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Glory Road (January 13, 2006)
I'm a sucker for inspiring true-life sports films. So I really, really liked this movie. Here's my column on it, appearing Jan. 13 in newspapers.

Hoops History
By Cathy Schultz

Despite the occasional sports cliché, and a little fudging on some historical details, Glory Road is just what a sports film should be--inspiring, suspenseful, satisfying.

And mostly true.

Glory Road tells the tale of Don Haskins, head basketball coach at small Texas Western College in El Paso. In 1966, a time when black athletes were barred from playing at most Southern universities, Haskins defied racial convention by starting five black players in the NCAA championship game. Their opponent was the all-white team of the venerable University of Kentucky.

His team's remarkable performance against Kentucky spurred the desegregation of sports in the South.

It's a feel-good film, one that may choke you up if you're a softie like me. But viewers may be curious as to what's really true, and what's just mostly true. This guide should help.

Q. Was Coach Haskins actually a high school girl's basketball coach before coming to Texas Western?
A. Well, yes. But the film implies he only coached girls. He actually coached both the boys' and the girls' basketball teams.

Haskins took pride, though, in coaching the girls the same hard-nosed way he coached the boys. It was the identical approach he took toward racial differences on the basketball court. "I don't see blacks or whites, or boys or girls," he said. "I see players."

Q. Was he the first coach to introduce African-American players to Texas Western?
A. No. The school had integrated in 1955. In fact, four blacks played on the team in 1961, the year Haskins was hired.

Q. Was he as tough a coach as the film implies?
A. Tougher. Much tougher. His players recall six-hour practices, no water breaks, and endless sprints. When the Texas Western Miners lost his first game as coach, Haskins was so disgusted he took his players directly to a nearby gym, where he made them practice until 5 a.m.

In the delightful book Glory Road, co-written by sportswriter Dan Wetzel, Haskins is a bit abashed now by how tough he was. But even though his players hated his grueling practices and volatile temper, most loved him for his drive, and for the discipline he instilled in them.

Q. Didn't most colleges play black players in 1966?
A. No team in the SEC, the ACC or the Southwest Conference had any black players.

Black athletes did play at most northern universities, but there was an unwritten rule (reinforced by angry letters from boosters) that a basketball coach couldn't start five black players. Four was pushing it. Haskins was the first to break that barrier. Haskins himself insists he wasn't trying to make a statement. He just played his best players, who happened to be black.

Q. Did the mother of one of his players really come to El Paso to make sure her son studied for his classes?
A. Harry Flournoy's mother did fly from Gary, Indiana to El Paso to read the riot act to her son when he started ditching classes. But though the scene of her in the classroom with her son is funny, it apparently didn't happen.

But an earlier scene, where Haskins tries to recruits Flournoy by charming his mom? That actually happened. And just like in the film, Mrs. Flournoy gave the coach the last piece of her homemade pie, much to her son's annoyance.

Q. Were there really so few fans coming to their basketball games?
A. That part was a bit fudged. The first year Haskins coached (1961) the crowds were small, since El Paso wasn't much of a basketball town. But Haskins changed that by winning. Consistently. By the 1965-66 season El Paso fans packed every home game.

Q. Haskins's black players get booed, spit upon, and beaten up in the film. Did that happen?
A. It did, but ironically, not until after the momentous 1966 championship game. It's here that the film stretches the facts somewhat, in order to get at a deeper truth.

During the 1966 season, little fuss was made--either in El Paso or at away games--over Haskins's mostly black lineup. It wasn't until the NCAA championship game and its national television audience, that Haskins's disregard of racial mores became widely known.

And that's when the abuse began. During the next season, thousands of pieces of hate mail poured in, racial epithets were screamed at the team, and death threats made against the players. Worse, Sports Illustrated and other media made up stories about how Haskins "exploited" his players, or implied that they weren't even students, but kids recruited from prison. The lies and abuse dogged Haskins and the team for years.

The film was right in including some of the racially-motivated abuse, even though they placed it earlier than it actually occurred.

Q. Was Adolph Rupp that much of a racist?
A. The University of Kentucky coach is cast as the villain here. "No team of blacks," he reportedly said, "could beat a team of whites." But Rupp's thinking was typical for the era, unfortunately. Many white sports fans believed that while black players might be athletic, they weren't smart players. It was the same tired argument that long kept blacks from becoming quarterbacks or coaches.

Don Haskins's Texas Western Miners proved that thinking wrong. And the effect on college sports, particularly in the South, was electric, as schools suddenly began offering scholarships to black athletes. In 1969, Rupp himself recruited a black player to Kentucky.

The desire to win, in Haskins's words, finally trumped racism.

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. .

This column will appear in the Joliet Herald News on 1/15/06

The real Coach Haskins with Josh Lucas,
who portrays him.

Jon Voight as Adolph Rupp. Was he as racist as the film implies?

The team experiencing racial abuse.. Ironically, this didn't happen until after 1966.

© 2004 History in the Movies