Brad Rock: Haskins was a coach with spice

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 10 2008 12:07 a.m. MDT

Upon learning that former Texas-El Paso basketball coach Don Haskins passed away Sunday, I felt a pang of regret, although I can't say I knew him beyond a few cursory interviews.

I just knew I'd miss him.

He was a fine coach, though perhaps not the greatest men's coach of all time, as CBSSportsline.com claimed in 2001. He did win or share seven conference championships in 38 years at UTEP.

But John Wooden won more national championships (10) than that. Rick Majerus won 10 conference championships in 13 years.

Still, Haskins is rightly credited with being the first coach ever to start five black players at a Division I level. That year, 1966, the Miners won the national title. It was a momentous event.

Yet Haskins never did claim to be an activist, just a pragmatist. He said he started his five best players, period. He didn't begin the year with an all-black team, which is all the more telling.

Haskins was an equal opportunity employer before equal opportunity was the law.

Hence, the Miners won the title and the rest is "Glory Road" film history.

What I'll miss about Haskins — and have missed since he retired in 1999 — is his style.

They don't make 'em like the Bear anymore. Cowboy boots, Western-cut jacket, silver belt buckle and a genuine Southwestern drawl. He sometimes told reporters he half wished he hadn't won that championship. It brought too much attention.

Haskins was no stranger

to basketball fans in Utah. He spent decades battling Utah and BYU in the Western Athletic Conference. He would stalk the sidelines, game program rolled tightly in his fist, bellowing and sweating.

Like Majerus, he did what he needed to win, even if it wasn't pretty. In the '70s, before the shot clock, Haskins employed a stall offense against better teams. That resulted in some appallingly low scores but surprising victories.

Entertaining fans was one thing, but winning was serious business.

Though he usually seemed somewhat gruff — hence his nickname — there were times the Bear let down his guard. During a preseason media day in 1989, Haskins was sitting at the end of a table. As other coaches arrived to take their seats, he had to keep rising to let them pass. It wasn't easy for the protuberant coach.

Still, he wasn't alone. Utah had recently hired the ample Majerus.

When Haskins got to the podium, he eyed Majerus and said, "I'm disappointed. He's not nearly as big as they said. I'm still the fattest guy in the league."

Everyone laughed, including Haskins.

Noting plus-size women's basketball coach Craig Roden in the room, Haskins continued, "(Majerus) was supposed to be really big, but he's not nearly as big as our FAT women's coach sitting back there."

OK, maybe he didn't get the memo on sensitivity, but he didn't take himself seriously, either. If he had, he would have left unglamorous El Paso for a flashier job decades earlier.

The man who wore his shirt unbuttoned to the sternum loved his dusty border town.

Haskins was unique. You'd be hard pressed to find a coach today who hunts coyotes and sells the pelts for extra cash, as Haskins did. Today's coaches employ accountants and agents and wear tailored suits. They're button-down guys with fancy degrees and even fancier shoes.

Haskins' persona was big but unpretentious, like his reported favorite food: oversized enchiladas with fried eggs on top.

I'll miss him because he was real. That cowtown demeanor was no gimmick. Haskins spent most of his life in a parched outpost that is hard to find and, for some, even harder to like.

Though he didn't set out to make history, he did.

He'll be remembered in Utah for the wars he waged; revered everywhere in gyms where everyone has a chance.

Long live his legacy.

Long live border towns and enchiladas montada, too.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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