Monson: Haskins got his wins; equality won, too
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Don Haskins was a gruff, growling S.O.B. who preached tough defense and won a lot of games. But he was and did much more than that, some of it, as he once said, "without even thinking."

And that's the best part of his story.

Maybe you watched Haskins coach basketball at UTEP, maybe you watched his teams play, maybe you watched his team win a national championship in 1966, and/or maybe you just watched the characterization of him and his title team in the 2006 film "Glory Road."

He won 719 games in 38 years at El Paso, more than a few against Utah and Brigham Young in the old WAC, utilizing a coaching style that required discipline from his players and demanded hard work. Sometimes he was unreasonable, disallowing his players, over one span, to drink water during practices.

Though imperfect, Haskins is said to have been - as many supposedly tough guys are - a compassionate soul who helped the less fortunate and stayed true to those who were loyal to him. He hustled pool, drove a pickup truck, liked to hunt and shunned the glossy, sweet-faced, self-selling public-relations aspect to coaching that many in his wake have so sickeningly embraced.

Ironic, since they ended up writing a best-selling book and producing the aforementioned popular feature-length movie about him.

I didn't know the man. I talked to him once, in a fairly routine postgame setting that was nothing short of uneventful.

His life, though, the effect of his life, was anything but.

Haskins died on Sunday at the age of 78, but not before contributing to society in a profound way, in a way that sprouted out of the fertile ground of wanting to win and not caring too much about who helped him do the winning.

That seems pretty basic to a lot of people today, but back in '66, it was a spinning dunk on the noggin. That was the year Haskins did something nobody else had ever done: He won an NCAA basketball championship at Texas Western (later renamed UTEP) with five black starters. His top two reserves were also black.

No big deal, right?

In the aftermath of that championship game, against all-white Kentucky, Haskins received 40,000 pieces of hate mail. Racists loathed him, and even some African-American civil-rights leaders accused him of exploiting black athletes.

Haskins said all along he wasn't trying to be some kind of social pioneer or make any sort of statement to a racially biased country. He just thought he should recruit the best players he could find, and then play them.

So, he did.

He had the victories - and the scars - to prove it.

After an extended period - beginning the day after beating Adolph Rupp's Kentucky team, 72-65, (the Miners also defeated Utah that year in the national semifinals), when the heat and hatred came to him in waves, from administrators, colleagues, fans, and strangers - Haskins said winning the title was "the worst thing ever to happen to me."

He said in his book, "I wished for a long time that we had never won that game with Kentucky because life would have been a heck of a lot easier for me, my school, and my players."

Haskins would have to settle for something other than easy. Intended or otherwise, what he did, what his team accomplished, fundamentally changed college sports. It hastened a flawed progression, but progression nonetheless, still moving forward now, running over stereotypes en route. Opportunity and scholarships thereafter became much more available to black athletes - and essentially kicked open the door to the path toward some of the racial diversity we see today.

"I just wanted to win the game," he said.

Perfect. In a world that badly needed him then, and that will miss him now, Haskins left an important legacy by looking past skin color and perpetrating the best kind of equality.

He let the best man play.

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* GORDON MONSON hosts "The Monson and Graham Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at gmonson@sltrib.com.