Don (the Bear) Haskins sits, elbows resting against knees spread
far apart. His forearms dangle between his legs, and much of the
rest of him--the ursine swell of his torso, the melancholy
wattles, the oddly serene latticework of his clasped
hands--seems also to hang in the chasm between his knees. A
basketball game is playing out before him, and occasionally its
ebbs and flows move Haskins to hoist himself up by levering
elbows on knees. He does so with such effort that it's hard to
believe that this is how he would most enjoy passing the days as
his 69th birthday approaches: watching as his team struggles to
beat some mint-julep Princeton in a one-third-full building
bearing his name.
This is an article from the March 1, 1999 issue
It's tiny Samford of Birmingham that Haskins's University of
Texas at El Paso Miners are hosting tonight, and an exam-period
torpor leaves UTEP trailing at halftime. Four minutes remain
when the Miners finally mince out to a two-point lead and the
Bear orders them into a zone. Though Samford will not score
again, Haskins does not watch UTEP's final two defensive
possessions. A Miners assistant leaps up, waving, yelling
instructions, as his boss closes his eyes and fingers the bridge
of his nose.
It would be easy to conclude from this scene that the game has
passed Haskins by. But while he no longer always looks, he still
sees. If UTEP hadn't switched to that zone, Samford would have
sustained its accustomed patterned style and very likely won.
Game time still sets Haskins alight with passion, and only his
physical inability to spring up in the faces of referees has
spared him several technicals this season. Indeed, watch a
Miners practice and you'll see players calibrated like
seismographs to the sound of his voice, even as he rarely leaves
his seat courtside. "He creates listening better than anybody
I've ever been around," says Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd, who
spent nine seasons as Haskins's assistant.
Still, the Bear is in winter. Penalties imposed with two NCAA
probations have hamstrung his program virtually through the
1990s. Until this season the Miners hadn't turned in a winning
record for three straight years, and twice they failed even to
qualify for the Western Athletic Conference tournament. That
UTEP was 16-9 as of Sunday and entertaining dreams of the NIT is
one more tribute to the Bear's enduring effectiveness--yet the
crowds in the Don Haskins Center have been even thinner this
season than last. Little of this is remarked upon beyond El
Paso, just as Haskins's 719 wins, with one epic exception, have
passed largely unnoticed, and just as his name had to be
suggested six times before an exhausted electorate finally waved
him into the Hall of Fame two years ago. "He's still the
fiercest competitor," says Utah coach Rick Majerus, who hooks up
with Haskins in the WAC regularly. "He just doesn't have the
players anymore to implement what he wants to do."
Once upon a time he did, famously so. Even Haskins's college
coach, Henry Iba, picked Kentucky to beat Texas Western, as UTEP
was then known, in the 1966 NCAA championship game. But Haskins
knew that a small, quick lineup would give his Miners their best
chance against Adolph Rupp's undersized Runts. He started 5'6"
Willie Worsley in place of 6'8" Nevil (the Shadow) Shed, then
saw his decision vindicated in the game's opening moments. Twice
in a row Worsley's 5'10" running mate, Bobby Joe Hill, fleeced a
Kentucky guard and sailed in for tone-setting conversions.
Today, to a generation that remembers them, the names of the
players who unnerved Kentucky's shooters that night still
resonate with a kind of forerunning cool. Not only Hill and
Worsley and Shed but also Orsten (Little O) Artis and Willie
(Scoops) Cager, David (Big Daddy) Lattin and Harry (Flo)
Flournoy became outriders of a new wave, heralding basketball's
inevitable evolution from roundball to hoop. Haskins played
nobody but blacks in beating an all-white team, and for that he
would get 40,000 pieces of hate mail and a dozen death threats.
But over time, for presiding over college basketball's Brown v.
Board of Education, he would also get credit for changing the
At his home in Denver, a 38-year-old black postal maintenance
worker named Herman Carr watched that game on a small
black-and-white TV. Like Haskins, Carr had grown up during the
1940s in Enid, Okla., where the schools and neighborhoods
remained segregated but where two kids, one black and one white,
could quietly hook up on common ground, the basketball court in
Government Springs Park. "I wondered if that was the same Don
Haskins I used to play against in the park," Carr says. "He
didn't look like I remembered him looking, but by then I didn't
look like I'd looked when I was a teenager, either."
