The death of Don Haskins would make news throughout the sports world, even if all he ever did was coach college basketball. The grizzled coyote hunter, known as “the Bear,” enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, after all, winning 719 games at Texas El Paso including the 1966 NCAA championship, when UTEP was known as Texas Western.
But the passing of Haskins has received notice well beyond the sports page. His 1966 squad was the first all-African-American starting lineup to win the NCAA championship. On that day in Maryland’s Cole Field House, the Miners of Texas Western dominated Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky Wildcats. It’s a game that has only grown in stature over time, the Selma bridge march of the sports world, in which the struggle for civil rights played itself out on the hardwood. Disney even turned that championship season into the 2006 film Glory Road, and in 2007, the entire team was enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame.
But Don Haskins was not any kind of civil rights agitator. No one would confuse the Bear with John Lewis; he wasn’t facing hoses and dogs for his troubles. Haskins believed simply that sports at its core should be a meritocracy: the wacky concept that the best five players belonged on the court, color be damned. Hardly a radical notion, but then again neither is the desire to not sit on the back of the bus.
I spoke with Rus Bradburd, Haskins’s assistant for eight years at UTEP and the author of Paddy on the Hardwood, who put it this way: “Haskins was an agent for social change. But he was an accidental agent, an accidental hero–not the Glory Road bulls–t–was a lot more interesting than the movie version.”
The real Haskins could be cantankerous, ornery and “a walking Merle Haggard song,” in the words of his biographer Dan Wetzel. In other words, neither he nor his salty vocabulary was made for Disney. He stressed defense above all else, and insisted that his players function with a discipline and absence of showmanship that fit their name: the Miners.
Former team captain Steve Yellen told me, “The first day of practice, October 15, 1977, I was a cocky freshman from New York. No one told me that I wasn’t supposed to talk back to Coach. I dribbled the ball between my legs and it hit my heel and went flying out of bounds. I felt the wrath of the great Haskins for the first time. ‘Take that crap back home to Chicago little man!’ I was angry and yelled back at him I’m not from Chicago, I’m from New Yawk, running back down the court. I didn’t dribble between my legs again until spring of my senior year and I didn’t talk back again until I graduated. We became best of friends. He was one of the great characters ever to walk the earth.”
It’s a tough image for many progressives to get their heads around: a coach who cared about little more than coaching, who wanted his players to conform to his very conservative conception of what basketball should be, who thought players had to adjust to him, not the other way around. A “civil rights pioneer” who gave very little thought to civil rights, a trailblazer who never left El Paso. “Only in America” is a silly clicheé, but those three words keep returning to my mind: Haskins wanted his sport to live up to the promise of the meritocracy, the promise of the level playing field. It was and remains a radical concept, one you don’t need a PhD to grasp. Only a moral compass that values humanity over the expediency of prejudice.
As Yellen wrote to me, “When I saw Coach a couple weeks ago, his health was taking a turn for the worse, but still sharp of mind till the end, he winked at me and said, ‘Been a helleva run, eh?’ There never has been one like him and there will never be one like him again.”