The annoying thing about this age of mass and instantaneous communication is that anything that didn't happen this morning on a screen at the end of our noses gets lost. That's how we lose track of a man like Don Haskins, who has never been appropriately appreciated as a king-sized figure in college athletics.
Haskins led a team to an NCAA men's basketball championship, but it happened before March Madness. He won 719 games, but hardly any of them appeared on Big Monday. He coached 38 years at the same school, but road trips rarely carried him to Madison Square Garden, Pauley Pavilion, or for that matter, to the ACC or Big Ten. He was the point man in perhaps the seminal game in college basketball history, yet did his day-to-day work in a hard-to-get-to little town that shares a border with Juarez, Mexico. You ask people today to tell you about Don Haskins, and they give you that blank look. Clem Haskins? No, Don Haskins, nearly 40 years at Texas El-Paso, the school formerly known as Texas Western. Haskins, as in "The Bear," as was his nickname. Haskins, as in the man who suffered a heart attack during halftime of a 1996 game, leading to triple-bypass surgery a few days later. Haskins, as in just retired, announced late Tuesday night.
A confession: Back in 1987, when I was covering Georgetown basketball for this newspaper, the Hoyas played at UTEP. Now, you know John Thompson didn't take his team just anywhere; the fact that Georgetown even played down in El Paso says a ton about what Thompson thought of Haskins. Before I left D.C. I got a phone call from Wil Jones, the longtime UDC coach who loves a good story nearly as much as he loves basketball. Jones said, "Son, I know you aren't old enough to remember Texas Western winning the national championship, but you shouldn't go down there without getting to know Coach Haskins. Don't leave there without going to see him."
So I did. I asked for 20 minutes and he gave me an hour. Three things about the session in his office stand out even now. Haskins had the hardest recruiting job in America. His job was to talk kids from big cities like Chicago and Detroit into coming to a school they never heard of in a town on the edge of nowhere. The second thing was that Haskins couldn't remember anything. I mean nothing. People would tell you stories, intimate stories with great details about generous things Haskins had done, and he had zero recollection. And the third thing was, even though he was the central figure in what increasingly has become known as the Brown vs. Board of Education of college basketball, Haskins walked rather innocently into the moment.
To anybody who has asked--and that number must be in the thousands--Haskins has said he gave no thought whatsoever to putting five black players on the floor at Cole Field House for the start of the 1966 NCAA championship game against Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team, which in many ways was the perfect symbol of southern racial exclusion.
Haskins said he didn't plan it, didn't think about it, and I believe him. He was a total innocent. The great thing about history is that the people who make it often don't know it at the time. And you have to remember, this was the '60s. There was no ESPN, no sports-talk radio where people were dissecting every speck of information about the two teams. I doubt the words "Final" and "Four" had been put one after another. College basketball wasn't a national phenomenon. People weren't discussing the potential starting lineup for some team from just north of Juarez, Mexico. Who knew? Haskins knew he had to put his quickest, best-shooting team on the floor to beat Rupp's runts, and that meant going with those five guys. All five happened to be black. Any other way, in my mind, would have been tainted. The whole thing would have been trivialized.
Haskins, unlike other coaches of his time, didn't think to himself, "Oooops, almost forgot. Can't start that lineup." The courageousness is in the fact that he didn't fret for one second over the possible fallout from doing something that then was radical to the point of being unprecedented. All Haskins did was go with his best. Isn't that the definition of meritocracy? And color blind? That, in a perfect world, is exactly how to combat bigotry. Haskins was only 36 years old then. But as it turned out, he would never make as big an impact on basketball again. How could he? He won a basketball game and in the process demonstrated that there was nothing lacking, physically or intellectually, in black players.
Having to negotiate a workaday world as an historic figure for the next 36 years did, however, obscure something about Haskins.
He must have been one heck of a basketball coach.
Who did he have on his teams? Go ahead, start naming all the great Texas Western and UTEP players of the past 30 years. Actually, there have been three: Tiny Archibald, Jim (Bad News) Barnes and Tim Hardaway. By playing in the NBA so long, Greg Foster more or less qualifies, too. That's it. You could count his truly great players on one hand, yet he won seven Western Athletic Conference titles and took the Miners to 14 NCAA tournaments. Gene Iba, a former Haskins assistant and now the head coach at Pittsburg (Kan.) State, told the Dallas Morning News: "If Dean Smith had worked out there, I am not sure he could have accomplished what Don Haskins did. And I have nothing but respect for Dean Smith. Coach Haskins worked in a time zone where no one goes. He's an absolute icon in our profession."
Perhaps the occasion of his retirement will allow us to sit back and take in, all these years later, the gigantic contribution of a man who asked for no fanfare, and received relatively little.