Today Haskins appears even more removed from the vigor of his
youth, when he was a high school hero ticketed for Oklahoma A&M.
In January 1996, at halftime of a game against New Mexico, he
had a heart attack in the locker room. He underwent
triple-bypass surgery and missed the next 12 games. Last month,
at San Jose State, Haskins was so weak from a bout with the flu
that he remained seated the entire game. He suffers from
diabetes, an infected foot and lingering problems with his left
eye, on which he had implant surgery before the season, an
operation that accounts for his going to the bridge of his nose
and missing those dying minutes against Samford, or so he'll say.
After a game, put at ease by a Scotch and company, Haskins might
recall things he still sees vividly in his mind's eye. He might
tell of a Mexican guy he watched in the early 1960s whacking
golf balls out of a sand pile beside a construction site in El
Paso, a guy daft enough to say he would someday play the PGA
Tour, a guy who turned out to be Lee Trevino. Or of Mike
Brumbelow, the football coach at Texas Western in the '50s, a
spoonerizing raconteur who would call him Dan Hoskins. Or of his
coach at Oklahoma A&M, whom even fellow coaches were careful to
address as Mr. Iba. Or of how two years ago he went up to play
Iowa State, which Floyd was then coaching, and did a little
hunting with his former assistant before a game in which the
officials would grant the Miners precisely four free throws.
"Got me more pheasant that trip than foul shots," he might say.
He still talks that way, and it might sound like some carnival
act for media folks who make their way through the fastness to
Baja New Mexico. But it's not an act, if only because scarcely
any media folks do come through, and there's no advantage to
keeping such a shtick sharp.
Try telling him a story you've heard--say, about how he
supposedly watched a Utah practice in the fall of 1965 and then
used the Runnin' Utes' fast break to subdue them in the
semifinals of the NCAA tournament the following spring, thus
earning the right to play Kentucky--and he'll correct you,
sharpen the tale: "We were playing Utah in football, so I went
up to Salt Lake. [Utes basketball coach] Jack Gardner ran a
five-on-two fast break drill that I saw backward. I made it a
defensive drill, with two guys getting back to stop a break.
It's a drill we still do darn near every day in practice.
Remember, I played for the finest defensive coach who ever
Stories have their use. They are deflective. They lead the
listener to something else, someone else, somewhere else,
sometime else. Say, 1949. Mr. Iba. Stillwater, Okla. An A&M
practice. "Back then it wasn't supposed to be fun, see," Haskins
will say. "Over Christmas break he'd have us go nine to noon,
two to five and seven to 10. And seven to 10 would be three
one-hour scrimmages. No water. No sitting. One night by the end
the skin on the ball of my foot had come off. School president
was at that practice, and he asked me if I was tired when I came
off the floor.
"'No, sir,' I told him.
"'Sure shouldn't be,' he says back. "Cause you haven't done a
damn thing all day.'"
Thus he weaves more diverting scenes on the tapestry of his
basketball life, so many distracting stitches that you can
scarcely make out the fundamental fibers. That's the thing about
sitting at Haskins's knee, which is to say at his jowls and
torso and hands: You've come to Rome to hear Caesar on Caesar.
But Caesar wants to play Gibbon, so you get story after story
about Rome in which Caesar figures only glancingly. "Funny, he
holds Iba in such regard, to such legendary status," says
Majerus. "Now he's there himself, and he doesn't realize it. If
he wasn't in our league and in our time zone, he'd have been in
the Hall of Fame 20 years ago."
Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson starred on Haskins's first Texas
Western team in 1961-62, and it pains him to watch his old coach
in his dotage. "I don't know all the things happening there,
because he's not one to complain," Richardson says, "but you can
look at him and tell. The way he's going out, it's the s---tiest
way I know."
