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GLORY ROADMy Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever
By DON HASKINS DAN WETZEL
HYPERIONCopyright © 2006 Don Haskins
All right reserved.
The wind chill was thirty degrees below zero in Ames, Iowa. One of those brutal, frozen, brittle days in the snow-packed upper Midwest in 1996. The radio kept saying to make sure you kept a candle and a blanket in your car, that way you could survive a couple days if you drove off the road and into a snow bank.
Presumably, by then, someone might find you.
There is cold and there is cold. Which is why when Tim Floyd, the Iowa State coach at the time whom I was in town interviewing for a magazine article, pulled his warm car into the parking lot of the Hilton Coliseum and eyeballed the frigid three-hundred-foot walk to the door, he just shook his head.
Floyd was from Mississippi and had spent a long portion of his career in El Paso, Texas. So he pulled the car back on the road and we drove around Ames, just to stay warm, just to avoid the weather for a few hours until it was time for practice. He began regaling me with stories about his colorful old boss at the University of Texas at El Paso, Don Haskins. We wound up driving around-Tim talking, me listening-for nearly two hours.
I can look back and say I'venever been more thankful to have been stuck in the middle of an arctic blast.
"We go on a recruiting trip to little Zwolle, Louisiana," Floyd said that day. "We are flying out of Shreveport the next morning and are staying in some little hotel. Coach wasn't much for fancy hotels; he liked motel-type places, where you can park in front of your door. Simple. Next to the hotel is a little old run-down bar with a neon cowboy boot kicking.
"Coach sees it though and gets excited. This is his kind of place. 'Let's go in for a beer, Tim,' he says. Damn, I'm thinking, we have an early flight, but what are you going to do? It's pretty empty in there, a couple guys in back playing pool, five dollars a game. We sit down and are talking recruiting when Coach goes over and puts a quarter down on the pool table.
"One of the guys gets a little short with Coach and says, 'Hey, buddy, we're playing for money here, you still wanna play?' Coach is taken aback by the tone, so he says all innocently, 'Oh, I guess that'll be OK.' Coach's turn comes up and the guy says, 'We want to play for ten dollars a game now.' Coach is bothered now, but he just says, 'Oh, I guess that'll be OK.' Coach was in his late fifties at this point, he slowly gets over to the table and they begin playing.
"He beats the first guy by one ball," said Floyd, now coach at the University of Southern California. "Then the next guy gets up and Coach beats him by one ball. And on and on. Back and forth these guys keep trying and Coach keeps beating them by just one ball and then raising the bet-he calls it 'sprinkling corn in the field.' He winds up winning about twenty games in a row.
"Finally, Coach decides it's time to leave. Now, you could tell these two didn't have much; this is a poor bar in a poor town. They bit off more than they could chew. They look depressed. Coach had wiped them out of a week's pay or something. So Coach has all their money, a few hundred dollars, in his hand and he walks back over to the pool table, throws it down, and says, 'You best be careful who you gamble with in the future.' Then without saying another word, he just walks out of the bar."
I'd spent eight years as a national college basketball writer for a variety of magazines and Web sites. During this time I'd gotten to know just about every coach in the country. It has become an increasingly glitzy business, where Armani suits have overtaken American substance, where coaches, without even realizing the absurdity of it, began referring to themselves as "CEOs," where some spoke glowingly that "perception equals reality." This was a business where image had, indeed, become everything and ego was everywhere.
Except, apparently, out in west Texas, where Haskins was quietly winding down his Hall of Fame career. I knew the name and knew the story of 1966, but I didn't know much else. His teams by then were good, fundamentally sound, overachieving clubs, but with over three hundred Division I programs to cover, UTEP just wasn't as high of a priority as Kentucky, Duke, or Arizona. Like most in the national media, I was finding it easy to overlook UTEP.
But here was the John Wayne of basketball, a hustler, a hard guy, a legend who didn't want anyone, anywhere to know it. How tough was the man they called the Bear? In 1996 he started to have chest pains during halftime of a game, and when the paramedics came he refused to be wheeled out of the arena. Instead, he got up and walked to the ambulance. The next day he had quintuple bypass surgery.
