Haskins, Donald Lee [The Bear] (1930–2008)

By: Henry Franklin Tribe

Type: Biography

Published: May 19, 2022

Updated: May 19, 2022

Hall of Fame basketball coach, who led Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) to the NCAA basketball championship in 1966, Don Haskins was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on March 14, 1930. He was the son of Paul Eunice Haskins and Opal Lavene (Richey) Haskins. Growing up in northern Oklahoma during the Great Depression, young Don, his younger brother Jerry, and their parents experienced hardship. Paul Haskins found steady employment as a truck driver for several local companies, and the family struggled along with food from their garden, including a diet heavy on beans and corn, and occasional game that father Paul hunted. The parents practiced a form of rugged independence that Don embraced the rest of his life. At age fifteen while attending Enid High School, Don found employment in a feed store where he developed a friendship with an African American co-worker Herman Carr. Although Enid was segregated and the boys attended different high schools, they both loved basketball and played one-on-one after work. A starter for three years in high school and an accurate shooter, the slim six-foot-three-inch Haskins won All-State honors in basketball and received numerous scholarship offers.

Recruited by Coach Henry “Hank” Iba, Haskins played at Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) from 1949 through 1952. Iba’s A&M teams won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball titles in 1945 and 1946. Known for his disciplined offense and tenacious defense, Iba demanded and expected perfection from his players. Playing guard and forward, Haskins was selected All-Conference second team as a senior and led the team to the NCAA semifinals in 1949 and 1951. Years later, Haskins wrote, “Playing for Mr. Iba was four years of hell. Four years of hell I wouldn’t trade for the world.”  During his own coaching career, Haskins held Iba in high esteem and valued him as a close friend. In 1951 Haskins married fellow student Mary Louise Gorman; they had four sons—Brent, David, Steve, and Mark. Twelve credits short after four years, Haskins failed to earn a degree. He later reflected that he enjoyed shooting pool and consequently, instead of attending classes, often frequented the local pool hall.

With his wife pushing him to pursue a coaching career, Haskins sought to continue his basketball career after college. For a time, he played baseball and basketball for the Artesia (New Mexico) Travelers of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Because the team was sponsored by a power company, Haskins’s job consisted of playing basketball and checking on power lines in the desert. Since the games consisted of no defense and high scoring games, Haskins grew tired of the AAU brand of basketball. After attending a coaching clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he accepted a coaching position at Benjamin High School in the tiny town of Benjamin (the seat of Knox County in North Texas) in 1955. At Benjamin, Haskins coached the boys and girls basketball team, the six-man football team, and drove a school bus. From 1956 to 1960 he coached boys and girls basketball at Hedley High School in Hedley in the Texas Panhandle.  While at Hedley, Haskins also took classes at West Texas State College (now West Texas A&M University) in order to earn his degree. In 1960 he accepted a coaching job in Dumas, Texas, where he coached the boys high school team to a 25–7 record. In August 1961 George McCarty, the ex-basketball coach and athletic director and dean of men at Texas Western College, asked Haskins to interview for the open position of head basketball coach. A friend and admirer of Hank Iba, McCarty knew about Haskins’s basketball background and pushed for his hiring.     

As coach of the Texas Western Miners, Haskins encountered some unique circumstances in El Paso in 1961. Twelve African Americans entered Texas Western as students in 1955 without incident. In 1956 basketball coach George McCarty recruited two African American players (the first in Texas and the southern half of the United States), Charlie and Cecil Brown, to play varsity basketball. In his three seasons with Texas Western, Charlie Brown led the team in scoring and rebounding and earned All-Conference recognition each year. Other African American athletes followed. Before his first season at Texas Western, Haskins had never coached African Americans. He later wrote: “I didn’t see white guys and black guys, I saw players. There was no difference. I treated every one of them the same.” Recruiting and playing African Americans, Texas Western made the NCAA Tournament in 1963 and 1964 and the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1965. One Black player Nolan Richardson played on Haskins’s first team at Texas Western and would later coach Arkansas to the 1994 NCAA basketball championship. With a salary his first season of $6,000, Haskins and his wife and children resided in Miners Hall, the school athletic dorm, where they functioned as “dorm parents” and could live and eat for free in the cafeteria.   

As a basketball coach, Haskins modeled himself after Hank Iba and stressed aggressive defense and a disciplined offense. On the sidelines, Haskins projected a harsh demeanor, yelling at players in a manner similar to Iba. During his early career in El Paso, he conducted brutal and lengthy practices, like Iba, and seldom allowed his players to drink water. Nicknamed “The Bear,” Haskins rode his players hard, forbid flashy play like behind the back passes, and constantly challenged their manhood.

Haskins’s career would forever be remembered for Texas Western’s performance in 1965–66. Although he divided the playing time between Black and White players the previous year, Haskins depended mostly on seven Black players during the regular season leading up to the NCAA championship game. In the regular season, the Miners went undefeated until their final game when they lost 74–72 to Seattle, a team they had defeated 76–64 earlier in the season in El Paso. Going into the NCAA Tournament with a record of 23–1 and ranked number three nationally, Texas Western easily defeated Oklahoma City in the first round, then defeated two powerhouses, Cincinnati and Kansas, each in overtime, and then Utah in the Final Four to advance to the championship.

