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 find another way.'”
Of course, UTEP is not the same little nowhere school Haskins started out at; its student body has grown from barely 5,000 to just more than 17,000, and the athletic department is in the midst of a facilities renaissance, including a redo of the Haskins Center and a sparkling new training facility, the Larry K. Durham Sports Center, that athletic director Bob Stull boasts is among the twenty nicest in the country. But that doesn’t change the fact that high schoolers from Katy to L.A. don’t dream of Miners orange; they’re at Foot Locker buying a Duke jersey or pretending to be Allen Iverson on the Xbox.
If Haskins won by embracing the black player before the major conferences did and by taking chances on unheralded recruits like Archibald, who was called Tiny for a reason, Gillispie has also had to get creative, looking not just to junior colleges but to other countries. Assistant Sergio Rouco helped the Miners land both Brazilian Thomas Gehrke and Puerto Rican point guard Filiberto Rivera, the latter of whom led Southeastern Community College, in West Burlington, Iowa, to the junior college national championship. Gillispie was able to get Gehrke enrolled in school in time to play the second half of last season, while his other new recruits, Jason Williams, from Kilgore College, and Brent Murphy, from Lon Morris College, played only a single year, which means they have three to give to UTEP.
“This is a developing place,” Gillispie acknowledges. “You’re not going to get a finished product here, but you can take a guy and turn him into something just as good or better than more-highly touted high school prospects. Sometimes you get a guy who some people may think is too short or too slow—doesn’t have this, doesn’t have that. But you see the beauty of him fitting into your system.”
That’s a luxury Gillispie didn’t have last season, when ten bodies for a scrimmage were difficult to come by and players like five-foot-eight-inch three-point gunner Omar Duran and gifted string-bean freshman Giovanni St. Amant were forced to shoulder full-time roles. This year he’ll have sixteen, including veteran forward Roy Smallwood, who has a chance to finish among the Miners’ top ten career scorers, and several kids who were persuaded to walk on because there weren’t enough scholarships to go around. He sold each recruit on the fact that there would be playing time available but also on restoring the tradition.
If Gillispie has a timetable on the latter, he isn’t saying: “I’ve got a one-day plan: We just try to get better every day.” His newest star-to-be is a little more specific. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, getting the pieces together,” Omar Thomas says. “But I definitely feel that if not the NCAA, we can at least make the NIT.”
Even if that goal is met, this year or in five years, there’s no doubt that the University of Texas at Austin has a better chance of becoming the state’s second national champion than UTEP has of doing it again. But Gillispie is quick to point out that Marquette University—the last “mid-major” school to win it all, in 1977—was right there alongside the Horns at last year’s Final Four. And the beauty of college basketball is that all 327 teams start out with the same dream: to be among the 65 teams that get a shot on a neutral court. The chance to mingle with Duke, Indiana, and Kansas every year is what it’s all about.
“Winning the national championship is really hard for anybody, but what really impresses me is the longevity and excellence of [UTEP’s] program,” Gillispie says. “They didn’t only have one great team here; they had forty years of great teams. I think we’ll build that tradition back quickly.”