Today Haskins is the Bear, but Iba called the kid from Enid
something much less magisterial: Rope, for his slender form and
the coif surmounting it that seemed to be made of coir. In 1955,
three years out of A&M, Haskins alighted at the high school in
Benjamin, a town of about 250 in the Cedar Breaks country of
west Texas. "I went into coaching because I didn't know how to
do anything else," he says. "Being some guy in Peoria at a desk,
punching a time clock--I knew I didn't want to do that. It was
like I'd grabbed a lifeline and pulled myself out of the water."
It scarcely mattered that terra firma was strewn with
tumbleweed. Don and his bride, Mary, pulled up in front of what
was to be their new home to find a rattlesnake coiled on the
porch. It was in Benjamin that Haskins learned to call coyotes.
"Government trapper taught me," he says. "You get hid, see, and
then you take a duck call apart so you got an open flute, and
you blow on it to make it sound like a rabbit squealin'.
Bobcats, hawks, coyotes--all sorts of varmints appear.
"Didn't like to shoot 'em much. Just call 'em. Gotta do
something in those little towns I coached in."
After stopovers at high schools in the Texas outposts of Hedley
and Dumas, he arrived in El Paso. It wasn't inertia that kept
him there for 38 years so much as a preference for the familiar,
for relating to people one-to-one, which indicates a strain of
shyness. Haskins prepares his team as well as any coach for the
big game, yet public ceremony paralyzes him. "My grandkids are
enjoying me being nervous," he told the crowd at the dinner
prior to his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. "They get to eat
my steak." Several days before that, at the dedication of the
Don Haskins Center, Mary turned to embrace him in front of more
than 12,000 people. He didn't much more than shake her hand.
Thus the desert fits him fine, even though it was easier to
attract coyotes there than players. For a golden while Floyd sat
at his elbow, and enough talent flowed in. Not the very best
players, but ones good enough to become, under Haskins's hand,
better than most. Two wound up among the best: Nate (Tiny)
Archibald and Tim Hardaway. The latter helped UTEP to two of its
five straight WAC titles in the mid-1980s.
So matters remained for a quarter century after the Kentucky
game, with no one paying Haskins and UTEP much mind. Then in
1991 the Miners attracted attention of the most unwelcome kind.
Haskins isn't sure why the Inspector Javerts of the NCAA began
crawling around, but he suspects their arrival might be traced
to a day in '86 when he took on a man named Norm Ellenberger as
a volunteer assistant coach.
Ellenberger had presided over an epic scandal at New Mexico
during the late 1970s, a goulash of pay-for-play and academic
fraud that left him essentially unemployable. Haskins had
competed against Ellenberger, yet during off-seasons he had gone
hunting with his rival and, among the mesquite and pronghorn,
man-to-man, broached the subject of Ellenberger's ways. "I told
Norm exactly which of his guys were bought and paid for,"
Haskins says. "I said, 'This one is,' and he said, 'Yeah.' I
said, 'That one, too,' and he said, 'How'd you know?' I told him
it was obvious: The ones who talked back to him, cursed him out
in the huddle; they wouldn't be doing that unless they had
something on him. Give a player something, see, and you can't
coach him anymore."
But it was just like Haskins to give Ellenberger another chance
when Ellenberger was down and out and desperate to get back into
the game. And it was just like Haskins never to suspect that his
act of charity might attract the interest of the NCAA.
Today Haskins doesn't regret having helped out an old friend.
Indeed, he worries that retelling the story might embarrass
Ellenberger, who later spent some time on the staff of the
NCAA-proof Bob Knight at Indiana. But Haskins also wonders if he
was a fool to be so cooperative with the probe, believing he had
nothing to hide. He wishes UTEP had retained that cop-a-plea law
firm in Kansas City, the one used by schools that get off with a
wrist slap. He freely admits that he broke NCAA rules (if not
the code he lives by) when he shared some pumpkin pie and a cup
of coffee with a recruit's grandmother at seven one morning,
three hours earlier than permitted, because she had to go off to
work. And he acknowledges that two of his assistants provided
improper rides to players, which led UTEP not to renew those
coaches' contracts. (One of the former assistants is now up the
road in Las Cruces, procuring players for New Mexico State, and
that doesn't help the healing.) But Haskins defies you to
examine similar cases elsewhere and conclude that UTEP's
punishment fit the crime. As people in West Texas say, the
entire episode smelled like a wet dog.
