Instant grief and sadness prevailed Sunday night upon hearing the news of Don Haskins’ passing.
Immediately my mind flashed back to the images scampering across a flickering black and white television screen.
How appropriate. The year was 1966. Haskins led his Texas Western College Miners over Kentucky in the NCAA Basketball Championship game. Haskins deployed seven players in that game; all were black. Kentucky was all white.
Thanks to Dan Wetzel’s book ‘Glory Road’, and the 2006 Disney movie based upon it, Haskins’ story has finally earned its rightful place of prominence.
Last year, Haskins and his entire 1966 team were inducted into the basketball hall of fame, recognized forever as the pioneers that they are.
We can only appreciate how far we’ve come in this country, when a black man can earn the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, by looking back at where we’ve been.
Before Don Haskins came along, no one had the guts to put five black athletes on a basketball court together at the same time. “His friends asked him, ‘Don, are you crazy?’” Wetzel told Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com. “Are you nuts?
If you play five blacks, they’re going to call you a black coach. Even if you win, you’ll never get another job. And if you lose and get fired, nobody will ever hire you. And if one of those kids messes up, then you’re done. Your entire career is done, and you’ve got kids to feed. Don’t do this. It’s stupid.”
Hard as it is to imagine now, that was the prevailing sentiment 40 years ago. That’s what Haskins stood up against.
“He said, ‘Seven of my best eight players are black. And I’m playing them. I don’t care what the repercussions are,’” Wetzel related.
“I wasn’t out to be a pioneer when we played Kentucky,” Haskins often said. “I was simply playing the best players on the team, and they happened to be black.”
But a pioneer is exactly what Haskins became. “When they won that national championship against Kentucky, that changed college basketball,” former coach Eddie Sutton told the associated press. “There was a change in the recruiting of the black athlete. It really changed after that.”
Former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who played on Haskins first two teams, told the Associated Press, “I think one of the truest legacies that he could ever leave was what happened in 1966. He was never political. Those were the times and the days black kids didn’t play at other schools, but he started five and was able to win with them without worrying about what color they were.”
Of course, Haskins knew a little basketball, too. He coached at UTEP (Texas Western changed its name in 1967) for 38 years, from 1961 through 1999. His record was 719-354, including 32 winning seasons, 17 20-win seasons, seven WAC championships, 14 NCAA tournament appearances, and that one national championship.
In fact, CBSSportsline.com named him the greatest Division I men’s basketball coach of all time in July, 2001.
“UTEP, with no recruiting base, no media attention, and substandard budgets, had no business winning much of anything. No coach did more with less, maximized his talent, and made strange parts fit better than The Bear,” wrote Wetzel, using Haskins’ nickname.
That sentiment was echoed by no less an authority than Bob Knight, college basketball’s winningest coach. “Don got more out of his teams and players than any coach who has ever coached college basketball,” Knight told the A.P.
“The word ‘unique’ does not begin to describe Don Haskins,” Knight continued. “There is no one who has ever coached that I respected and admired more than Don Haskins. I’ve had no better friend that I enjoyed more than Don Haskins.
“The myth that surrounds Don Haskins in the movie ‘Glory Road’ and what he did for black athletes, is better said that he cared like that for all his players. To me, that tells me more about the man than anything. There was never anyone like him before, and there will never be one like him again.”
One way to measure a coach’s impact is to look at what kinds of people his players became. Of the seven who played
in that famous game, four earned their degrees. The other three finished within a semester of graduating, and went on to successful careers.
By contrast, only one of Kentucky’s starters in that game had earned a degree 10 years later.
Ironically, current Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie also coached at UTEP.
“I looked forward to his phone calls after each and every game,” Gillespie told CBSNews.com. “It was just like having another coach on the bench. I took every single thing he said to heart. I knew he didn’t have an agenda. He was just trying to help one of his friends win a game.”
If one’s life is measured by how it affects other’s lives, Don Haskins lived a life beyond measure.