Coach Haskins and the 1955 Benjamin High School football team
From a pool hall in Albuquerque, New Mexico a phone call was made to Benjamin Superintendent D.V. Markham, asking him if he could use a young coach who had yet to complete his college degree. The deal was made and thus began the odyssey career of Don Haskins, Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame recipient and iconic basketball coach who led the UTEP Miners to 719 wins, 14 Western Athletic Conference championships, and the 1966 NCAA championship. That phone call was made in 1955 and planted the seed of friendship that would not blossom until almost 40 years later when coach Haskins called me and wanted to return to Benjamin for a nostalgic visit in the country where it all began.
Benjamin High School Annual when Don and Mary Haskins were teaching and coaching here
Don explained that my Dad, the late Pate Meinzer, was on the Benjamin school board that hired him and staunchly supported his rigid athletic program at the Benjamin high school. My father had told me many stories of Don Haskins and his tough handling of athletes while at Benjamin, as I was too young, at age 5, to remember when it all transpired. Now, some 40 years later, the legendary coach wanted to come back to his old starting point and revisit the past.
Don did make the trip and we developed a friendship that lasted until his passing in September of 2008. In the process Sylinda and I had the opportunity to meet Mrs. Mary Haskins, a beautiful and patient friend and wife to her beloved Don. But what intrigued me the few years of our friendship was how really simple Don Haskins, the man, really was. Reared in Oklahoma as a boy, hunting, fishing, and frequenting snooker halls, Don enjoyed his time with the simple hobbies so foreign to youngsters today.
When he first began coming to Benjamin to hang out and hunt with me he would make clear the fact that he did not want to go visit anyone else but his old friend, the late Tick Moorhouse. I honored his wishes and was taken by surprise the day he called and almost cussed me out for not asking him to speak to the Benjamin High School athletic banquet. Of course I set it up for him and he mesmerized the people there with his stories of life as seen through the eyes of Don Haskins. His visit was a moment to remember for the students at BHS.
Coach Haskins was not a man who sought notoriety. His reply to my question regarding the fame brought on by his winning the 1966 NCAA Championship with his starting team of all black athletes was typical Haskins. “I was not making a statement about race, because hell, these five players were my best and I wanted to win!!”
Coach Haskins venting at some referees during a Miners Game. Photo by Brian Kanaf
The last personal visit that I had with Don was at a book signing in El Paso a couple of years ago. During the signing Don and I exchanged stories of old time hunting and some basketball yarns. When it was over my wife Sylinda and Mary Haskins spent the time visiting while Don introduced me to his personal sanctuary, a limitless expanse of Texas desert that protected him from the masses who wanted to spend a moment with the “other” Don, the Coach, the legend, Hall of Fame recipient, and the subject of the Hollywood movie, Glory Road.
Mary Haskins (l) Don (c) and Sylinda Meinzer (r) in Haskins home, El Paso, 2006
Stopping by Wal Mart to pick up some .22 ammo for shooting practice, he drove me along the lonely stretches of faceless desert and explained that for over 30 years this is where he would come to get away from it all and be alone with his thoughts, to relive the plays of games won and lost or simply to revisit the memorable times he spent hunting coyotes or quail while living in Benjamin.
As the shadows of late afternoon crept over the scrub brush and the desert mountains glowed crimson in the light of evening, Don suggested that we go have a beer at his favorite hangout. Soon we rolled to a stop at the back door of Rosa’s Cantina and trudged into the dim light of the bar, met only by the courtesy nod of a few patrons and the tune of Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” on the jukebox. Don had noticed my surprise when he pulled up to the very common looking bar and proceeded to explain to me that he liked the quiet places because the patrons were polite to him and basically left him alone.
We had a beer or two and Don bought a round for the crowd while we sat and talked about hunting, old times in Benjamin and life in general. We made one more stop at Sergio’s bar and then headed on to have dinner with the two gals who allowed us our time together that day in the desert.
Don and Sergio at the bar in El Paso, 2006
That was my last personal visit with Don Haskins as in September 2008 he headed out to a land where all of his players shoot 100 % from the floor and his rifle shots will never go awry. But months before his passing, in true Haskins form, he insisted that I become acquainted with two of his former athletes, Steve Tredenick, who played four years under Don’s watchful eye but graduating in 1965, was one year short of being on the championship team. Steve’s companion was none other than Nevil Shed, or “The Shadow”, and member of the 1966 NCAA Championship team.
Steve, Sylinda and Nevil in our home, 2009
1966 NCAA Championship ring on Steve's hand, given to him by the Haskins family, and Nevil's own championship ring
These two very humble and gracious men visited in our home recently as they were on their way to the “Glory Road” tour, a trip that would take them to the high schools where Coach and Mary Haskins had lived and touched the lives of so many. Since Steve and Nevil had already spoken to the Benjamin ISD back in the spring of 2008, their travels this time were taking them to Hedley and Dumas ISD and from there to a Hall of Fame reception in Canyon, Texas. But during the overnight stay in our home, we all toasted the colorful life of Don and Mary Haskins, two common people whose drive and determination in their profession touched the lives of so many in a positive way.
Adios to the Coach