When Oral Roberts toppled Florida last Sunday, the charismatic Christian school entered rare company as the second 15-seed in the history of the men’s NCAA basketball tournament to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. Yet if there’s a miraculous element surrounding the small school from Tulsa, there’s also familiarity. There are five other Christian schools joining ORU in the Sweet Sixteen this year. What’s more, ORU has been here before—in fact, it’s gone even further.
While the school’s particular brand of Christianity might make it an oddity in major college sports, its involvement in basketball is part of a much longer story of Christian engagement with the game.
That story can be traced all the way back to 1891 when James Naismith invented the sport at a Christian college: the YMCA International Training School. Those origins, along with Naismith’s description of the task of a YMCA physical director—“to win men for the Master through the gym”—are often cited by Christian basketball fans as evidence of the evangelistic roots of the sport.
Naismith, though, aligned his life’s work less with saving souls and more with character formation. His basic goal was to “do good to men and serve God” and “leave the world a little better than I found it.” The sport quickly developed a life of its own, taking root in communities that crossed boundaries of race, region, religion, gender, and nationality.
Still, Christian affinities remained strong, particularly among Christian colleges. While football was the unquestioned king of college sports, the resources needed to thrive on the gridiron made it cost prohibitive for many smaller schools. By the 1940s and 1950s, urban Catholic colleges, Bible colleges, and Protestant schools embraced basketball, with Oral Roberts University joining the tradition as a new school in 1965.
The school’s namesake was a key figure in the entrance of Pentecostalism into mainstream American religious life. With ORU, Roberts hoped to establish an institution that could educate, train, and serve as a symbol of respectability for the Spirit-filled Christians of the charismatic movement.
He also hoped to provide what he called a “whole man” education, training mind, body, and spirit—the very language used by James Naismith and the YMCA. But while Naismith saw spiritual formation as a gradual process of character development, Roberts emphasized its supernatural aspects, with the indwelling Holy Spirit working in believers in a miraculous way to produce the abundant life.
Joining Roberts’s focus on the Holy Spirit was an emphasis on physical discipline. All students, athletes or not, were expected to be physically fit, a key part of ORU’s “honor code.” Sports were part of Roberts’s plans too. The basketball team was his chance to demonstrate the benefit of the honor code on a national level, while proclaiming the gospel and gaining respectability for both ORU and the charismatic movement as a whole.
By 1970, his plan seemed on track. Sports Illustrated published a short piece that year on the “hard-driving small-college basketball team that, if Roberts has his way, is on its way to becoming major.” Roberts had hired Middle Tennessee State University coach Ken Trickey and challenged him to win a national championship by 1975. Adopting an up-tempo style he dubbed WRAG—“we run and gun”—Trickey’s teams started to win games and attention.
Sports Illustrated also took note of the true secret behind ORU’s surprising success: the presence of talented black players. Four of ORU’s five starting players were black, a rarity for predominantly white southern schools at the time, some of which had not yet integrated. Trickey’s willingness to recruit and play black players, unrestricted by quotas, allowed him to bring in quality players that his competitors weren’t recruiting.
Roberts supported these developments. While he was certainly not on the front lines when it came to racial integration, by the 1960s he had started to talk more about his Cherokee heritage, and he became more vocal in his support for civil rights. Black players, Roberts told Sports Illustrated, were “a part of us.” The testimony of ORU’s black athletes seem to support this view. Carl Hardaway, team captain, said in 1970 that players were given a “real fair shake here.” Star player Richard Fuqua was even more effusive. “For a black man,” he said in 1972, “it’s the freest place in America.”
Along with Trickey, Fuqua was the man who made ORU basketball go. Averaging 36 points per game, Fuqua led the 1971–72 team to 26 wins, an NCAA-high average of 105 points per game, and a trip to the quarterfinals in the NIT tournament. His long-range shooting ability, coming before the three-point line existed in college basketball, earned him the nickname “Mad Bomber,” as well as a magazine profile in Sport titled “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ball to Fuqua.”
The team also received positive attention in national publications like the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Newsweek. This success only confirmed Roberts’s belief in the value of basketball—“Athletics is a part of our Christian witness,” he said—and his championship expectations.
As it turned out, the team got closer to a championship than anyone but Roberts and Trickey could have believed. In 1974, ORU made the NCAA tournament and upset Louisville in the second round before losing in overtime to Kansas, one game away from the Final Four. The loss to Kansas marked the end of Trickey’s first stint at ORU, a decision he’d made earlier in the year, and the beginning of the end of ORU’s brief run at the top of big-time college basketball.
To be sure, Roberts continued to invest in the sport. He told a reporter in 1975 that basketball was the “perfect pulpit” because it matched his ministry’s “idealism.” With 40 million men reading the sports page every day, he said, “basketball is one way to get our message across to them.”
Subsequent years, however, generally brought more negative publicity than positive. Later in the 1970s, the university faced a lawsuit over its “Pounds Off Program.” Then came an NCAA investigation into the basketball team, which resulted in a year of probation.
The team eventually rebounded enough to return to the big dance during the 1984 NCAA tournament, losing to Memphis State in the first round. But any hopes that ORU might win a national championship were fading fast, along with the respectability Roberts had built up in the 1970s.
Starting with his claim in 1980 that he had spoken with a 900-foot Jesus, Roberts made ever-increasing demands on his supporters to send money as he moved from one financial crisis to another. While he did not get wrapped up in sexual scandals like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, his controversies aided and abetted the broader critique and mockery of prosperity gospel evangelists in the 1980s.
Roberts’s problems reached a point of no return in 1987, when he infamously told supporters that God was going to “call him home” if he didn’t raise $4.5 million. Though he received the money and claimed that the media had deliberately misinterpreted his words, the damage was done. By 1989, Robert’s ministry had accumulated a total debt of $25 million.
The school and its basketball program survived the tumult of the 1980s, albeit in chastened form, with the basketball team dropping down to NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) competition for several years.
In 1997, under the leadership of Bill Self (now head coach at Kansas), ORU returned to postseason play with a trip to the NIT. A decade later, they made the NCAA tournament for three consecutive seasons (2006–08) losing in the first round each year. Now in 2021, ORU is in the third round of the NCAA tournament for the first time since Ken Trickey’s tenure in the 1970s.
Despite this year’s surprising success, Roberts’s original vision of winning national titles and cultural respectability through basketball remains elusive. In many ways it’s even further from being realized than it was 50 years ago. As a member of the mid-major Summit League, ORU lacks the resources to compete with the elite teams. And the school’s honor code is not only a target of ridicule; it’s also now a target of activism. One columnist has argued that the team should be shunned for what she describes as the “deeply bigoted anti-LGBTQ+ policies.”
On the other hand, there are continuities between the 2021 ORU team and the story of Christian college basketball. The team’s run is cultivating school pride and providing a platform for players and coaches to talk about their faith.
Head coach Paul Mills even linked his desire to coach all the way back to basketball’s founder, telling The Gospel Coalition that he wanted “to win men for the Master through the gym” like Naismith. In that sense, ORU stands as one more example of the much larger story of Christian schools involved in basketball.
At the same time, ORU’s charismatic distinctives, its openness to the supernatural, remain strong. How could they not during March Madness?
“Expect a miracle,” Oral Roberts liked to say. For an underdog school competing in March, that’s precisely what most fans will do.
Paul Emory Putz is a historian studying sports and Christianity and serves as the assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary.
Jonathan Root is an independent scholar who received his PhD in history from the University of Missouri. He is writing a religious biography of Oral Roberts for Eerdmans.