Played at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House on March 19, 1966, the NCAA basketball championship proved to be of historical significance. Ranked number three with only one loss, Texas Western was viewed as a heavy underdog against the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Coached by Adolph Rupp, the Wildcats, also with only one defeat, were ranked number one in the nation. Reluctant to recruit African American players, Rupp’s team liked to run, shoot, and press. In a first for the NCAA, Haskins started five African-Americans for Texas Western against the all-White Kentucky squad nicknamed “Rupp’s Runts.” Five-foot-nine-inch guard Bobby Joe Hill frustrated the Wildcats on defense and on offense scored twenty points to lead Texas Western. Pat Riley and Louie Dampier led Kentucky in scoring with nineteen points each. Taking the lead midway through the first half, Texas Western defeated the Wildcats 72–65. El Paso held a victory parade when the team returned.

The game changed college basketball forever by drawing attention to the racism that existed in college athletics in the American South. Played in the background of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Texas Western’s victory on the basketball court proved significant in breaking down the walls of segregation in athletics. Haskins always downplayed his decision to start five Black players in the game. Years later, he wrote, “I certainly wasn’t trying to make a social statement. I just wanted to win. If my five best players were from Mars, I would have started five Martians.” Once the process to recruit African Americans in the late 1960s began, Black players filled the rosters of major college programs in both the Atlantic Coast and Southeast Conference in the 1970s. During his tenure at El Paso, Haskins also served as an assistant coach, under Coach Hank Iba, for the U. S. men’s basketball team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany.

After coaching at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) for thirty-eight years with a record of 719 wins and 353 loses, fourteen NCAA tournaments, seven Western Athletic Conference championships, seven NIT tournaments, and one NCAA championship, Don Haskins retired in 1999. He had been named Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year (an award later renamed in his honor) in 1983 and 1987. Among the African-American players he had recruited to El Paso, Jim “Bad News” Barnes, Nate Archibald, and Tim Hardaway found success in the National Basketball Association (NBA). The coach, whose gruff manner and exhausting team drills had often evoked loathing from his players at the time, became beloved by ex-players who credited his stern discipline for shaping their lives. Haskins, personally described as a humble figure, shunned the spotlight and turned down more lucrative offers to stay at UTEP. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997. Around that time UTEP’s Special Events Center was named the Don Haskins Center in his honor. His 1965–66 championship team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Other honors for Haskins include his induction into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2000 he received the John Thompson Foundation’s Outstanding Achievement Award, and in 2004 he was the recipient of the National Association of Basketball Coaches Golden Anniversary Award for a lifetime of achievement. He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. That same year he wrote (with Dan Wetzel) his autobiography—Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever.

In 2006 Walt Disney Pictures released the film Glory Road which chronicled the events leading up to the NCAA basketball championship and introduced a new generation of sports fans to Haskins. The film starred Josh Lucas as Haskins. Jon Voight played Adolph Rupp. Haskins, playing a gas station employee, made a cameo in the film. Former Kentucky player and Hall of Fame NBA coach Pat Riley appeared in the film’s end credits and stated that the game was probably the “Emancipation Proclamation of 1966.”      

At the age of seventy-eight, Haskins died of congestive heart failure at his home in El Paso on September 7, 2008. He was survived by his wife Mary, and his sons, Brent, David, and Steve. His son Mark died in 1994. Haskins was buried at Memory Gardens of the Valley Cemetery in Santa Teresa, New Mexico. 

At the time of his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997, Haskins made a point to note that “ten of the twelve players on his [championship] team got their degree” and “every one of the players have made successes of their lives.” Friend and former Indiana and Texas Tech coach Bob Knight stated that “Don got more out of his teams and players than any coach who has ever coached college basketball.” Although he always downplayed his decision to start five African-Americans in the NCAA basketball championship in 1966, Don Haskins served as a role model for other coaches and made a significant contribution in breaking down the walls of segregation and advancing equality in college athletics in America.

El Paso Times, September 7, 2008. Frank Fitzpatrick, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Basketball Game That Changed American Sports (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999). Coach Don Haskins with Dan Wetzel, Glory Road: My Story of the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship and How One Team Triumphed Against the Odds and Changed America Forever (New York: Hyperion Books, 2006). Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2008. Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Donald L. “Don” Haskins (https://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/don-haskins/), accessed May 10, 2022. Ray Sanchez, Basketball’s Biggest Upset: Texas Western Changed The Sport With A Win Over Kentucky In 1966 (New York: Authors Choice, 2005). Sports Reference: Don Haskins (https://www.sports-reference.com/cbb/coaches/don-haskins-1.html), accessed May 10, 2022. Washington Post, September 9, 11, 13, 2008.  

  • Sports and Recreation
  • Coaches
  • Sports (Basketball)
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
  • Southwest Texas
  • El Paso

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Henry Franklin Tribe, “Haskins, Donald Lee [The Bear],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 28, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/haskins-donald-lee-the-bear.

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May 19, 2022
May 19, 2022

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