Remembering Don Haskins

© 2016 Jim Spence As the Final Four of 2016 approached last week, I was quite thrilled to see some of the national sports networks take the opportunity to look back fifty years to the amazing national championship victory of Texas Western (UTEP) in 1966.

When my wife Kristi and I were going to NMSU back in the late 1970’s, we loved the rivalry with UTEP and were always amazed at how engaged the entire region was in the games between the Aggies and the Miners. We enjoyed rooting against UTEP coach Don Haskins, and we loved it more when the Aggies beat him.

Don Haskins
In 2007 I got a call from a buddy, local First American Bank president Joe Bullock. Joe told me he needed to back out of a golf game scheduled with his twin brother Van at Coronado Country Club in El Paso that afternoon. He wondered if I could fill in. I have always liked playing the Coronado golf course, and I was free that day, so I agreed. I asked Joe who the other two players would be, and to my surprise he said I would be playing with former New Mexico Governor (and current NMSU President) Garrey Carruthers, and former Aggie golfing great Steve Haskins. Steve of course is Don Haskins son. I realized it was a real privilege to play with all three of these guys, so I was very happy to make the trip to El Paso.

When we arrived at Coronado Country Club I was the first one to the driving range. Shortly afterwards Steve Haskins arrived and introduced himself to me. He said, “Jim, I hope you don’t mind, but my dad is going drive my cart and go with us for nine holes.”

I smiled and said, “Of course I don’t mind.” Then I asked, “Is coach going to play too?”

Steve Haskins shook his head sadly and explained that his dad was not doing well health-wise. His diabetes was a real problem and his feet were a mess.

I finished my range balls and headed back to my golf cart just as Don Haskins pulled up in Steve’s golf cart. The old coach hopped out of his cart and grimaced noticeably. He was in obvious pain. He was wearing sandals over white socks and it was obvious his feet were really bothering him. Reflexively I looked down at his socks and noticed they were red in a couple of spots from blood flow.

Don Haskins approached me immediately and stuck out his hand. He said, “Jim, I’m Don Haskins and I’m very happy to meet you. I hope you don’t mind if I ride along with Steve for the front nine.”

I practically giggled that a man as famous as Don Haskins would think he had to tell me who he was. I was also amazed that Haskins would go to the trouble to find out what my name was in advance of introducing himself to me. Don Haskins went to the trouble to make me feel important. I shook his hand enthusiastically and told him I had admired him for decades.

It was a memorable day. I took every opportunity to engage in conversation with Don Haskins. I asked him about the book/film Glory Road, the situation at the 1966 championship game, and whether Hollywood got the story right in the film. Surprisingly, the Bear said the filmmakers did a very good job and everything in the book and film was pretty accurate. He also shared a couple of stories about death threats he received.

The two hours flew by. Don Haskins apologized for leaving at the end of nine. It was obvious that he was hurting. We all shook his hand and I realized it would probably be the last time I would see the man. I was right. He died the following year in September.

When we reached the clubhouse for a round of beers I asked Steve Haskins if his dad made any money off of Glory Road. Steve smiled and said he got some money, but the coach shared so much of it with former players and assistant coaches from the team, there wasn’t very much left for him.

Don Haskins never thought of himself as much more than a dedicated basketball coach. However, as I have reflected on what Don Haskins did, I realize that unlike today’s national championship winning basketball coaches, who cash in on their success and sign multi-million dollar contracts, Don Haskins compensation for what he accomplished was pretty minimal. No doubt he had big offers. But Don Haskins loved this area and he chose to stay here with his friends. When you consider what Don Haskins got paid per death threat, he came really cheap.

When Haskins coached those terrific black kids to a win over Kentucky fifty years ago, he helped pave the way for a cultural revolution in sports. Don Haskins changed America, and as such, he should be considered one of the most transformative individuals in our nation’s history. Haskins will always be an unsung hero in my mind. Accordingly, I feel blessed to have had the privilege to spend an afternoon with such a remarkable man.

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