Former UTEP and current Nebraska coach Doc Sadler couldn't remember who said it, but he never forgot this description of Don Haskins: "He was the John Wayne of basketball."
Haskins, who passed away Sunday September 7th at the age of 78 after a bout with a number of illnesses from heart disease to diabetes to cancer, was as iconic a figure as there has ever been in college basketball.
Born in Enid, Oklahoma, Haskins coached at several high schools before he took over at seldom-heard-of Texas Western in El Paso, Texas. He changed the sport forever when he was the first coach at a major college level to start five African-Americans in a championship game in 1966. That team defeated an all-white Kentucky team for the title. The team's historic run to the title recently was chronicled in a book and movie called "Glory Road."
But it was Haskins' simple nature of being a coach, a hunter and a person who just wanted to be himself that will be cherished."Everyone should remember and never forget that he broke a line that should have been broken years and years before," said former Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who played for Haskins as a junior and senior at Texas Western in the early 1960s.
"Coach Haskins wanted to win and to do what he did at a young age, that's the kind of man he was," Richardson said of Haskins' starting an all-African-American starting five. "It didn't matter how tall you were, but can you play? Can you take coaching? He was that kind of guy. It's going to be a big loss for his immediate family and all the guys that played for him and learned their coaching techniques from him. There's no question that he had a tremendous influence on my life, as a person and as a coach. He will truly be missed by all of us."
Nicknamed "The Bear," Haskins went about his business in obscurity to the common fan. But he built a power in El Paso, coached the Miners to 14 NCAA tournament appearances and finished his career in 1999 with a 14-13 NCAA record, but more impressively, 719 wins. UTEP has only 16 NCAA appearances, the other two coming after Haskins left. Haskins guided the Miners to the NCAA tournament eight of nine years from 1984 to 1992. It was in that last NCAA appearance when Haskins' No. 9 UTEP team upset top-seeded Kansas in Dayton, Ohio, in the second round.
Haskins was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, too late for a number of his close friends who had been pushing him for years. Haskins, a disciple of the legendary Henry Iba, was close to a number of coaches of his era, notably Bob Knight. He also has a flock of coaching offspring like former assistant and current USC coach Tim Floyd. Floyd was a consultant for the movie "Glory Road" in large part because he was so well versed in how Haskins coached.
"He never got caught up in all of the other stuff of coaching," Richardson said. "What bothered me was that he wasn't inducted in the Hall of Fame for a while and that there were some people that shouldn't have been in front of Coach Haskins. He wasn't one of those political guys. He was never like that. He was a coach -- period."
UTEP named its arena the Don Haskins Center, and the WAC, a conference that he dominated during the 1980s (five WAC titles during that decade), named its coach of the year award after Haskins, too.
"This man could make you do what he wanted," Richardson said. "Look at that national championship. They were freshmen when I was a senior and they were just your average guys. But he was the type of coach who was tougher than nails and you played hard for him. That was his trademark. You're going to play hard no matter what your size was."
Richardson said more than anything else, he adopted a strong work ethic from his experience with Haskins. He says he demands his players to play hard, and that's a credit to Haskins. "He was the master of that, his teams played hard all of the time," Richardson said.
Haskins' ability to adapt to his personnel and to outsmart his opponents was one of his greatest attributes as a coach. Haskins could play big, he could go small and he could devise a scheme to fluster opponents. "He didn't just play one way," said former Hawaii coach Riley Wallace, who became close friends with Haskins during his years in the WAC. "He was hard-nosed and you could always count on his kids' playing defense and rebounding. He taught them discipline. He was consistent in that area. He could go big and pound it in or go small and spread it and pick you apart." Wallace said Haskins was the master at controlling a game, and he had a tremendous feel for the game. "He was the Bear, working officials, working the game as well as anyone and he could turn the momentum around better than anyone I ever saw," Wallace said. Wallace also agreed the John Wayne comparison is fitting.
"He never changed, there aren't many people in the coaching business who never change," Wallace said. "He was the same from the first day I met him as an assistant to the last time I saw him. He was a good family man, loved his pickup truck and hunting doves." Sadler, who followed Billy Gillispie and Jason Rabedeaux after Haskins at UTEP and was succeeded by current coach Tony Barbee, said Haskins talked to him every day after his practices with the Miners. He said he still spoke with Haskins after games he coached at Nebraska last season, especially if they were televised. "He would see things in a game that I had just coached that I never realized," Sadler said.
Sadler recounted one of his first memories of Haskins after he started coaching at UTEP. He met up with Haskins, piled into his pickup truck and discussed practice. Haskins saw Sadler's extensive practice plan and tossed it back to him on the seat and told him, "'I was lucky to get one thing done in practice, so let me give you some advice, don't move on to No. 2 on your list until you make sure No. 1 is done.' He said he never had a practice plan. He just knew what he had to get done."
In 2004, Gillispie was the first coach to take the Miners to the NCAAs since Haskins in 1992. "I was blessed to be a first-time head coach in El Paso because Coach Haskins loved and cared so much about the university and the city," Gillispie said of his two-year stint at UTEP before he left for Texas A&M and then last season for Kentucky, where he remains the head coach. "He wanted to help, but he never wanted to intrude. He gave me unbelievable help. He was a great sounding board. He was a great friend and mentor."
Gillispie said he can't think of any other coach who was as important to his city or had as much of a sense of pride in the city as Haskins did in El Paso. "Coach cast such a bright rainbow around the university and the city," Gillispie said. "It didn't seem like a day went by that someone didn't mention the 1966 championship. I can't imagine any person being more beloved to a university and a city than him. That's always been his school and his city and it always will be."
Richardson said it is still amazing to think that Haskins lasted 38 years at the same school. "He was an incredible, incredible person," Richardson said. "In those days it was a handshake contract. I don't think he signed a contract until late in his career. He just wanted to coach. He's an amazing icon. They don't make them like Coach Haskins."