Coach Don Haskins changed the pace and race of college basketball.
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Many coaches compile successful won-loss records, some win championships, and, after years and years of hard work, a select few are elected to the Hall of Fame. And once in a generation a coach comes along that changes the way the game is played forever. Don Haskins has done all of the above.
In his 37 years as head basketball coach at the University of Texas at El Paso, Haskins, 68, has won more games than legendary coach John Wooden of UCLA and more national championships than this decade’s winningest coach Roy Williams of the Kansas Jayhawks. His 703 victories rank ninth all-time and he is fourth among active coaches in victories. He is best known, however, for a decision he made March 19, 1966. That night he started five black players in the NCAA title game against the University of Kentucky’s five white players. It was the first time in history that five black players had started a championship game. Haskins’ Texas Western Miners (as UTEP was known then) pulled off the biggest upset in the NCAA tournament to date, but that night they won much more than a championship title.
In 1966, Haskins’ Texas Western Miners pulled off the biggest upset in the NCAA tournament to date, but that night they won much more than a championship title.
Kentucky was coached by the famed Adolph Rupp, who was looking for his fifth national championship, while Haskins was only in his fifth year as a college coach. With Rupp’s coaching record and Kentucky’s team of great shooters, the Wildcats were heavily favored to win. Haskins, however, was the one who made another great coaching move. He decided to start 5’6” Willie Worsley instead of 6’8” Nevil Shed. Haskins figured it would give his team a quickness advantage over Kentucky and he was right. The Wildcats struggled all night with the speed of the Miners, and college basketball has been better off ever since.
Haskins and his team won the 1966 national championship, but more importantly they brought college basketball into the modern era. They demonstrated that players of any color could play together and be successful. Even the stubborn Rupp learned a lesson from Haskins—three years later, in 1969, Kentucky recruited its first black basketball player.
At the time of the championship game, starting five black players, according to Nevil Shed, was no big deal to Haskins. “The focus was more on being an underdog, not on race.” It did not occur to the players until years later that they had helped open doors for others. “I’m so proud to look back on that championship and realize that now anyone can play as long as they have the ability.”
Don Haskins did not bring racial integration into basketball, and it would have happened eventually without him, but he is the one who accelerated the pace of it. Even though schools in the western part of the country were regularly recruiting and playing black athletes, most southern schools needed a push in the right direction before their schools became integrated. Haskins provided that push in the form of a lightning bolt. His message was clear: play the best athletes, no matter who they are, or lose.
Haskins was not trying to make a political statement that night. He simply put his best team on the floor. But all the angry mail he received after the game made it clear that not everyone was happy with his decision. Eddie Mullins, former Sports Information Director at UTEP said the amount of mail that one game generated was daunting, “We used to get it by the trash bags.” Unfortunately for Haskins, he also took criticism from folks who accused him of exploiting the black athletes—so the championship coach couldn’t win on either side of the integration issue.
The national championship game, and the huge effect it had on college basketball, has caused many people to forget Haskins’ other achievements. “The Bear” (as he is known in El Paso for his demanding style and fearsome court side demeanor) has also won seven conference titles, four conference tournament titles, and has coached in seven National Invitational Tournaments and fourteen NCAA tournaments. He accomplished all this with only two All-American players (Bobby Joe Hill and Jim Barnes), which indicates that he can still coach and win without the same level of talent that many other schools enjoy.
Nevil Shed, a member of the national championship team, vividly remembers the Bear’s coaching style. “He has an amazing way of encouraging players without getting derogatory, unlike many of today’s coaches,” says Shed. “He kicked me out of practice once because he thought I wasn’t playing hard enough. Later that night he came by my dorm room and said, ‘Shed, I’m going to have to send you home.’ And he pulled out a plane ticket. Then he started packing my bags, and I went right behind him and unpacked every one of them. I kept saying ‘Coach, I don’t want to go home.’” After repeating that process for a while, Coach Haskins asked Shed if he was going to rebound and hustle at all times. “Yes sir. I will,” Shed replied, thinking about how disappointed his mother would be if her boy was sent home from school. Shed practiced so hard the next day that he broke his nose.
All of his success has not changed his personality or coaching style one bit, according to Eddie Mullins, who worked as UTEP’s Sports Information Director for nearly forty years. Mullins also says that Haskins’ personality off the hardwood is much different than it is when he is coaching. “You will never meet a more unassuming person than Don Haskins,” he says. Haskins is a true throwback to an era when hard work and loyalty were the most important elements of a successful coach.
A native of Enid, Oklahoma, Haskins began his Texas career coaching high school basketball in Dumas and at Benjamin and Hedley. During these initial years, where he earned a 160-41 record, Haskins coached the girls’ and boys’ teams in addition to driving a school bus. It wasn’t a glamorous living, but he loved it. He came to El Paso in 1961. “El Paso has been very good to me,” Haskins says. There have been opportunities over the years to move on to bigger, and supposedly better programs that would have paid more money, but Haskins turned down every offer, choosing to stay in West Texas.
“El Paso has been very good to me,” Haskins says. There have been opportunities over the years to move on to bigger programs that would have paid more money, but Haskins turned down every offer, choosing to stay in West Texas.
That decision may be part of the reason it took him so long to get into the Hall of Fame, which includes many members with lesser accomplishments. El Paso’s location certainly did not help his popularity with the eastern press, where many of the voters reside. And the Western Athletic Conference has never received the exposure of some of the other conferences. But none of this has hurt his popularity in El Paso. “The Bear is easily the most recognizable person in El Paso,” says Mullins. A tribute to this fame, and what Haskins describes as the biggest honor of his coaching career, occurred in September of 1997 when the Special Events Center, where UTEP plays its home basketball games, was renamed the Don Haskins Center.
