Haskins, Donald Lee

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HASKINS, Donald Lee

(b. 14 March 1930 in Enid, Oklahoma), gruff, principled basketball coach who broke racial barriers by guiding Texas Western College to the 1966 NCAA championship and who went on to become one of the most successful coaches in college basketball history.

Haskins was born at the beginning of the Great Depression on the outskirts of the region soon to become known as the Dust Bowl. His parents were Paul Haskins, a truck driver and semipro baseball player, and Opal Richey Haskins, a homemaker. Haskins's father instilled a love of sports and hunting in his two sons. Haskins's first love was baseball, but by his freshman year in high school he was determined to become a basketball player, devoting so much time to the sport that, as he later wrote, "On the night of the junior-senior prom, while people were dancing, I was shooting baskets." He matriculated at Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State) in 1948, where he joined the basketball team and earned pocket money by hustling pool. At first Haskins resented the grueling tactics of Henry "Hank" Iba, A&M's legendary coach, but he eventually gained respect for Iba's toughness and insistence on team play—traits that would later come to characterize Haskins's own teams. Haskins was a good, but not great, player, earning second team all-conference honors in 1951–1952, his senior season. With Haskins playing guard and forward, Oklahoma A&M was national runner-up in 1948–1949 and placed fourth in 1950–1951.

In 1951 Haskins married Mary Louise Gorman. Their marriage lasted more than fifty years and produced four sons. Haskins left college in 1954, twelve hours short of graduation, to play semipro basketball with the Artesia (New Mexico) Travelers. (He would complete his degree at West Texas State College in 1958.) In 1956 he took a high school coaching job in Benjamin, Texas—population 300—where he coached the football team and boys' and girls' basketball teams in addition to driving the school bus. After a year there, he moved on to similar jobs in Hedley, Texas, where he stayed four years, and Dumas, Texas, where he remained for a year.

In 1961 Haskins was named head basketball coach at Texas Western College in El Paso, Texas, a job he would hold for the next thirty-eight years. El Paso, isolated from the rest of Texas both culturally and geographically, proved a haven for African-American student-athletes who were attracted by the community's relative lack of racism. In 1956 Texas Western had been the first college in a southern state to integrate its basketball team, and when Haskins arrived, he inherited a star African-American player, native El Pasoan Nolan Richardson. Haskins was an immediate success at Texas Western, posting winning records in each of his first fifteen seasons. His best players in those years included Jim "Bad News" Barnes, a dominating center who became the first overall pick in the 1964 NBA draft, and Hall of Fame point guard Nate "Tiny" Archibald.

By the 1965–1966 season, Haskins's fifth, Texas Western had become a force to be reckoned with. The team's six best players were African Americans, and Haskins played them all, successfully resisting an edict from Texas Western's president to play only three black players at a time. Led by center David Lattin and point guard Bobby Joe Hill, the Miners won their first twenty-three games and ended the regular season ranked third nationally with a 23–1 record. A tough, smart, and defense-minded team, Texas Western was an unknown quantity to most of the country as they won their first three games in the NCAA Tournament to reach the Final Four. On 18 March 1966 they defeated Utah to reach the championship game against a heavily favored—and all-white—team from the University of Kentucky. Though little remarked upon at the time, the racial issues at stake were clear. African-American players were still unofficially banned from the Southeast, Southwest, and Atlantic Coast Conferences. It was the first time an all-black starting lineup had appeared in the championship game, shattering the myth that any squad lacking a white player would inevitably degenerate into chaos. The statement was underscored by the fact that the Miners were facing Kentucky, a bastion of segregation whose coach, Adolph Rupp, had privately vowed never to recruit blacks, and who referred to the Texas Western men as "a bunch of coons" during a halftime speech to his players.

