EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE a death of a prominent person reminds us just how far we have come as a society. The passing of former University of Texas-El Paso basketball coach Don Haskins is just such a death.
Haskins, 78, who died at his El Paso home on Sunday, was seen as a social pioneer when he started five black players in the 1966 national title game against the vaunted University of Kentucky Wildcats and their legendary coach Adolph Rupp.
Haskins' team — which was called Texas Western at the time — was given little chance in the contest, but the Miners pulled off one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
Haskins built the Texas Western program from the ground up and coached at the school for 38 years before retiring in 1999 with a 719-353 record. The school's improbable rise to national prominence is detailed in the 2006 movie "Glory Road."
The decision to start five black players may not seem like much by today's standards, but it caused quit a stir at the time. Haskins has said repeatedly that he was not trying to break a color barrier or prove a point. He said he was simply starting his five best players — a standard that is simply taken for granted in today's athletic contests.
But this was 1966, after all, only two years after passage of the Civil Rights Act and three years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had delivered his "I have a dream" speech. Many major universities in the South had no black students attending classes much less playing on basketball teams.
Thankfully, those days have passed us. While we have not made as much progress as many would like, the nation has made strides toward racial equity. So much so that 42 years after that legendary and, at the time, controversial championship game we have a black man running for president of the United States as the nominee for a major political party.
That could happen, in part, because of groundbreaking people like Don Haskins. We mourn his death, but at the same time celebrate his achievements.