Willie Worsley blows by a Wildcat in the history-making 1966 NCAA Championship game.
How has college basketball changed since that fateful day Haskins turned the NCAA championship on its ear? The biggest differences between players of 1966 and 1998, says Haskins, is that “they shoot better, they’re bigger, more skilled, and there are just more athletes now.” After all the years he still enjoys coaching and working with young people, and he says he does not treat his current players any differently than in the past. “Young people haven’t changed much. They’re still looking for the same things,” he said.
UTEP remains the only Texas school to have ever won a men’s national championship in basketball. “Texas is big enough for another champion, but they can never take away the honor that we were the first,” Nevil Shed says. Although UTEP’s championship game was played 32 years ago, Haskins is not the only participant of that game coaching basketball today. Pat Riley, record-setting NBA coach now working for the Miami Heat, played for that 1966 Kentucky team. And one of Riley’s best players is NBA all-star Tim Hardaway, who played for Haskins in college.
Although UTEP has struggled recently, in part due to probation caused by minor NCAA violations (one violation concerned the visiting of a recruit too early, which Haskins says he did because the player’s grandmother had to go to work and she wanted to speak with the coach herself), Haskins still enjoys coaching and plans to do so as long as he can.
In the 37 years that Don Haskins has coached the University of Texas at El Paso Miners, nearly every aspect of our society has changed. We now take it for granted that, as our favorite schools chase the coveted national title, the best athletes—without regard to race—will be played by coaches who also enjoy this equal opportunity.
This month, it is coach Tubby Smith who will lead his first University of Kentucky basketball team into the 1998 NCAA Tournament. And if things go well, the Wildcats will be making yet another Final Four appearance when the big dance rolls into San Antonio. Smith is a well respected coach with an outstanding record and very deserving of one of college sports most coveted jobs. But, at least to some small degree, he has a Texan known as The Bear to thank for his new job. Tubby Smith is black, and although a man’s race is no longer a factor in his ability to become head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky, Haskins can remember when the school, and many others, would not even allow non-white athletes to wear a uniform.
Don Haskins won’t be taking his team to this year’s Final Four, but close inspection will find him in the audience of the Alamadome, watching a championship game playing out 32 years after he made the fateful decision to start five black players. Due in large part to the UTEP coach hidden in the stands, racial diversity on the court in San Antonio will be, thankfully, in plain view.
The Host with the Most
How San Antonio brought the NCAA Championship to Texas
After trying to land the NCAA basketball championship for nearly a decade, the San Antonio Local Organizing Committee (SALOC) has finally succeeded in its quest to bring the Final Four to South Texas. San Antonio attempted to lure the NCAA to town several times before last year’s Midwest Regional (the Sweet 16) round. In 1989, the city was denied its request for the 1992 Women’s Championship. But in the summer of 1993 San Antonio found out it would be the host for the 1998 men’s Final Four, and SALOC has been planning for the big dance ever since.
Bill Hancock, Director of Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Administration, said San Antonio rated highly in each category that the basketball committee examines when selecting a site. The four factors the committee looks at are lodging, the game facility, transportation, and the host city’s ability to administer the championship based on NCAA guidelines.
In addition, Hancock said, “Not being known as a basketball hotbed may have helped San Antonio’s case, because the committee likes to take the event to new places.” The city also benefited from hosting preliminary rounds in the past.
“We had a great dry run with the Midwest Regional last year that helped us plan for the Final Four,” said Sandra Lopez, Director of the Local Organizing Committee. That experience with hosting thousands of basketball junkies should pay off this year. During the Midwest Regional, SALOC was able to learn how to deal with traffic, lodging, NCAA requirements, and administration problems caused by March Madness.
Over the past year, members from the NCAA selection committee have been traveling to San Antonio for two or three days each month to plan the event. “I fell in love with the city,” said Hancock. “And the city and UTSA (University of Texas at San Antonio) have done a great job of working with SALOC to administer the event.”
Lopez said the NCAA has been very helpful in planning the event. “They don’t leave any gray areas,” she said, “Their manual leaves nothing to chance.” SALOC has also organized an almost endless array of basketball festivities to coincide with the Final Four. All-star games, slam-dunk contests, coaching clinics, and the NCAA’s Hoop City will all be available for fans who just can’t get enough basketball.
The capacity of the Alamodome will be expanded from its normal basketball capacity to 40,500 for the Final Four. The extra seats will be retractable temporary seats in the southeast corner of the Alamodome. Hancock is looking forward to an exciting weekend of basketball. “Maybe San Antonio will become a basketball hotbed after the Final Four,” he said. Nothing would make Lopez happier. San Antonio has already been named host of the 2002 Women’s Basketball Championship, and if all goes well this year, the city will have a great shot at repeating as host of the Men’s Championship in 2003 or 2004.
People have been traveling to San Antonio for years for all types of entertainment, but not often have they visited the River City to watch basketball. (Read Hoop Scoop, 1983)
That’s all about to change, because March Madness is coming to Texas. San Antonio is host to the 1998 NCAA Men’s Final Four Championship, the nation’s grandest amateur sporting event. The three games, to be played March 28-30, will each attract 40,500 rabid fans to the Alamodome and thousands more to the city who just want to be part of the atmosphere for America’s greatest sports weekend. What in the name of Shamu are 150,00 basketball junkies going to do in San Antonio? Rest assured, hoops fans, Alamo city is going to be transformed into a basketball mecca for the Final Four, and few cities in America can entertain visitors like San Antonio can. The local Final Four organizing committee, through cooperation with the NCAA, has created an impressive list of basketball activities, including slam-dunk contests, coaching clinics, and the NCAA’s Hoop City — something for fans of all ages to enjoy.