Haskins a pioneer for justice, common man

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Don Haskins was the John Wayne of basketball, a one of a kind throwback, a coach's coach and a man's man who finished his career in an era overrun by the Armani-clad phonies.

When he retired in 1999 after 38 years at the University of Texas at El Paso, I dropped him a congratulatory note. A few years earlier I had written a magazine story about him and his decision to start five black players in the 1966 NCAA title game.

He got the note and called. "Now that I've got nothing to do, come down and visit," he said. This was rare for a reporter. You don't become friends with these guys. I wondered why he wanted to. Now I treasure that he did.

He picked me up at the airport in his pick-up truck. We drove into the desert to "chase clouds." This was a good time to Haskins and what we generally did on my many ensuing visits.

A bottle of Jose Cuervo usually came along. Sometimes we'd slip into Mexico for a cerveza. Maybe we'd shoot beer cans or play pool in some little dive. One time we got up early and watched the sun come up with jackrabbits along the Rio Grande.

Mostly he'd talk and I'd listen.

Our conversations are over. Don Haskins died Sunday afternoon after a long illness. He was 78. I'm like a lot of people who loved him; richer for every moment spent with him, frightened at the prospect of going on without him.

He was a man of great courage and conviction who essentially gave up on making it to the big time of college basketball when he dared to start all those black players. Almost no big school would touch him after that. He was typecast as an outcast in a dark and unforgiving time.

He was a powerful and demanding coach known as "The Bear," winner of 719 games and a Hall of Fame inductee. He was so tough he had a heart attack at halftime of one game and refused a stretcher. He walked to the ambulance.

He was more than that though. He was a fun loving, one-of-a-kind character. A pool hustler (he beat Willie Mosconi once), a golf gambler (he teamed with Lee Trevino) and all-time storyteller. He once had a golf bet with another coach where the winner got a home game between their two teams.

He was from a better era of sports, when it wasn't so big, wasn't so corporate, wasn't so corrupt.

One time the Final Four was in Minneapolis. I was there covering it. Haskins used to show up to resell his complimentary ticket and then bail, always enjoying that he was making some quick cash off the NCAA, an organization he despised.

This time he was staying a night. He told me to meet him. He gave me the address. Normally with Haskins you went somewhere simple and smoky. For years, his favorite bar was in the lobby of a Travelodge Hotel. The guy was a walking Merle Haggard song.

At games, he relented to "dressing up" by wearing a clip-on tie. He threw more than one of them at a ref, occasionally forcing them to throw Don Haskins out of the Don Haskins Center. Planning ahead he had a buddy park a little trailer out back with a cooler full of beers.

All this considered, I thought jeans and a T-shirt more than appropriate.

The address turned out to be a big theatre, where the NCAA was holding a Final Four party. It was a big to-do and Haskins was the guest of honor. After all these years the NCAA was trying to make nice. He'd have little of it, using the opportunity to rip the association for its corrupt compliance system and for favoring East Coast teams.

The place was full of powerful people. There were conference commissioners, athletic directors, television executives and magazine editors. Everyone was in a suit. When I noticed Haskins had pressed his flannel shirt I knew I had been tricked.

"Why didn't you tell me this was a fancy thing, I would have worn a coat and tie," I asked him.

"I like having someone dressed worse than me," he said. "That way when people say, 'Did you see the guy who doesn't know how to dress?' they aren't talking about me."

The story of the 1966 Texas Western Miners was perfect for a Disney movie: On the night before the title game against Kentucky, Haskins decides to start five black players, they win and all is good.

Haskins liked "Glory Road." He hated that part. He never said it publicly. He was above that. Fact is he had started five black players from Day 1, and the movie made Haskins look like he was afraid to do so. That pained him.

To pretend everything was great after the championship was a stretch, too. Racial slurs were never his greatest enemy. It was far more personal.

He was 36, with a wife and four kids. He had a low-paying job at a school no one had ever heard of. It had taken the family three years of living in the football dorm to save up for a house.

And he had a decision to make. A decision none of his coaching peers could understand why he was contemplating.

There was an old coaching axiom back then, when many college teams were still segregated. If you coached at a school that allowed black players, the joke went: "you played two at home, three on the road and four if you were behind."

You never played five, especially in the South. Jackie Robinson had come along well before in baseball, but he was one black on a team full of whites. An all black team presented a different image to America.

Every coach knew it, including all of Haskins' friends.

