Don Haskins, a burly college basketball coach in his 37th season at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), did not consciously set out to change the racial fabric of American sports. That he's played a role in doing so surprises him.
"I didn't even think about it," he says of a decades-old decision to start five black players in the defining game of his career.
At times, Haskins almost seemed exasperated during last fall's induction into the Springfield, Mass., Basketball Hall of Fame, where reporters pressed him about that 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship game, in which Texas Western (now UTEP) upset an all-white University of Kentucky squad. (Kentucky is now guided by Tubby Smith, its first black head coach.)
Haskins, a white, says he did not consider the racial makeup of his team and was only focused on playing his best players. The triumph, however, quickened the pace of basketball integration and in some ways has overshadowed his career achievements
"Don't get me wrong, I am proud of that game," he says, "but sometimes everything else gets lost." He's achieved good results other years with mostly white or Hispanic rosters, he points out. His career record supports this claim: 700 victories, seven Western Athletic Conference titles, and 21 teams in postseason play.
"Given our locality, we've done pretty well," Haskins says, giving a reporter a quick geography lesson on just how remote El Paso is, even within Texas. "We're as close to Los Angeles as we are to Houston. Dallas is maybe 600 miles away. We fly."
Despite El Paso's lonely existence at the western edge of the Lone Star State, Haskins, an Oklahoma native, is thoroughly attached to the place. "I love it with all my heart," he says.
His passion no doubt has helped in recruiting. Among the quality athletes who have attended the school are current National Basketball Association players Tim Hardaway, Antonio Davis, and Greg Foster. Perhaps his finest pupil, however, was Nate (Tiny) Archibald, who became a Hall of Famer in 1991.
Haskins credits George McCarty, a friend who was El Paso's dean of men, with getting him his first and only college job. Before that, Haskins held several high school jobs in small Texas towns. The last of these, in Dumas, felt like a real step up because he no longer had the additional responsibility of driving a school bus.
A native of Enid, Okla., Haskins had attended Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State), where he played under legendary coach Hank Iba. Years later, he served as an assistant to Iba on the 1972 US men's Olympic team, which lost to the Russians in a disputed finish (the Americans have never accepted their silver medals).
The pickup truck-driving Haskins, nicknamed "Bear," has a reputation as a taskmaster. He insists on mental discipline. Nevil Shed, a forward on the '66 championship team, remembers the Miners' coach turning off the lights in the locker room so that the players would concentrate on their assignments - an idea taken from Iba. His affiliation with Iba, Haskins says, prevented any sense of being overmatched against Kentucky's Adolph Rupp, who sought a fifth national championship in 1966.
"I played for the best coach who ever lived: Henry Iba," Haskins says. "I wasn't intimidated by Adolph Rupp."
Nor were his players overawed by the Wildcats, a fast-breaking bunch led by Pat Riley. To slow down Kentucky, which had compiled an identical 26-1 record against stiff competition, Haskins started three guards, a strategy that produced a 72-65 victory.
There were white players on the Texas Western roster, including at least one, Jerry Armstrong, who had started at various times. "He's still mad at me because he didn't get into the championship game," Haskins says of Armstrong. Only seven players saw action against Kentucky, all African-Americans.
Texas Western had three black players when Haskins arrived in 1961, including Nolan Richardson, who coached the University of Arkansas to the NCAA title in 1994. The Miners also were accustomed to playing teams with black players from New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. "In my part of the country that was being done," he notes. "I didn't start it."
The racial composition of his team was not then, nor is it now, an issue, Haskins says. "I've had a lot of coaches ask me, 'What's your quota' [for black players]. I've never heard the word 'quota' at the university."