IT’S THE BEST PART OF COLLEGE basketball, if not the best thing in all of sports: March Madness. Fans delight, gamblers sweat, and even that nice lady from personnel becomes a connoisseur of point guards as little-noticed schools like Gonzaga and Kent State put on the glass sneaker alongside the power teams. So it’s too bad that the greatest Cinderella of them all hasn’t done the Big Dance in a dozen years. The University of Texas-El Paso is the only school in the state to have won a national championship, and what a win it was. Coach Don Haskins’s 1966 squad, the first tournament team with five African American starters, dominated an all-white Kentucky lineup, smashing basketball’s color barrier forever. “ UTEP,” current Miners coach Billy Gillispie notes, “was Gonzaga before Gonzaga was around.”
That’s mostly because of Haskins. Over three decades plus, the Bear won 719 games, made it to the NCAA tourney fourteen times, and prepared both players (Nate Archibald, Tim Hardaway, Antonio Davis) and coaches (Nolan Richardson, Tim Floyd) for the big time. “ UTEP—with no recruiting base, no media attention, and substandard budgets—had no business winning much of anything,” CBS SportsLine.com’s Dan Wetzel wrote, proclaiming Haskins the best college basketball coach ever. But after a Sweet Sixteen trip in 1992, the parquet floor dropped out. Haskins endured NCAA probation, triple bypass surgery, and two losing seasons (out of five overall) before retiring in 1999. His successor, Jason Rabedeaux, had one good year in three before mysteriously stepping down for “personal reasons” in October 2002.
Enter Gillispie, who arrived just two weeks before the 2002-2003 season started, inheriting a squad with just eight players and four first-year starters. His Miners tasted victory only six times, dropping both games at their own holiday tournament and setting new school records for losses (24) and futility away from home (27 straight road defeats over two seasons). Usatoday.com statistics guru Jeff Sagarin ranked them three-hundredth out of 327 NCAA teams. Yet Gillispie sees a silver lining. “We had a lot of chances to worry about the hand that had been dealt us,” he says, “but we never looked for excuses. We just dug in