College Basketball Has Lost a Giant

James SenbetaCorrespondent ISeptember 8, 2008

Don Haskins, portrayed in Disney’s “Glory Road” as the legendary coach who won a national title in 1966 with five starting black players on UTEP (then Texas Western), has passed on September 7 at age 78.

The Hall of Fame coach had a career record of 719-353, 14 NCAA tournament appearances, 7 NIT berths, 14 WAC championships, and 4 WAC tournament titles in his 38 years of coaching El Paso before health issues forced his retirement.

Haskins was the prime example of being color blind when dealing with race. He grew up in Oklahoma playing one-on-one with one of his childhood friends Herman Carr, an African American.

Forever dignified, Haskins was always an everyday person, approachable by many. He never meant to take advantage of his celebrity, but always willing to help others in need regardless of whom they were, even when he himself was not better off.

Rather than worry about his job or image, he played black players with the sense of “If you don’t take them I will and win with them.” Unlike the events parlayed in the movie, Haskins always started his best players throughout the season, who just so happen to be all black.

He never meant to be a pioneer, just someone unbiased to give individuals a chance to excel in both sports and life. To prove such a point Don was one of the few coaches, if not only, to play more than one or two non-white player at a time on the floor during the early ‘60s because he cared more about winning than race.

That decision came with the hardship of being one of the most despised men in the South. He had received thousands of hate letters leading up to the national championship and Civil Rights leaders thought he was using his players like puppets. Even so his high flying offensive, defensively stingy team continued to trudge along to 23-1 in the regular season.

Haskins played only his black players against Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky squad in a 72-65 win for a 28-1 season and the national championship. Rupp viewed the game after the loss picturing Texas Western as “urban street thugs, quasi-professionals imported from Northern cities to win Haskins a championship.”

The win opened the door for Perry Wallace to become the first African American to play in the SEC and rose the flood gate for others to be heavily recruited to major college basketball powerhouses thereafter.

Haskins’ coaching tree includes the likes of current USC head coach Tim Floyd, friend Norm Ellenberger after Lobo-Gate, and the outspoken Nolan Richardson, who won the 1994 NCAA tournament and lost to UCLA in the final game the next season.

It was only fitting that the namesake of the Don Haskins Center passes exactly a year after his 1966 team was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He leaves behind his wife Mary and three sons, Brent, David, and Steve.