During the first two probationary seasons, beginning in 1991,
the Miners could offer no more than two new scholarships a year.
Then, in '97, the NCAA went in and hide-strapped UTEP anew, for
having inadvertently played two ineligible players during the
1995-96 season because the athletic department had certified
them as good to go. Again, Haskins had to coach under deep
scholarship cuts--only this time the NCAA limited UTEP's total
number of rides, as well as the number of new ones the Miners
could offer. The program hasn't righted itself since.
To Haskins, the most mortifying thing about all this was that
Mr. Iba, then still alive, might have thought that Rope wasn't
doing right by the way he'd been taught. Why, no one knew better
than Mr. Iba that no coach worth his clipboard would ever
consent to let a player have him by the short-and-curlies. "If
I'd have got caught in recruiting violations--buying 'em cars or
giving 'em money--I'd have quit then," Haskins says, "but I've
done my damnedest to do it the right way. I don't feel like I
caused this mess. I'd like to get this thing in a little better
shape, get things right again, but how can I do that with only
two scholarships a year?"
Some friends and followers believe that Haskins, owing to bad
luck and a big heart, can't really afford to quit. "It's not to
that point," he says. "Don't want it to seem like I'm on skid
row." But he admits to a number of financial misadventures over
the years. Several years ago Haskins sank $22,500 into a scheme
to grow lettuce. Anytime the sky darkened, he would turn into a
fretful mess, fearing what rain or hail might do to his precious
heads. Once he ran out into his yard in his boxer shorts, ready
to stare down the sky. He lost his investment, not because of
bad weather but because someone somewhere else offered lettuce
at a better price. "We had the greatest lettuce you'd ever see,
and we had to turn it over," Haskins says. "You'd think it was
about weather, but it's not, see. It's about supply and demand."
Floyd and others tell of the time Haskins, returning from a
hunting trip, came across a poor family stranded because their
car had broken down. He gave them a lift and put them up in a
hotel until the garage had done its work. "I can't imagine how
much money he's given away," Floyd says. "Every morning we'd meet
at this little coffee shop. Nobody was ever there, and this
little lady would always come over to serve us. We'd never have
more than two cups of coffee, but he always left a $10 tip."
During the 1980s, Floyd says, Haskins was "literally
supplementing his income going out and killing coyotes. I
remember him killing seven in one day. He had the hides in the
back of his pickup. I think they were going for $75 a pelt."
Long ago Haskins had a chance to coach the Dallas Chaparrals of
the ABA, and over the years he was courted by his alma mater, now
known as Oklahoma State, and by Washington and the University of
Detroit, which offered three times what he was earning in El Paso
at the time and ended up hiring a man named Dick Vitale. Haskins
turned everyone down. "If you're gonna make money," he says,
"you've gotta go to a high-profile school."
Nothing, however, set Don and Mary further back every which way
than the death in 1994 at age 42 of the oldest of their four
sons, Mark, after a long illness. Insurance covered most of
Mark's medical care, but bills still gouged out a piece of the
Haskins's savings, which included a $500,000 annuity arranged
for Don in the late '80s by a circle of wealthy UTEP boosters.
His son's death is one of those places Don resolutely won't go.
"I didn't take care of myself real well," he will say. "Fifteen
years ago I thought I was going to coach forever. Now I know
Yet he continues to show up faithfully at the Don Haskins
Center--right across Mesa Avenue from where Mary works part time
as a travel agent--not so much because there isn't enough money
in the bank, but because there's so much of himself invested in
the program. "They should almost have exit counseling for some
of these guys," says Majerus. "Tark [Fresno State coach Jerry
Tarkanian] wants to win one more. [Former Dayton coach Don]
Donoher hung on, and now he doesn't remember the Final Four he
went to or the 437 wins--only the last few seasons when he lost.
