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 and got better on a daily basis.”
You can dismiss such talk as optimistic coachspeak, but not everyone does. Given the luxury of an actual off-season, Gillispie assembled an impressive coaching brain trust, including former University of Houston head coach Alvin Brooks and former Texas Tech assistant Doc Sadler. He then landed a class of junior-college transfers that at least one recruiting savant ranked among the nation’s best. “To be able to recruit the kind of players we did after having not a very good record at all, I really think we’re on the right track,” Gillispie says.
A workaholic sharpie in the Rick Pitino mode—though more Men’s Wearhouse than Armani—43-year-old Gillispie grew up in Graford, near Mineral Wells and Possum Kingdom Lake. Graford High doesn’t even field a six-man football team, making hoops the favored game. “It’s almost like Indiana,” he says. “There were four hundred ninety-five people in the town and six or seven hundred in the gym. You start basketball in the second grade and play all the time.” After graduating from Southwest Texas State (now Texas State University), Gillispie paid his dues at the high school level, though unlike Haskins in the fifties, he didn’t also have to coach girls or drive the bus. Most recently, he helped current Kansas coach Bill Self to conference championships and Elite Eight finishes at both Tulsa and Illinois.
Now he aims to be for Miners basketball what Mack Brown was for Longhorns football, which means that all he has to do is recruit like crazy, win-win-win, and put more butts in the seats of a building named for the man who set the program’s standard. Fortunately, just as Darrell Royal dotes on Brown, the Bear approves of his once-removed successor. “We did ourselves proud in hiring him,” Haskins says. “I think he’s trying to do the right thing.”
The right thing being hard-rebounding, high-intensity, fundamentals basketball, something Miners fans have learned to prize even more than natural ability or a good won-lost record. Last year, Gillispie ran the sort of practices that teammate fights are made of (he was as pleased as punch when one did break out) and recoiled at the suggestion that his team may get beaten off the boards simply because the other schools are deeper, taller, or stronger. “I can’t buy that,” Gillispie says. “Rebounding is nothing but heart and determination and toughness.”
That’s the kind of talk the Miners faithful love. “He’s running the type of program El Pasoans are used to,” says Miners booster Edward Davis, who owns a restaurant near downtown. “He seems like the real deal. We just have to be patient.” The community’s embrace of its new coach is so warm that even a mid-season DUI arrest didn’t sidetrack the goodwill. “I only got two negative letters, and they were both from the same person,” Gillispie says. The charges were ultimately dropped, but that didn’t stop the coach from writing about 1,500 letters to fans and season-ticket holders, apologizing for embarrassing the program.
Gillispie’s personal-touch-with-elbow-grease approach likewise applies to recruiting players and romancing high school coaches. Want to know the main reason Omar Thomas, the nation’s leading junior college scorer, became a Miner? “Everything that went down, I was talking to the head coach,” says Thomas, a Philadelphia native who attended Panola College in the East Texas town of Carthage. “At all the other schools, it was pretty much the first or second assistant who was recruiting me.” Says Haskins, who won without a single high school all-American: “This is a tough place to get players. We are in remote west West Texas. I can get in my car and go to Los Angeles as quickly as I can to Houston. I told Billy, ‘You’re not going to be able to get the players you got in Illinois. You’re going to have to