He was in El Paso because the people and the media left him alone. He could have gone to bigger schools, where he would have had the resources to reach the Final Four every year, but he was content where he was, coaching and teaching without the fanfare. In a cutthroat business, this contentment was rare.
He was comfortable in El Paso because EL Paso was comfortable with him. He wore a clip-on tie for games. His truck had guns in it and, occasionally, coyote carcasses in the bed ("They're payin' seventy-five dollars for a skin," he'd explain). Hustle a game of pool at some big, self-important university and you might get fired. But do it at UTEP and you are beloved. Even after the school named its 12,000-seat arena after him-the Don Haskins Center-he refuses to call it by anything but its original name, the Special Events Center.
I suspected that the coaches who kept justifying their $1.1 million salaries by explaining to me that their basketball program was "the front porch of the university" probably wouldn't be so humble. This was a guy I didn't just want to meet, but someone I needed to meet.
"You've got to go down there," said Floyd. "But you better find a way to get into his truck. That's where the stories are told. You aren't getting much of an interview if you can't get into the truck."
So I went; first as a journalist and later, after Haskins retired in 1999, I returned as a friend. And I got into that GMC truck, which I usually shared with a couple bottles of whiskey on the floor. I wound up going back there over and over to the point where my official favorite vacation destination in America was the unlikely location of old El Paso.
Needless to say, we made for an unusual friendship. He grew up in Oklahoma, I'm from Boston. We are separated in age by forty-two years. He enjoys mimicking (or butchering) my accent. I laugh when he calls a heavy rain "a frog strangler." He almost keeled over when he heard I had never shot a rifle in my life-this was after he, at the age of seventy-one, had just coolly killed a rattlesnake we had happened upon while walking around the desert. Of course, I think he was proud when on my first shot I absolutely blew the hell out of an empty Budweiser can.
"Yeah, you're a damn natural," he said.
What I found in El Paso was not just a friend but an American original, a man of principle and profundity, someone you could learn from by just sitting around with him at a little dive at two in the afternoon. On one of my first trips to El Paso we walked in through the back door of a rickety bar, the kind of place you can drive by a hundred times without even noticing, let alone think of patronizing. Ten or twelve Mexican day workers lined the wooden front bar, heads sort of sagging.
The most famous El Pasoan of all time called the lady behind the bar by her first name, bought a round of Buds for the house (total bill: twelve dollars, he left eight dollars as a tip), and then led me over to a small booth. Everyone in the place tipped their hat at Haskins, mumbled "Coach," and then stayed to themselves.
"See," he said, surveying the scene like it was heaven on earth, like he had just scored a prime table at Spago in Beverly Hills. "No one bothers you in this place."
We've never been to the elite spots in town, such as the grill room at the El Paso Country Club. Haskins referred to the Mesa Avenue restaurant Jaxon's-an Applebee's-like place-as "too fancy." Most of his friends, many of whom have become my friends, were simple blue-collar workers, often Mexican immigrants.
Unless you've been to El Paso, you can't fathom how big Don Haskins is, his presence looming larger than the Franklin Mountains that cut through the city. In west Texas Haskins is king in a region with few celebrities. He could have sipped the fine wine, could have dined on steak so succulent that you can cut it with a fork, could have had every rich oil baron in the area kissing his ass and inviting him to dinner parties.
Instead he likes drinking in dark, dank holes-in-the-wall. As much as he felt being enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame an honor, he's still a bit ornery that he had to wear a tuxedo to the ceremony. A good lunch is an oversized burrito in some local bakery that has no name and where no one speaks English. He knows what it's like to have significant action on a downhill eight-foot putt. A nice afternoon is a drive around the desert, stopping only to call coyotes. He can be approached by any old soul and he'll engage that person in conversation like he was the president of the United States.
He freely passes out extra money to honest people who have fallen a bit behind. He never tips less than thirty percent. He uses whatever connections he has with the wealthy to organize major relief efforts to poor villages on the other side of the Rio Grande, a humanitarian project he keeps a secret and never shares with the media. He can teach you the most simple of life's lessons in the most simple of ways.
