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