It took a pickup-driving, rabbit-hunting white kid from Enid, Okla., to break the color barrier in NCAA men's basketball. To hear him tell it, longtime University of Texas at El Paso coach Don Haskins didn't set out to be a pioneer in the nation's race struggles. He said he fielded the first all-black starting five at the NCAA tournament in 1966 because "they were our best players and deserved to start." Texas Western (as UTEP was then known), went on to defeat an all-white University of Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp.
These event were chronicled in the 2006 motion picture "Glory Road." The movie aptly depicts acts of racism the players endured during that storied season. It does not fully capture the price paid by Haskins for his decision to start an all-black line-up in the tournament final. "The worst time of my life was the next two weeks. We won the championship and thousands of hate letters started coming in. And it really didn't dawn on me what this was all about until that time," Haskins was quoted in USA Today on the occasion of his death Monday from congestive heart failure. Haskins was 78 years old.
Former University of Utah coach Rick Majerus told the New York Times that the 1966 championship game, was "one of the most socially meaningful victories in the history of sports." Indeed, the percentage of blacks on college basketball teams jumped from 10 percent in 1962 to 34 percent by 1975. The average number of blacks on teams went from 2.9 to 5.7 between 1966 and 1985.
Haskins was uncomfortable for being singled out for that phenomena but he took pride in the life and academic achievements of the championship team. "Ten of the 12 players on the team got their degrees. And every one of the players have made successes of their lives," Haskins said when elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997.
Haskins, among the top 10 winningest college coaches of all time, had a career record of 719-354. "The Bear," as Haskins was nicknamed, took his teams to the NCAA tournament 14 times and to the National Invitation Tournament seven times.
When Utah universities were in the WAC, college basketball teams, coaches and fans were well-acquainted with Haskins' intense man-to-man defenses and his tendency to wear the same outfit game after game, sans necktie in the latter years of his career. More so, they were fully aware that Haskins' teams had won seven Western Athletic Conference championships.
In July 2001, two years after his retirement from 38 seasons as the Miners' head coach (32 winning seasons), Haskins was named the greatest college coach of all time by CBSSportline.com. "UTEP with no recruiting base, no media attention and substandard budgets had no business winning much of anything," wrote columnist Dan Wetzel. "No coach did more with less, maximized his talent and made strange parts fit better than The Bear."
What a perfect tribute to a man who literally changed the face of college basketball.