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the bear IN Winter
Alexander Wolff
March 01, 1999
His UTEP Miners are only a shadow of the team that wrought a basketball revolution by winning the 1966 NCAA title, yet coach Don Haskins has no recourse but to sit tight through these rocky times
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March 01, 1999

The Bear In Winter

His UTEP Miners are only a shadow of the team that wrought a basketball revolution by winning the 1966 NCAA title, yet coach Don Haskins has no recourse but to sit tight through these rocky times

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Thus the desert fits him fine, even though it was easier to attract coyotes there than players. For a golden while Floyd sat at his elbow, and enough talent flowed in. Not the very best players, but ones good enough to become, under Haskins's hand, better than most. Two wound up among the best: Nate (Tiny) Archibald and Tim Hardaway. The latter helped UTEP to two of its five straight WAC titles in the mid-1980s.

So matters remained for a quarter century after the Kentucky game, with no one paying Haskins and UTEP much mind. Then in 1991 the Miners attracted attention of the most unwelcome kind. Haskins isn't sure why the Inspector Javerts of the NCAA began crawling around, but he suspects their arrival might be traced to a day in '86 when he took on a man named Norm Ellenberger as a volunteer assistant coach.

Ellenberger had presided over an epic scandal at New Mexico during the late 1970s, a goulash of pay-for-play and academic fraud that left him essentially unemployable. Haskins had competed against Ellenberger, yet during off-seasons he had gone hunting with his rival and, among the mesquite and prong-horn, man-to-man, broached the subject of Ellenberger's ways. "I told Norm exactly which of his guys were bought and paid for," Haskins says. "I said, 'This one is,' and he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'That one, too,' and he said, 'How'd you know?' I told him it was obvious: The ones who talked back to him, cursed him out in the huddle; they wouldn't be doing that unless they had something on him. Give a player something, see, and you can't coach him anymore."

But it was just like Haskins to give Ellenberger another chance when Ellenberger was down and out and desperate to get back into the game. And it was just like Haskins never to suspect that his act of charity might attract the interest of the NCAA.

Today Haskins doesn't regret having helped out an old friend. Indeed, he worries that retelling the story might embarrass Ellenberger, who later spent some time on the staff of the NCAA-proof Bob Knight at Indiana. But Haskins also wonders if he was a fool to be so cooperative with the probe, believing he had nothing to hide. He wishes UTEP had retained that cop-a-plea law firm in Kansas City, the one used by schools that get off with a wrist slap. He freely admits that he broke NCAA rules (if not the code he lives by) when he shared some pumpkin pie and a cup of coffee with a recruit's grandmother at seven one morning, three hours earlier than permitted, because she had to go off to work. And he acknowledges that two of his assistants provided improper rides to players, which led UTEP not to renew those coaches' contracts. (One of the former assistants is now up the road in Las Cruces, procuring players for New Mexico State, and that doesn't help the healing.) But Haskins defies you to examine similar cases elsewhere and conclude that UTEP's punishment fit the crime. As people in West Texas say, the entire episode smelled like a wet dog.

During the first two probationary seasons, beginning in 1991, the Miners could offer no more than two new scholarships a year. Then, in '97, the NCAA went in and hide-strapped UTEP anew, for having inadvertently played two ineligible players during the 1995-96 season because the athletic department had certified them as good to go. Again, Haskins had to coach under deep scholarship cuts—only this time the NCAA limited UTEP's total number of rides, as well as the number of new ones the Miners could offer. The program hasn't righted itself since.

To Haskins, the most mortifying thing about all this was that Mr. Iba, then still alive, might have thought that Rope wasn't doing right by the way he'd been taught. Why, no one knew better than Mr. Iba that no coach worth his clipboard would ever consent to let a player have him by the short-and-curlies. "If I'd have got caught in recruiting violations—buying 'em cars or giving 'em money—I'd have quit then," Haskins says, "but I've done my damnedest to do it the right way. I don't feel like I caused this mess. I'd like to get this thing in a little better shape, get things right again, but how can I do that with only two scholarships a year?"

Some friends and followers believe that Haskins, owing to bad luck and a big heart, can't really afford to quit. "It's not to that point," he says. "Don't want it to seem like I'm on skid row." But he admits to a number of financial misadventures over the years. Several years ago Haskins sank $22,500 into a scheme to grow lettuce. Anytime the sky darkened, he would turn into a fretful mess, fearing what rain or hail might do to his precious heads. Once he ran out into his yard in his boxer shorts, ready to stare down the sky. He lost his investment, not because of bad weather but because someone somewhere else offered lettuce at a better price. "We had the greatest lettuce you'd ever see, and we had to turn it over," Haskins says. "You'd think it was about weather, but it's not, see. It's about supply and demand."

Floyd and others tell of the time Haskins, returning from a hunting trip, came across a poor family stranded because their car had broken down. He gave them a lift and put them up in a hotel until the garage had done its work. "I can't imagine how much money he's given away," Floyd says. "Every morning we'd meet at this little coffee shop. Nobody was ever there, and this little lady would always come over to serve us. We'd never have more than two cups of coffee, but he always left a $10 tip."

During the 1980s, Floyd says, Haskins was "literally supplementing his income going out and killing coyotes. I remember him killing seven in one day. He had the hides in the back of his pickup. I think they were going for $75 a pelt."

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