming football took a downward spiral for seven years. But after McCarty arrived, the black student athletes gradually returned and new Coach Fred Akers made progress with the program. The extent to which McCarty's rapport with black athletes was a factor is unclear, but Wyoming was happy with the results, when in 1976 with black players in a prominent role, Wyoming won a WAC football championship. McCarty, Akers, and the assistant coaches received bonuses.
McCarty completed his career as AD at Wyoming and retired in 1980. But that wasn't the end of his involvement in college athletics. Deciding to live in Albuquerque, McCarty was soon contacted by UNM to head up athletics fund raising for the Lobo Club. Like all his other endeavors, McCarty was successful – nobody had more contacts or savvy than George McCarty. He retired for good in 1985 and now lives near Austin in Marble Falls, Texas with wife, Marietta.
Looking back on the life and many accomplishments of George McCarty, I am struck with a touch of sadness for my alma mater, New Mexico State University. Why? Because George McCarty, NMSU alum, athlete, fine coach, innovative sports administrator, and gentleman is not in the Aggie Sports Hall of Fame.
It's been 55 years since McCarty left NMSU for UTEP – I say it's time to get over it and welcome him home as an Aggie.