"They'd say, 'Don, are you crazy?' " Haskins said.

By starting five black players, as he planned to do, the upward arc of his career would be over. He had started as a high school coach in a town of 253. He was a talented guy, big money and big opportunity awaited. Not this way though.

If he won, bigger, richer schools would see him as the coach of "the black team." They'd never hire him. If he lost or, heaven forbid, there were any discipline problems with his players (there weren't), he'd be fired and likely never work in the NCAA again.

"I understood what they were saying, I just said, 'Piss on them,' " Haskins said. "Piss on them all. I brought these kids here; I'm playing my best players.' "

The victory helped integrate not just schools but entire conferences – the ACC, SEC and Southwest Conferences were segregated at that point. Almost immediately the floodgates opened.

"He literally got thousands and thousands of black kids scholarships to college," said Nolan Richardson, a former Haskins player. Later in life some of those players he had never met would approach him at airports and restaurants and thank him.

Haskins, as his friends predicted, got zero job offers. The only major school to ever try to hire him was his alma mater, Oklahoma State. Today if someone won an NCAA title at a mid-major, they'd choose their multimillion dollar job. Not in 1966. Not with that starting five.

He did get hate mail by the bucket. And the NCAA dispatched an investigator to look into the players' academics (they were legit). He was shredded in much of the national media. Sports Illustrated even concluded he was exploiting blacks, not helping them, a charge his old players still bristle at.

"For a long time I said winning that championship in 1966 was the worst thing that ever happened to me," he said.

In recent years he was no longer bitter about those days. He had come out on top in the end. The world had come around on the Glory Road he paved.

People began to appreciate that in a sports world filled with hyperbole, a young man gave up so much personally because it was the right thing to do. The thing no one else would.

I'd visit El Paso often, even if just for a few days. We'd get in the truck and drive. To Columbus, Alamogordo, Lubbock, Puerto Palomas, Dell City, Nutt, Wherever. We'd just drive and talk. Talk and drive. We'd call each other most days to discuss everything from politics to football picks to how you raise your kids.

Long after Haskins had stopped teaching players what Henry Iba taught him, he was still a coach.

There was a wisdom you could gain being around him. What he did in the 1960s was a characteristic, not an isolated action. It carried over into almost everything.

Haskins was a champion of the common man. In El Paso he is a legend, the biggest celebrity the town has ever had. Yet he never would eat at fancy restaurants or hang out with the local movers and shakers. He favored blue-collar bars and Mexican grocery counters. He skipped the Hollywood premiere of the movie, citing his health. The night before, though, he watched the Rose Bowl with lots of friends and more tequila.

As his fame grew due to Glory Road, both the movie and the book we co-wrote, he never changed. Twice he turned down chances to meet President George W. Bush. The White House asked him to join the president for breakfast in El Paso. He chose instead to eat with me at a little spot in an old motel. The next time, when the president invited the 1966 team to the White House for a dinner, Haskins skipped the offer. But not before making sure every team manager, university employee and friend of his he could think of got to go.

We once did a book signing in a saddle blanket shop in El Paso and over 2,000 people showed up. He wasn't feeling well. We kept trying to get him to go home and rest. He wouldn't stop signing until the line was done. It took 11 hours.

"They came here expecting this," he said.

He'd organize massive humanitarian efforts across the border without the media ever knowing. He'd leave an overworked waitress a twenty for a cup of coffee. He'd walk into a small bar full of Mexican day workers and buy the whole place a round, a nod of respect to everything they dealt with. He gave real advice to real people, giving halftime speeches until his final days. He was the definition of color blind.

He grew up in Enid, Okla., during the great depression. He never forgot where he came from.

He had an army of people like me, some of us guys half his age of all races and creeds and colors. He showed us how to live and how to lead and sometimes just told us outrageous jokes. I have a great father I'm exceptionally close with. I wasn't looking for a second one. Haskins wasn't looking for another son. It just happened.

He was 36 when he won that national title, when he changed history for the better and his career prospects for the worse, when he stood up like no coach ever. I'm that age now. I wish I could say with certainty I would be strong enough to do the same.

The more time I got to know him though, I learned where "piss on them" came from.

I realized that Don Haskins could only make one decision back then. I realized courage and conviction are not one-time things. I realized what principle really meant.

And I realized what he was trying to teach me in that truck of his, through all the long drives and longer laughs, through the desert dust that'll forever kick up behind us.

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