Don Haskins reminds me of the milk horse my grandpa had in
Sheboygan. Once he'd hitched it up, that horse didn't want to do
anything else its entire life."
"Don't know what it was like where you grew up...." Haskins has
launched into another story, one that throws light on his
sympathy for the customerless waitress, for the family whose car
broke down, for Norm Ellenberger. It illuminates what Floyd
calls Haskins's "tremendous appreciation for people who have
been through hard times." Haskins is telling the tale of Herman
Carr: "...but Enid was set on a town square. I lived on the east
side, and like in most towns of that era, blacks lived on the
other side of town. Back then I played basketball daylight to
dark. It was my sophomore year or so that I met Herman in the
park. I was supposedly one of the better players at my high
school. He played for [all-black] Booker T. Washington. He was
6'2". We'd play, never more than the two of us, and it was
always a battle."
Though only 6'1", Haskins could dunk. He loved the game so much
that he spent the nights of his junior and senior proms shooting
hoops in the gym while his classmates swanned on the far side of
a curtain. "Thought everybody was crazy but me," he says.
But being called one of the best players in the state, being
invited to play for Mr. Iba, didn't mean quite as much when you
knew there was someone just across town who might be better than
you but wasn't permitted to play with you. "Would have been nice
to have played with Herman in high school," Haskins says. "I
remember just thinking how unfair it was that this guy couldn't
play. Unfortunately, there wasn't a little more equality back
That's the closest thing to a ringing social statement you'll
get from Haskins. "They made it a big deal after the Kentucky
game," he says of his long-ago role as basketball's Earl Warren.
"That particular night, believe me, I'm not thinking about that.
We got home, and all of that was a total shock to me. The mail,
it started a week or two later. Got about a year of it. 'Dear
Niggerlover.' And every once in a while a letter from a black
leader saying that I was an exploiter. That hurt a little bit.
To say I went in there waving the flag, that's not true. I just
played my best guys, like any coach would do. There were three
black players on the team when I arrived in El Paso. It's not
like I started it."
But there's this thing about stories: Others can tell them, too.
Andy Stoglin, the coach at Jackson State and a former Miner,
tells of a time during the 1962-63 season that Haskins called
him into his office: "Coach Haskins isn't a real talkative guy,
but I could tell something was bothering him. He asked me to sit
down in his chair, his chair, and he pulled out a drawer. He
dumped a bunch of letters on top of his desk and asked me to
read them while he left the room. They said he was playing too
many niggers, stuff like that: hate mail. He came back 15
minutes later and asked me if I'd read enough. He said, 'I know
you realize you're one of the starters. But the reason I don't
start you at home'--and he said he hated this--'is that we have
to win enough games and then maybe someday we can change things.'"
Richardson was also a Miner that season and, like Stoglin, is
black. He remembers Haskins telling him the day of a game that
he wouldn't be starting that night. The coach told Richardson
much the same thing he'd told Stoglin, adding that he believed
Richardson--a senior and an El Pasoan--could cope better than
any of his black teammates with what Haskins made clear he
regarded as an injustice. Says Richardson, "Right before game
time he says, 'Richardson! Piss on 'em, you're starting. Piss on
what they'll say.'"
In their recountings both Richardson and Stoglin stress that
they respected Haskins that much more for having shared his
anguish. And their stories suggest that if he really was
oblivious to the significance of what he did in 1966, it's
because he had first taken a stand several years before. Yet
Haskins denies any recollection of Richardson's and Stoglin's
accounts. Read them to him, so his memory might respond to the
prod of detail, and he's even more emphatic. "I don't recall
this sack of letters," he says of Stoglin's story. "Andy said
that?" And of Richardson's story: "Don't remember that ever
Then he offers a deflective yarn: "We were in Dallas the next
year [after beating Kentucky] to play SMU. Took a call before
the game from someone who promised, 'I'm gonna shoot your
nigger-loving ass.' Shed was running around in the pregame
huddle. Asked him what he was doing, and he said, 'Figure if I'm
a moving target, I'll be tougher to hit.'
