Coach Don Haskins: The Death Of A Legend In College Basketball

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Coach Don Haskins: The Death Of A Legend In College Basketball

Don Haskins passed away last night. I'm certain that he didn't pass without a tear coming to so many people and players he touched.

Born in Oklahoma in the dust-bowl days of 1930, educated at Oklahoma State where he played basketball for Coach Henry Iba, this was no traveling troubadour like fellow Okie Woody Guthrie. This is a man who put down roots in the western Texas town of El Paso in 1961, did not retire until 1999, and changed the game of basketball along the way.

The immediate response to how Haskins changed the game would be to list the first team with five black starters in 1965-66.

Well, that's not really true, there were others before that. Perhaps the first team with all black starters in an NCAA Championship game. Possibly, but Loyola of Chicago had won the national title three years prior with four black starters, so it seems the leap to five was hardly quantum, despite what pop culture historians like to pretend.

The real way the man known affectionately as the "The Bear" changed college basketball was by demonstrating that a talented defensive team can defeat a talented offensive team. And that by doing so, paved the way for hundreds of less publicized inner-city kids, to obtain potential college scholarships at large and established programs throughout the entire country.

In March of 1966, the top three teams in the country arrived in College Park, Maryland for the Final Four. In the semi-finals Don Haskins' Texas Western Miners, ranked No. 3 in the country, took on scoring machine Jerry Chambers and Utah.

The great defensive five was unable to slow down Chambers, but little used reserve Jerry Armstrong came in and put the clamp on the big gun of Utah. The Miners prevailed, 85-78, thanks to defense.

The battle for the Championship the next night would have been memorable regardless of the Miners' opponent. You see, the other semi-final was No. 2 Duke versus No. 1 Kentucky, and each had all-white teams.

With the Blue Devils' leading scorer Bob Verga down with an infection and held to 16 points below his average, the Wildcats escaped 83-79.

An unlikely soldier in the Haskins' army, Bobby Joe Hill, proved to Pat Riley, Larry Conley, and the other Kentucky stars what defense can do to an offensive juggernaut. Twice in the opening minutes Hill swiped the ball from Kentucky guards, and the game was over right then. Without too much trouble, the Miners won the national title, 72-65.

Afterwards Haskins was approached and advised that this "should be the first of many Final Four trips" as he was a young man. "No, no chance" replied the Bear, it's "probably going to be a once in a lifetime (experience) for me".

As he went off into the Maryland night, smoking cigarettes a pack at a time and popping aspirin and Anacin like candy, that is a prediction Don Haskins wished he had been incorrect in making. Those early spring evenings 42 years ago did prove to be Texas Western's only trip to the Final Four.

"Good night sweet prince"

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