Don Haskins, 78; basketball coach was first to win NCAA title with 5 black starters

Don Haskins, who was credited with helping break color barriers in college sports in 1966 when he used five black starters to win a national basketball title for Texas Western, died Sunday.
Don Haskins, who was credited with helping break color barriers in college sports in 1966 when he used five black starters to win a national basketball title for Texas Western, died Sunday.
(Victor Calzada / Associated Press)
Special to the Times

Don Haskins, the coach who hastened the full integration of college basketball when he started five black players for Texas Western College against an all-white University of Kentucky team and won the 1966 national NCAA championship, died Sunday. He was 78.

Haskins, who had been struggling with congestive heart failure, died at his home in El Paso about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, his physician, Dr. Dwayne Aboud, told reporters, according to the Associated Press. He was surrounded by friends and relatives, Aboud said.

“I wasn’t out to be a pioneer when we played Kentucky,” Haskins told The Times later in his career. “I was simply playing the best players on the team, and they happened to be black.”

Haskins’ decision inspired hate mail at the time -- tens of thousands of letters, he said -- but his players didn’t learn of that level of opposition until later.

“We were walking around with the medal indicating we were the 1966 NCAA champions,” said Nevil Shed, one of seven African American players on the team. “He was walking around with another brand on him for allowing these players to play. Remember, society wasn’t ready for that.”

As the years passed -- and particularly with the success of the 2006 Disney film “Glory Road,” which was based on the coach’s bestselling autobiography -- Haskins became well-known for the changes he implemented at a time when there were no black players at many colleges and universities.

“I traveled a great deal with Coach Haskins, and there weren’t many black men in the country who wouldn’t stop him in the airport, come over and say, ‘I loved your win against Kentucky,’ ” USC basketball Coach Tim Floyd, a former assistant under Haskins who was a consultant on the movie, told The Times in 2006.

Inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, Haskins was fourth in victories among active coaches when he retired in 1999 with a 719-353 record.

Seventeen of his teams won at least 20 games, and he had only five losing records in his 38-year career at Texas Western, now known as the University of Texas, El Paso.

In addition to winning the 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament title, Haskins’ teams played in 13 other NCAA tournaments, and in 1992 advanced to the Sweet 16 after upsetting No. 2-ranked Kansas. Haskins also served as an assistant coach on the 1972 Olympic basketball team.

His admirers include former Indiana University and Texas Tech University basketball coach Bob Knight, a longtime hunting buddy and close friend -- enough so that when Indiana played at El Paso in 1989, the two spoofed each other by emerging before the game with Knight wearing a cowboy hat and Haskins wearing Knight’s trademark red sweater.

“Don got more out of his teams and players than any coach who has ever coached college basketball,” Knight told the Associated Press on Sunday.

Born March 14, 1930, in Enid, Okla., Haskins played for legendary coach Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M, now Oklahoma State, graduating in 1953.

He coached boys and girls basketball teams at several Texas high schools before making the jump to head coach at Texas Western in 1961.

Contrary to the movie’s story, Haskins did not guide the team to the national title in his first year as coach, nor was he the first at the school to recruit black players. But his 1965-66 team was something special.

They finished the regular season with a 23-1 record and were ranked third in the nation when they entered the NCAA tournament.

After defeating Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs, Cincinnati by two points in overtime in the second round, Kansas in double overtime in the Midwest Regional Finals and Utah in the national semifinals, they faced top-ranked Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolf Rupp, in the finals at College Park, Md. Haskins’ team took the lead midway in the first half and never fell behind, winning 72-65.

Nolan Richardson, who would go on to win the 1994 NCAA basketball title as coach at Arkansas, was a senior on Haskins’ first team.

“I always felt he was one of the great coaches,” said Richardson, who credits Haskins in part for the emphasis on defense and conditioning that came to be known as “40 minutes of hell” at Arkansas.

Haskins was known for grueling practices -- and his career began long before the NCAA placed limits on how long coaches could drill their players.

“He had me for four hours. I had mine for two,” Richardson said.

Richardson and other former players like to joke that Haskins, then in his early 30s, treated all his players equally -- badly -- and that most didn’t like him until after their playing days were done.

“I don’t think any players in our day and time did,” Richardson said. “I think he mellowed. He was a young bull then.”

Despite the widely acknowledged effect of Haskins’ historic decision to go with an all-black starting lineup in the championship game, he never made much claim to his role in making an important social statement.

When asked about what shaped his attitudes about race, Haskins often mentioned his youth in Enid, where he played one-on-one against a young black player named Herman Carr.

Haskins puzzled over the inequities. When the pair took a water break, Carr had to use a separate fountain for “coloreds only.” And Haskins got all the publicity and scholarship offers while Carr -- a better player in Haskins’ estimation -- ended up joining the Army.

Haskins’ players laud what he did for not only them, but for later generations.

“When you go back to those days, you realize we had a lot of quota systems. And you realize we had a coach who did not buy into that quota system,” Harry Flournoy, a player on the 1966 team, said in 2006.

Haskins is survived by his wife, Mary, and sons Brent, David and Steve. A fourth son, Mark, died in 1994.