Texas Western College of the University of Texas in El Paso, known to wise guys as TWCUTEP, the AP and UPI top 10 polls as Texas Western and to local headline writers simply as TW, is just a few rattlesnake lengths from the Rio Grande. The supernal Franklin Mountains hovering nearby and the native-stone buildings, some of which resemble the Alamo, give the school a distinctive southwestern flavor, like a pot of retried beans. It seems natural enough, then, that Head Basketball Coach Don Haskins is an expert coyote caller. Out of a plastic screwdriver handle he has made a whistle that successfully imitates the squeals of a dying rabbit. A Government trapper taught him to hide in a bush or behind a cactus, play the whistle with all the subtlety of a flutist and lure within rifle range as many as 16 coyotes a day, plus bobcats, hawks and other varmints. But varmints are not all Haskins can call up.
From a slum playground in The Bronx, from the sooty streets of Detroit and Gary, Ind. and, surprisingly, from Texas and New Mexico, he has gathered a group of talented basketball players whose unusual names are in the historic El Paso tradition of Cabeza de Vaca, the first non-Indian to come up through "the pass" from Mexico. There are Orsten Artis Jr., Willie Cager, Harry Flournoy, David (Big D) Lattin, Tyrone Bobby Joe Hill, Togo Railey, Nevil Shed and, pleasing to the large local Mexican population, David Palacio.
Peculiar as some of these names are, opponents this season have stopped tittering about two seconds after tipoff. The Texas Western Miners were one of two undefeated major-college teams in the nation at the end of last week. Coming off a long break for final examinations, they traveled to Tempe, Ariz. to slow down Arizona State's run-run-run game and win by 17 points. Then they returned to cozy Memorial Gym on Saturday night to smash West Texas State 69-50 and hike their record to 14-0.
Much of this success is due to Haskins' man-to-man defense, in which the poor opposition has to face five speedy Miners who consider any undeflected pass or unobstructed dribble a personal affront. Guards Orsten Artis and Bobby Joe Hill and top backcourt sub Willie Worsley meet their foes at half-court and pester them to death. The defensive forwards are so tenacious that the men they are guarding have to run around in circles like beheaded chickens just to get open for a pass. In each of Haskins' four years as head coach, Texas Western has been among the country's top five defensive teams—third last season, giving up a piddling 57.1 points a game.
Haskins comes by his defense obsession naturally, having played for Hank Iba at Oklahoma Stale (Hank's son Moe is the assistant at Texas Western). Don had been a sought-after high school deadeye in Enid, Okla., but Iba soon took any cockiness out of him with a little psychology. "Son," he said, "the way you shoot, you better learn to play defense." Oklahoma State went to the NCAA semifinals in both of Haskins' junior and senior years.
Since then Haskins has pretty much stuck to weed-patch towns, not far from coyotes and other good hunting. He played for an industrial team in Artesia, N. Mex. for three years, and then got started coaching in Benjamin, Texas, a town with one traffic signal and lots of dust. He coached boys' basketball, girls' basketball, six-man football and drove one of those yellow school buses each morning and afternoon along bumpy farm-to-market roads.
After one year he moved to Hedley, Texas, continued driving a bus and had a 114-24 record in four years of boys' basketball. He had similar results in Dumas, Texas and might have been all the way up to a town the size of Big Spring if Texas Western had not hired him in 1961. In El Paso he promptly led the Miners to their best record in history, 18-6, and developed the school's first All-America, Jim (Bad News) Barnes, now with the Baltimore Bullets.
When his current team went off to cram for finals, some critics took note of its 12-0 record and scoffed, pointing out that Texas Western had stayed comfortably at home to beat Eastern New Mexico, East Texas State, Pan-American, Weber State, Fresno State twice, Loyola of New Orleans, Iowa, Tulsa and Seattle. South Dakota and Nevada were beaten on a neutral court. The Miners were sixth in both wire-service polls and, because of mostly easy opposition and no road games, did not deserve to be higher—yet. Back from finals they came to face the first real road opponent, Arizona Stale, which had downed mighty Michigan in a game on the Pacific coast.
"I really do feel this is the best I've ever had," said Haskins, with his Oklahoma-Texas twang. "But right now we're terrible, mostly because of the layoff. Under the circumstances, I'd have to say we will be very lucky to win against Arizona State."
One circumstance Haskins hated was his record in Tempe—no wins in five tries. Rooters in the little Sun Devil gymnasium wanted to continue the tradition. They posted signs saying MINERS MAKE BAD PROSPECTS and SHAFT THE MINERS. Texas Western's Willie Worsley, only 5 feet 6 according to the school sports publicist but 5 feet 9 by his own exaggerated reckoning, entertained the crowd by trying to defy gravity and dunk the ball during warmup drills. He barely missed three times and gave up. One who did it easily was David Lattin, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore from Houston. Lattin started school at Tennessee State but left for "personal reasons" in his first quarter and showed up at Texas Western. He has the potential to be another Jim Barnes, but he is lazy. ("Bend your back, Lattin, get some character," Haskins screams in practice.) Perhaps he spends too much time on his El Paso FM radio show, The Big D Jazz Session. To punish Big D, Haskins started a less-talented player in Tempe.
Texas Western looked as if it had been practicing three hours a day during the final exams. Artis and Hill made life so miserable for Arizona State's star guard, Freddie Lewis, that he lost the ball five times in the first half. Hill had the fans gasping at his quickness, and Haskins soon relented and sent in Big D, who was confused on defense but showed muscles and an accurate, long-range jump shot. The Miners got as much as 13 points ahead in the first half, but Arizona State beat them so bad in rebounding, 29 to 15, that the margin was down to seven by half time.
In the second half Haskins, worried that some of his aces would foul out, put his team into a zone defense, only the second time in his career that he has tried one. It was plain his players had no confidence in it, and in about two minutes the Sun Devils cut the lead to three points. Back in the game came Orsten Artis, who had three fouls, and back came the irritating man-to-man defense. Artis quickly stole a Freddie Lewis pass, scored, was fouled by Lewis on the play and sank the free throw. From there Texas Western pulled away easily and won 84-67.
The Miners did not look as sharp Saturday against West Texas, but little Willie Worsley from The Bronx did dunk the ball. After the game an El Paso fan was talking about congenial Don Haskins. "I don't guess he's ever met a stranger," said the man. "I almost hope he doesn't win the NCAA title. We'd lose him sure to some big school." Maybe so, but the varmints and the other coaches of the Southwest would love to see him pack up his dying-rabbit whistle and his defense and ride off into the sunset.