EL PASO, Texas — Don Haskins, credited with helping break color barriers in college sports in 1966 when he used five black starters to win a national basketball title for Texas Western, died Sunday afternoon. He was 78.
Texas-El Paso spokesman Jeff Darby said the Hall of Fame coach died at his home, surrounded by family and friends. He had congestive heart failure.
UTEP was previously known as Texas Western.
"The word unique does not begin to describe Don Haskins," former Indiana and Texas Tech coach Bob Knight said. "There is no one who has ever coached that I respected and admired more than Don Haskins. I've had no better friend that I enjoyed more than Don Haskins."
Mr. Haskins was a gruff old-time coach who believed in hard work. He turned down lucrative offers, including one with the American Basketball Association, and remained at UTEP as one of the lowest paid coaches in the Western Athletic Conference.
Mr. Haskins retired in 1999 after 38 seasons at the school (719-353 record, seven WAC titles, 14 NCAA tournaments).
He is survived by wife Mary and sons Brent, David and Steve. Son Mark died in 1994.
Mr. Haskins, nicknamed "The Bear," played for Hall of Fame coach Henry "Hank" Iba at Oklahoma State, when the school was Oklahoma A&M.
In 1966 Mr. Haskins led the Miners to the 1966 NCAA title game, making the controversial decision to start five black players against all-white, heavily favored Kentucky, coached by Adolph Rupp. The Miners won 72-65, and many schools began recruiting black players. Mr. Haskins said he wasn't trying to make a social statement; he was starting his best players. He got 40,000 hate letters — many beginning "Dear N- - - - - Lover'' — and death threats, and civil rights leaders accused him of exploiting black athletes.
"We were walking around with the medal indicating we were the 1966 NCAA champions," said Nevil Shed, one of seven black players. "He was walking around with another brand on him for allowing these players to play."
"The myth that surrounds Don Haskins in the movie Glory Road and what he did for black players is better said that he cared like that for all his players,'' Knight said. "There was never anyone like him before and there will never be one like him again."
When asked about what shaped his attitudes about race, Mr. Haskins often mentioned his youth in Enid, Okla., where he played against a young black player, Herman Carr.
Mr. Haskins puzzled over the inequities. When the pair took a water break, Carr used a separate fountain for "coloreds only." And Mr. Haskins got all the publicity and scholarship offers while Carr, a better player in Haskins' estimation, joined the Army.
Nolan Richardson, who played for Mr. Haskins, and other former players joke that he treated all his players equally — bad — and that most didn't like him until after their playing days were done.
"He'll be dearly missed,'' said former Oklahoma State and Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton. "Anybody who's been around college basketball dating back to those days, they've seen how it changed after Texas Western won the national championship."