The best college basketball coach in Texas history still spends most game nights at the place that bears his name: the Don Haskins Center, a building with uniform orange seats on the UT-El Paso campus that tells its story in the rafters—25 banners, including a double-sized commemoration of the only national champion this state has ever had. Disney is considering a movie about the basketball team at Texas Western College (which later became the University of Texas at El Paso) and its history-making run through the 1966 NCAA tournament, in which Haskins’s five African American starters beat an all-white Kentucky team, smashing basketball’s color barrier forever (can you say, “a roundball Remember the Titans?”). During Haskins’s tenure the Miners won 719 games, racked up 14 NCAA appearances, and prepared both players (Nate Archibald, Tim Hardaway, Antonio Davis) and coaches (Nolan Richardson, Tim Floyd) for the big time.
“He’s a legend. He’s a hall of fame guy. And he’s a Miner through and through,” says current UTEP basketball coach Billy Gillispie. “He built this program, he built the building, he has so much to do with everything that goes on in this city and the university. He knows so much about the game, but more importantly he knows so much about life, getting the most out of people, caring about people, those kind of things. It’s a real treat every time I get a chance to be around him.”
As part of the reporting for his story on Gillispie and the current UTEP team (see “Miner Threat,” November 2003), Texas Monthly’s Jason Cohen sat down with Haskins during the ‘02-‘03 season.
texasmonthly.com: Has the game changed since you were coaching?
Don Haskins: Changed? Not that much changes. The athletes every year get a little better. I think Gillispie’s trying to do the right thing. We’re not going to be good until we get a good defense, and I think he’s well on the way to doing that.
texasmonthly.com: Is that especially true for smaller programs—defense is the most important thing?
DH: The team that wins the national championship will always be a team that can guard you. Sure, you can get away with a little less defense if you’ve got great offensive players, but the national champion will be able to guard you.
texasmonthly.com: How about the prominence of the Big 12, has that made it harder for schools like UTEP to compete with the big schools?
DH: The old Southwest Conference was pretty good, but the Big 12 has gone way beyond that, especially in terms of basketball. The University of Texas is now a basketball power, and Bob Knight is really a boost for not only Texas Tech but also Texas basketball. Sure it does make it harder, but there’s still a lot of basketball players out there. I talked to Bob Knight a while back when they were playing here, and I asked him, “Are you surprised that there’s so much talent in the state of Texas?” He was telling me that he watched one tournament in the summer where there were five guys—if I’m wrong, maybe he’ll forgive me—but I think he said he saw five guys that could possibly be NBA players. I’ve always known if I could just get me one or two out of Texas a year that I wanted, I’d be going to the NCAA tournament.