Don Haskins, 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. He was 78.
Texas-El Paso spokesman Jeff Darby said the Hall of Fame coach died Sunday afternoon. He had no other details. UTEP was previously known as Texas Western.
Haskins was an old-time coach who believed in hard work and was known for his gruff demeanor. That attitude was portrayed in the 2006 movie "Glory Road," the Disney film that chronicled Haskins' improbable rise to national fame in the 1966 championship game against Kentucky. The movie, which was preceded by a book of the same title, also sparked renewed interest in Haskins' career.
During his career, Haskins turned down several more lucrative offers, including one with the now-defunct American Basketball Association, to remain at UTEP as one of the lowest paid coaches in the Western Athletic Conference.
Haskins retired in 1999 after 38 seasons at the school. He had a 719-353 record and won seven WAC championships. He took UTEP to 14 NCAA tournaments and to the NIT seven times and briefly worked as an adviser with the Chicago Bulls.
His health had been an issue in his final coaching years, often forcing him to remain seated during games, and his program 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.
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.
"He is a guy who has forgotten more basketball than I will ever know," Barbee said. Haskins played for Hall of Fame coach Henry "Hank" Iba at Oklahoma State, back when the school was still Oklahoma A&M. Haskins was later an assistant under Iba for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team in Munich.
As a coach, Haskins became a star early in his career by leading his Miners to the 1966 NCAA championship game, then making the controversial decision to start five blacks against all-white, heavily favored Kentucky, coached by Adolf Rupp. The Miners won, and shortly after that many schools began recruiting black players.
Haskins said he wasn't trying to make a social statement with his lineup; he was simply starting his best players. The move, however, raised the ire of some who sent Haskins hate mail and even death threats during the racially charged era.
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 Floury, 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."
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," said Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach who played under Haskins for two years. "He opened the door for African-American players to play basketball."