It is one thing to be blue collar, to be salt of the earth. It is entirely another thing to choose to stay that way when fame and fortune and the so-called fabulous life present themselves to you. Don Haskins is the real McCoy, a once-in-a-lifetime slice of Americana.
Oh, and could he ever coach basketball.
"The people who understand what coaching is," Bob Knight told me one day, "the people who really know what great coaching is, are all going to talk about Don Haskins."
In thirty-seven years he never coached a single prep All-American, the ultratalented recruits who consistently fuel the nation's best college programs. He had one junior college All American, but he graduated way back in 1964. He won 719 games and made twenty-one appearances in either the NCAA tournament or NIT without those kinds of players. His specialty was taking raw talents and teaching them how to play the game, routinely turning projects into players and players into pros. He was annually getting more out of less. I'm not saying John Wooden or Dean Smith couldn't have won 719 in El Paso, but Haskins certainly could have the record they did in Westwood or Chapel Hill.
But it was his decision to be the first college coach to start five black players that is his claim to fame. It was an historic, courageous decision that can't be minimized; no matter how often Haskins has tried. Not only did it change the course of basketball, but he did it (whether he admits it or not) with repercussions waiting. No small thing for a then thirty-five-year-old with a wife and four kids to feed.
"He risked his career by doing it," said Harry Flournoy, a cocaptain on that 1966 team. "If we hadn't won he might have gotten fired because a lot of people didn't think you could win with five black starters. If he were fired, then where would he have gone? Most colleges wouldn't have taken him."
Back then, there was a simple coaching axiom. You can play two blacks at home, three on the road, and four if you were losing. But never, ever five at once. That would get you fired. That would draw the wrong kind of attention. In the South, teams were all white. So when Haskins won the 1966 NCAA title by starting five blacks and playing seven altogether against all-white University of Kentucky, everything changed. Pat Riley, a player on the opposing UK team, would later call it "the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966." Others referred to it as basketball's Brown v. Board of Education.
"The next year black kids throughout the South got calls from schools saying they were now open," said Nolan Richardson, one of Haskins's former players who, in 1994 as coach of Arkansas, would become just the second African-American coach ever to win an NCAA title. "He literally got thousands and thousands of black kids scholarships."
And Haskins got death threats and hate mail.
"Most of them started the same way," he frowned. "Dear Nigger Lover."
I've spent hundreds and hundreds of hours with the man, and if you don't ask about 1966 then he doesn't mention it. It's ancient history to him.
"I just played my best players," he's told anyone who would listen for decades.
None of us want to believe him, but maybe we should start trying.
Haskins doesn't want the glory. He agreed to be a part of Disney's Glory Road movie only because Hollywood would have made it without his permission anyway. He agreed to write this book because he wants everyone to know the truth-that he wasn't a racial pioneer or a civil rights hero, he was just a simple coach seeking victory.
He is really, truly writing a book, honest to goodness, to make sure he gets less credit. He doesn't want to be "some damn hero."
When we started working on this book together, he lectured me that he didn't want "any braggin' at all." This was after he found out I had written the following, supposedly boastful line: "I was a good free-throw shooter in high school."
"I don't want the word T to appear in the book," he declared.
"It is an autobiography, how the hell do you expect the word T not to appear?"
"Well, damn, it, I thought you were the genius writer."
That's Haskins though. Whether we were driving around in his truck, getting breakfast at the Sunset Inn in El Paso, a drink at the Sheepherder in Dell City, Texas, or talking on the phone, comparing college football picks, he is self-deprecating and hysterical. He is out of some other world. In retirement he cares about hunting, fishing, and family. And about little else.
He is completely out of touch with pop culture. He hasn't been to an actual theater since Patton in 1970. ("Some kids threw popcorn. Never went back.") He was once reading a front-page newspaper story about the death of a beloved and quite famous children's television star and demanded to know, "Who the hell is Mr. Rogers?"
Excerpted from GLORY ROAD by DON HASKINS DAN WETZEL Copyright © 2006 by Don Haskins. Excerpted by permission.
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