‘Miner Strong’ Exhibit Kicks Off New Year

By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP News Service

While UTEP remains the only Texas school to win an NCAA men's basketball championship, a new exhibit on campus demonstrates why the University has many other sources of pride when it comes to the history of its athletes and sports teams.

The Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens opened Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP on Dec. 12. The exhibit will be on display through March 18.

From left, UTEP President Diana Natalicio, Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens director Maribel Villalva, and Lynn Polk of the UTEP Heritage Commission were on hand for the opening of the “Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP” exhibit at the Centennial Museum. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News ServiceFrom left, UTEP President Diana Natalicio, Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens director Maribel Villalva, and Lynn Polk of the UTEP Heritage Commission were on hand for the opening of the “Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP” exhibit at the Centennial Museum. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News Service

Designed in conjunction with the UTEP Athletics Department, the exhibit also pays homage to the late basketball Coach Don Haskins and standout athletes who left their mark on the UTEP playing fields and beyond.

“On a personal level, I have really loved seeing this exhibit come together and working alongside UTEP Athletics,” said Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens director Maribel Villalva. “It gave me the chance to learn so much about the athletics programs.”

Development of the exhibit began in early 2013. Keith Erekson, Ph.D., executive director of the Centennial Celebration, and Villalva knew they wanted to highlight different aspects of UTEP's history through each of the special exhibits that would be displayed at the museum through its role as headquarters of the UTEP Centennial Celebration.

Given the importance of athletics throughout UTEP’s history, the idea of a sports-oriented exhibit was a slam dunk. However, basketball does not garner the entire spotlight here. In addition to the 1966 NCAA championship, the organizers of the exhibit made sure to focus on a broad variety of athletic achievements. The exhibit mentions all current sports at the University while a detailed timeline highlights milestones of the past 100 years.

A segment titled "Miner Legends" showcases athletes who have made their mark at UTEP and beyond. Many athletes distinguished themselves at the University and went on to the Olympics or to play with the NFL or NBA. In many cases, these athletes still hold top-scoring records at UTEP. 

From left, KVIA-TV General Manager Kevin Lovell, memorabilia collector Joe Gomez and UTEP Director of Athletics Bob Stull view a display about the momentous 1966 NCAA Championship win by UTEP’s basketball team during the opening of the “Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP” exhibit at the Centennial Museum. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News ServiceFrom left, KVIA-TV General Manager Kevin Lovell, memorabilia collector Joe Gomez and UTEP Director of Athletics Bob Stull view a display about the momentous 1966 NCAA Championship win by UTEP’s basketball team during the opening of the “Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP” exhibit at the Centennial Museum. Photo by Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP News ServiceFinal content for the exhibit was rounded out by UTEP’s Athletics department with significant contribution from Jeff Darby, senior associate athletic director of communications and university relations, and assistant media relations director Drew Bonney. Centennial Office researcher P.J. Vierra contributed text and fact checking. University Communications produced several of the videos running throughout the exhibit.

The display includes pieces on loan from the Heritage Commission and from UTEP alumnus Joe Gomez, who has amassed an extensive personal collection of University-related sports memorabilia over the decades.

Some of the great items on loan from Mr. Gomez include the championship ring he had commissioned for the 1966 NCAA Championship team on the 20th anniversary of their win,” Villalva said.

Also on display is a uniform from the first-ever Sun Bowl game played on Jan. 1, 1935, when the El Paso All-Stars, a team comprised of the city’s best high school players, took on Texas’ No. 2 high school team from Ranger, Texas.

“The uniform, surprisingly enough, is still in perfect condition,” Villalva said. “We have that juxtaposed with a 2013 UTEP football uniform and it’s great to see them side by side.”

The 1935 game was organized by the El Paso Kiwanis Club as a fundraiser, and the All-Stars beat the Rangers 25-21. The Sun Bowl became a collegiate game the following year.

Fun, interactive elements of the exhibit include a life-sized photograph of current UTEP basketball player Matt Willms, who stands 7 feet, 1 inch tall with an arm span that must be seen to be believed. Visitors can stand alongside the cutout to measure their own height and reach against Willms’ to see how they measure up.

Another source of amazement is the display charting exactly how far UTEP track star Bob Beamon jumped when he competed in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The 29-foot, 3-inch jump broke the world record and shocked everyone including Beamon himself, who collapsed on the track when he was told of his official distance. The length of the jump is displayed on the gallery's floor.

A steady stream of visitors has already stopped by to take in the exhibit, including out-of-towners visiting for the holidays. “The exhibit will still be up through the Conference USA tournament in March, so we hope to attract a good number of visitors during that time as well,” Villalva said.

Museum hours are 10 am to 4:30 pm Tuesday through Saturday. Visitors may obtain more information by calling 747-5565 or 747-6669, or by visiting the museum’s website, museum.utep.edu.

Miner Strong: A Century of Sports at UTEP is the second in a series of Centennial exhibits honoring UTEP’s Centennial Celebration. Future exhibits will highlight UTEP headlines of the past century, the Chicano movement on campus, the school’s bond with the Kingdom of Bhutan and a Centennial photo contest.