"I told the FBI and the police about that, sure. But you might
be the first one other than them I've told. What was to be
gained by going public with all that? Was just some redneck.
There's only one problem with Haskins's failure to recall the
stories that Richardson and Stoglin tell. He has a snare of a
memory. He ticks off phone numbers on demand. He summons in a
trice details about people and places from his past. His former
players say this: When he tells you he doesn't recall, don't
believe it. He remembers everything. "I know him like a book,"
says Richardson. "I guarantee you he's not going to say he did
what he did. He doesn't want any type of credit for anything."
Adds Stoglin, "Don Haskins is one of the most honest people I've
ever known. The only time he won't be honest is if you say
something good about him."
It's still exam period, and UTEP has a new opponent with which
to stagger through a game: Texas Southern, a historically black
college in Houston that lost its chance to attract the best
African-American players in the land because of what Haskins and
Texas Western did 33 years ago. The crowd in the Don Haskins
Center seems beset with the same indifference afflicting the
Miners. "Awwwwwright!" says the man on the mike, with a kind of
dutiful enthusiasm. "Time for some noise!" Nothing happens. Only
with a late effort do the Miners flick Texas Southern away.
Afterward Haskins repairs to an RV parked in the lot outside the
arena. If there were a Don Haskins Center true to its eponym,
this would be it: a structure small and anonymous, with wheels
attached so that, on a whim, it might take a man up into the
hills for the day. Haskins and two doctor friends call the place
the Swamp Cooler. Its owner--a pediatric dentist named Hampton
Briggs--and Bill Dickey, a urologist who serves as an unofficial
team physician, meet Haskins there after many home games.
The Scotch pours forth, more stories do too, with Haskins doing
most of the talking: "There was that time David Lattin was
getting a little chesty, so we left him at home for the Utah
State game, and we passed him hitchhiking on the highway, but
David made it to Logan anyhow and said we'd never have another
problem with him again, and we didn't....
"...and the pecan orchards outside La Mesilla, which you oughta
see in the springtime, when they're green and the boughs arch
out over the road, and be sure to stop by Chopie's on Highway 28
on your way back, but only between noon and 1:30, 'cause they're
closed the rest of the time....
"...out there where the land's so fertile it could make you cry,
so why wouldn't a man sink twenty-two-five into growing lettuce,
though I'm not into playing that game anymore....
"...and I'll never vote for another Republican again, not after
what they've done to that guy, though it's a mess of things he's
made in Iraq....
"...says Dr. Dickey, who I was once out shooting whitewing with--"
"Was pigeons, wasn't it?"
"No, you pecker checker, it was whitewing, and on the way back
the air conditioning in the truck broke down, and this was the
middle of the desert, see, and I didn't have the faintest what
to do, so I turned to Dr. Dickey, and he just shrugged and said,
'If it ain't bleedin', I can't fix it.'"
There is no great battle to be fought in the Swamp Cooler. No
society gets integrated here, no child's illness gets cured, no
grand inquisitor is brought to heel. But neither can any
shrapnel from the skirmishes of life pierce the Swamp Cooler's
steel and further wound a man who has chosen to hunker down
here. In the Swamp Cooler there's an audience that delights in a
particular past being recounted, just so, by this man who has
but one abiding, overriding wish: to be regarded not as saint,
not as sinner, but as just plain innocent.
There's yet another story, from when Haskins was a college
sophomore. "Back then they held the All-College Tournament in
Oklahoma City around Christmas, and it was one of the highlights
of the season. Made all-tournament that year, and afterward Mr.
Iba didn't play me for three straight games. Asked him about it
years later. I said, 'Coach?'--he let me call him Coach by
then--'remember how I made all-tournament at the All-College and
you didn't play me for three straight games?'
"He said he didn't recall. Which is a lie because he remembered
Haskins would get credit for changing the game irrevocably.
that night still resonate with a kind of forerunning cool.
five and seven to 10," Haskins says. "No water. No sitting."
basketball talent flowed into El Paso.
what Mr. Iba might have thought.