College basketball pioneer Don Haskins dies at 78

Associated Press Modified: September 8, 2008 at 6:10 am •  Published: September 8, 2008
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The coach always was focused on the game of basketball. He had a reputation for working his players hard.

"Our practices wore us out so much that we'd have to rest up before the games," said Harry Flournoy, a starter in the 1966 championship. "If you work hard all the time and if you go after every loose ball, you see things like that (championship) happen."

Haskins helped Nate Archibald, Tim Hardaway and Antonio Davis, among others, make it to the NBA.

In November 2000, Haskins was awarded the John Thompson Foundation's Outstanding Achievement Award during a tournament hosted by Arkansas.

"We couldn't think of anyone that deserves this recognition more than coach Haskins," Richardson said. "He opened the door for African-American players to play basketball."

Former UTEP and current Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie said every conversation he had with Haskins left an impression.

"I looked forward to the phone calls after each and every game. He was watching almost every game of our team," Gillespie said. "It was just like having another coach on the bench present at every single practice. I took every single thing he said to heart. I knew he didn't have any agenda, he was just trying to help one of his friends win a game."

Doc Sadler, also a former UTEP coach and now head coach at Nebraska, said Haskins called frequently last season just to discuss strategy and outcome.

"If you were one of his guys, you were one of his guys," Sadler said. "He was bigger than life. The word I was told was that he was the John Wayne of college basketball. He had that much respect."

Haskins was hired in 1961 as a virtual unknown. Ben Collins, the school's athletic director at the time, said he consulted people who knew more about basketball than he did. And from the beginning, Collins said Sunday, he never had a second thought.

"He was a success almost from his first year," Collins said. "That in itself speaks a lot about his ability as a basketball coach."

Haskins' health had been an issue for several years, stretching back to his final season at UTEP when he was often forced to remain seated during games. The program that Haskins built struggled after twice being slapped with NCAA sanctions. Serious health concerns continued in his retirement. In the midst of a series of book signings and other appearances Haskins was hospitalized with various woes.

In recent weeks his health had declined rapidly, prompting friends and some former players to make special visits to see the ailing coach.

"It was a blessing ... for us to go by and visit with Coach Haskins," said Togo Railey, a guard/forward for Haskins' 1966 team.

"He was still just full of life, as sick as he was. We talked about of our old friends. Don, as sick as he was, had a little smirk on his face and was telling jokes and fibbing on one and another. It was just a blessing."

After his retirement, Haskins kept close ties with the Miners. The school's most recent hire, Tony Barbee, said he even met with Haskins just after accepting the job.

"We are losing a national treasure," Barbee said. "I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know him over the last two years. The information he shared with me was invaluable to a first-time head coach. He is a Hall of Fame coach and a Hall of Fame person."

UTEP athletic director Bob Stull called Haskins an "icon."

"He has had a huge impact on the city and the University of Texas at El Paso," Stull said. "He remains one of the most revered and honored coaches in basketball history. His decision to start five black players in the 1966 national championship game ... changed college basketball and the sports world. He will always be remembered for that."

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

Brent Haskins said the family would likely schedule a private funeral and burial before a public memorial service at UTEP.

"My father was beloved by the city of El Paso and he loved El Paso too," Brent Haskins said. "It was a mutual relationship."

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Associated Press Writer Linda Franklin in Dallas, AP sports writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Noah Trister in Little Rock, Ark., and Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.

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Guest book: Don Haskins
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