Texas Western quickly took control of the game. Near the end of the first half, back-to-back steals by Hill turned the tide in the Miners' favor, and they led the rest of the way, winning 72–65. Although the championship made Haskins an instant hero in El Paso, the victory quickly became tinged with racial bitterness, as hate letters from nonblacks poured in from across the country. But some blacks criticized Haskins too. On one hand, the black radical scholar Harry Edwards accused him of exploiting African-American athletes, while on the other, the white author James Michener attacked Haskins's team with a racist harangue in his book Sports in America. "That next year was about the saddest and toughest of my life," Haskins later recalled. "A lot of days I wished we had finished second."

After the 1966 season schools with greater prestige and resources than Texas Western (which was renamed the University of Texas at El Paso [UTEP] in 1967) often tried to lure Haskins away. But he found that he liked El Paso's laid-back attitude—and its proximity to good hunting and fishing—too much to move. In 1969 he accepted an offer from the University of Detroit to triple his $20,000 salary, but after just one day in Michigan, he grew homesick, changed his mind, and returned to UTEP.

In 1972 Haskins was briefly reunited with his mentor, Iba, when he served as Iba's assistant on the U.S. Olympic basketball team. The 1980s, meanwhile, saw Haskins's Miners dominate the Western Athletic Conference, winning an average of twenty-three games per year while collecting five conference titles and seven consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The 1988–1989 squad, led by future NBA all-stars Tim Hardaway and Antonio Davis, went 26–7. But as the 1990s approached, Haskins seemed to lose his recruiting touch, and finding players became increasingly difficult after 1993, when some minor rules violations resulted in NCAA sanctions against UTEP. In addition, top athletes were increasingly reluctant to commit to an aging, disciplinarian, and defense-minded coach at a desert school in the middle of nowhere.

But Haskins kept coaching, putting his players through relentless defensive drills with a gruff demeanor that earned him the nickname "The Bear." On 20 January 1996 he suffered a heart attack during halftime of a game and, after undergoing triple bypass surgery, sat out the rest of the season. He came back the next season, and in September 1997 UTEP's basketball arena was renamed the Don Haskins Center. Later that month, on 29 September, Haskins received his sport's highest honor when he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. A year later, on 24 August 1998, he announced his retirement from coaching.

Haskins finished his thirty-eight-year career at UTEP with a 719–353 record, ranking as the tenth winningest coach in Division I history. Although the Miners played in fourteen NCAA tournaments during Haskins's tenure, they compiled a mediocre 14–13 tournament record, and were able to advance past the second round only once after the 1966 championship season. In the 1992 tournament—Haskins's last—his underdog team surprised top-seeded Kansas in the second round to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

Haskins was famed as a teacher of young coaches, serving as a mentor for such future coaches as Richardson and Tim Floyd, and is one of the foremost defensive coaches in the history of the college game. His lasting legacy, however, is the 1966 championship game. As time passed Texas Western's victory came to be regarded by many as the most significant game in college basketball history. After 1966 college basketball integrated at light speed, and even Kentucky had an African-American player by 1969. Dozens of prominent basketball figures, including Bob McAdoo, Rick Majerus, Tubby Smith, and Pat Riley (a member of the losing 1966 Kentucky team), have cited the 1966 championship game as an inspiration to their careers. Haskins, for his part, always maintained that race played no part in choosing his lineup that night. "I played my five best players, who happened to be black," he said. "If it advanced opportunities for blacks and showed the world what they could do, well and good."

Haskins wrote an autobiography, Haskins: The Bear Facts (1987, as told to Ray Sanchez). Two books describe the 1966 championship season in great detail: Ray Sanchez, Basketball's Biggest Upset (1991); and Frank Fitzpatrick, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (1999). Haskins was featured frequently in Sports Illustrated, including major articles on 28 Mar. 1966, 15 July 1968, 21 Mar. 1991, and 1 Mar. 1999. Significant articles also appear in Texas Parade (Jan. 1967), the Austin American-Statesman (1 Mar. 1997), and the El Paso Times (4 Feb. 1997, 25 Aug. 1999, and 18 Mar. 2001). Finally, the UTEP men's basketball media guide, published annually by the school's athletic department, contains an exhaustive amount of information about Haskins, his teams, and his players.

Eric Enders