Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Passing of a Legend. "Farewell Coach!"

Tuesday the doors to the Special Events Center that bears his name on the University of Texas, El Paso, campus were opened several hours. During that time, 5,000 friends and fans filed past Coach Don Haskins lying in state there.

UTEP basketball coach Don Haskins, aka "The Bear."
photo courtesy of the El Paso Times

In my youth, I had never been a fan of college basketball. Any basketball for that matter. Attending my high school's basketball games was most always a dismal lesson in humility, so out manned and outsized was our little school's team. The two years of junior college basketball that followed were pretty much the same.

But then I found myself in the winter of 1965-66 living in an army barracks in the southern New Mexico desert. When I wasn't shining boots and brass, there was sometimes a basketball game on in the darkened TV room of my 2nd floor "apartment" I shared with 80 other guys. Sometimes the game showing was that of the local school, Texas Western College (later to become UTEP). Unlike all my previous experiences with basketball in high school and JC, seeing this team was different. That's because, strangely, they won. And won regularly and often! Only once in an otherwise perfect year did the Texas Western Miner team falter and lose late in the season to the University of Seattle.

The real significance of that special TWC basketball team came at the end of that season in the spring of 1966 when those Miners faced the University of Kentucky in the NCAA National Championship game. As all basketball fans know, it was significant because for the first time in the history a team with an all African American starting line-up faced off with the heavily favored all white basketball team from the University of Kentucky. During the Miner's post game 72-67 upset cutting-down-of-the-nets victory celebration, I had a sudden epiphany: I realized over the past four months, the Texas Western men's championship team had made me a fan of college basketball! What I had witnessed time and again over those four months was a David repeatedly slewing a long list of Goliaths.

The story of that year, the coach, and his team, was documented in the 2006 movie Glory Road. Don Haskins went on to build his Hall of Fame record (719-353) in what I consider another of his remarkable accomplishments rarely heard of any more these days, i.e., he spent his entire 38 year college coaching career at the same university! (Since his retirement in 1999, UTEP has had four head basketball coaches. Three have gone on to head coaching jobs in China, U. of Nebraska, and, yes, ironically, Kentucky.)


This past week have seen hundreds of Coach Haskins stories emerge. Here are but a few.
  • In the 1970-90's, as students at UTEP, then alumni, Mrs. Dada and I attended many years of Coach Haskin's very successful basketball teams. We were there the night of December 16, 1989 when Coach and his great friend (and rival that evening) came out wearing the other's usual courtside apparel. Bobby Knight in a Haskins coat and clip on tie (which Knight ripped off in the style Haskins was so noted for doing) and Coach Haskins in Knight's famous red Indiana sweater.

"There was never anyone like him before and there will never be one like him again."
(Bobby Knight. photo courtesy of the
El Paso Times)
  • "You knew you were somebody if you were offered a truck ride with Don Haskins, and to Haskins a lot of people were somebodies. Sportswriters and broadcasters. The star in "Glory Road," Josh Lucas. UTEP football coaches, like Gary Nord, who relates how one time he and Coach were out in the boonies and they passed the international boundary sign. Nord mentioned that the sign said guns were not allowed in Mexico, and there were rifles in the pickup bed.

" 'Aw, they all know me here,' " Haskins said as he puttered around the sand, in an out of two countries."
(El Paso Times)

(NOTE: The border wall now being constructed between El Paso and Mexico will see to it such occasions will never happen again.)

  • "An outstanding free-throw shooter in college, Haskins tried his luck as the UTEP coach once. In a game at Arizona State, in the days when they still left the ball rack at the end of the bench, Haskins grabbed a ball and sauntered out to the free-throw line while play was going on at the other end of the floor. He shot - and made - two free throws. When the official asked him what the hell he thought he was doing, Haskins dead-panned: 'Just shooting the two free throws we should've gotten when we were down on this end the last time.' " (Courtesy El Paso Times)

  • "UTEP - with no recruiting base, no media attention and substandard budgets - had no business winning much of anything," sports columnist Dan Wetzel said. "No coach did more with less, maximized his talent and made strange parts fit better than 'The Bear.' " (From CBS which in 2001 named Don Haskins the greatest Division I men's basketball coach of all time.)

Farewell, Coach! And thanks for all the wonderful memories.


Mariamariacuchita said...

Dada- you have done a wonderful job of remembering this dedicated and special coach. Hope he has found his hoop in the sky for all the students he inspired and impacted positively.

Love the story and pic about him and the infamous Bobby Knight.

eProf2 said...

A great tribute to one heck of a coach! Well done!

Border Explorer said...

This was a great tribute.
I also liked the little slam on the border wall.
Cool post, Dada.

PTCruiser said...

Outstanding, Dada. You've paid great tribute to an honorable man.

enigma4ever said...

that was so nice..what a eulogy...good of you...

Dada said...

Thanks for the nice comments. His funeral was Wednesday, but last night they opened the Don Haskins Center to the public for an evening of eulogies and fond memories of Haskins by coaches, players, and friends. They televised it on at least two local TV stations and there were all kinds of familiar faces in the audience. It was a fine tribute to the man.

Oh, and mariamaria, I tried my best to find who won that UTEP - Indiana game between Knight and Haskins, but their online archives don't back quite that far. (I'm sure we did as we had a pretty good team that year and it was played in our house.)