Texas-El Paso coach Don Haskins’ office is full of trophies, plaques and memorabilia. But the one award that would probably cap his career - a plaque from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. - has eluded him.
Nominated the past three years by UTEP and the Western Athletic Conference, Haskins, 64, has never made it through the screening committee despite his 663 victories and one NCAA title.
He ranks third among active Division I coaches in total victories behind North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Mount St. Mary’s James Phelan. And his title-game victory over Kentucky in 1966 was notable because it was the first time a coach had started five black players in an NCAA final.
But because many of his victories have come in the WAC, that apparently doesn’t count for much with the Hall of Fame selectors.
“I’ve asked them not to nominate me anymore,” said Haskins, in his 34th season at UTEP. “People here have tried real hard… . Maybe some day it will mean more to me than it does now. I am trying to have a good year or two before I quit.”
Haskins always will be in the shadows in arenas far away from great attention. The WAC schools are in the Mountain, Pacific and Hawaiian time zones. And the lack of television sets, and the resulting limited exposure have obscured the league and Haskins.
“I champion his cause,” Utah coach Rick Majerus said. “From day one, I have said he should be in the Hall of Fame. If he was in any other league, he would be in the Hall of Fame. But because of the demographics of the league, he is not. He’s a great coach.”
“People don’t know how good a league the WAC is, top to bottom,” Haskins said. “It’s a darn good league. I wasn’t looking forward to playing against Shawn Bradley (the 7-6 former BYU player who went to the NBA after one season and a twoyear Mormon mission). But I was hoping he would stay because all of a sudden the WAC would have been on television every night.”
This season, the WAC has had some good victories over nationally known teams. BYU beat Louisville, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. Utah topped Indiana. UTEP knocked off New Mexico State. Wyoming believes it beat Cincinnati, losing a controversial last-second decision to the Bearcats.
And there are several NBA prospects in the league, such as UTEP guard Antoine Gillespie, Brigham Young forward Russell Larson, Utah forwards Keith Van Horn and Brandon Jessie, Air Force guard Otis Jones, Wyoming forward Theo Ratliff and Hawaii center Tony Maroney.
But most of them have not been seen nationally. The WAC has had or will have only three non-conference games, three conference games and its post-season tournament final on ESPN. The WAC has no basketball exposure on ABC, CBS or NBC. The Big East and Big Ten are fixtures on CBS, with the SEC joining them in the future. The ACC, Big Eight and Pac-10 get exposure on ABC. Plus, all of those leagues have more appearances on ESPN than the WAC.
BYU, Utah and UTEP aren’t in the Top 25, further hurting the exposure the league gets.
“It puts a knock on the league,” BYU coach Roger Reid said of the WAC’s void in the national poll. “Politically, they (members of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee) say they don’t look at the polls. We had a good basketball team a couple of years ago, and our seed hurt us. We open up against LSU, and they happen to have Shaquille O’Neal.
“Duke and other people are in the Sweet 16 before they play a (tough) game. It does hurt. The credibility of the league is lacking. We also played good teams in the pre-season. It is not like a fly-by-night program here.”
“And strange as it may seem, we have enormous fieldhouses,” Haskins said. The league’s five largest arenas belong to BYU (22,700), New Mexico (17,126), Wyoming (15,028), Utah (15,000) and UTEP (12,200).
The WAC’s most glaring problem is its performance in the NCAA Tournament, a measuring stick by which most leagues are judged. The WAC is 37-60 overall in the tournament.
The only team from the WAC to reach the Final Four was Utah, in 1966. While the school’s tradition includes winning the 1966 NCAA final against Kentucky, UTEP (known then as Texas Western) wasn’t a WAC member then. BYU, with Danny Ainge, had one of the league’s better teams in 1980-81, but it lost to Virginia and Ralph Sampson in the East Regional final. Ainge’s is the last WAC team to make a regional final.
In recent years, the league’s biggest victory was UTEP’s second-round upset of Kansas in 1992. The Jayhawks had been considered a national-title threat.
Utah’s Majerus, whose Utes made the Sweet 16 in 1991, takes a realistic view of the league’s problems.
“One out of every four TV sets is in the Big East….Half our league hasn’t gotten access to the touch-tone phone yet,” he said.
Majerus says the WAC has several NBA prospects, but the “North Carolina team has two lotto (NBA lottery) picks in its first six. Duke is having a bad year and is going to have a first-rounder in Cherokee Parks. It’s all compared to what?…I am trying to schedule Wake Forest and Virginia next year and see what happens on the other side of the river.”
The WAC’s power rating has been hurt by its members scheduling 19 games against teams below NCAA Division I this season.
Going into games this week, the WAC ranked 10th in the Sagarin Ratings and 11th in the Rating Percentage Index, two tools used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to rate the 34 Division I leagues and ultimately select at-large teams to the 64-team field. The WAC trails such leagues as the ACC, Big Eight, Big East, SEC and Pac-10 in those rating services.
Benson hopes to improve nonleague schedules in the future, and, as a result, the league’s power rating.
But Haskins said scheduling will always be difficult for WAC members because of their remote locations and the reluctance of teams in heavily populated areas with television appeal to give them scheduling breaks.
For instance, UTEP played Georgetown three out of four times at Georgetown instead of splitting the games. And the teams used Big East Conference officials at Georgetown’s insistence, Haskins said. The teams split the four games.
Georgetown’s John Thompson can demand such scheduling benefits because the Hoyas benefit from the Big East Conference’s contract with CBS. Basically, Georgetown can schedule who it wants, when it wants.
“I’d just as soon go to UConn as BYU, Utah, Wyoming or Colorado State,” Haskins said of the league’s tough road games.
The WAC’s image may change in 1996, when the addition of six schools (including SMU, TCU and Rice from the Southwest Conference) will make the 16-team league the largest in Division I. The addition of the SWC schools and Tulsa will put the WAC in the Central Time Zone, helping exposure and possibly even recruiting.
“I think Dallas-Fort Worth has been more of a college football market in the past,” said Karl Benson, the WAC’s first-year commissioner. “But with WAC football penetrating Dallas and other markets, that will have an effect on our ability to promote WAC basketball.”
The WAC also could be in line to provide the third game each Monday on ESPN’s “Big Monday” tripleheaders starting in 1995-96. According to Benson, negotiations are ongoing to replace the Big West Conference in the third time slot. The Pac-10 turned down an opportunity to be on “Big Monday,” instead signing a contract with Prime Sports.
That would give the WAC only two or three more appearances on ESPN, according to Mike Soltys, the cable network’s communications director, because some of the league’s current appearances would just be switched to Monday. But the exposure and dollars would be greater. The WAC would follow the Big East and Big Eight games and could expect to carry some of the audiences from those games. Plus, ESPN heavily promotes the “Big Monday” package.
“This may be the boost the WAC needs to become entrenched among the top 10 conferences,” Benson said. “It has always kind of been knocking at the door, but it never has been able to get there.”
Just like Don Haskins and the Basketball Hall of Fame.