Don Haskins, pictured in 1997 file photo, coached Texas Western to the 1966 title game, portrayed years later in the motion picture Glory Road. ((El Paso Times/Associated Press))

Don Haskins, credited with helping break colour barriers in college sports in 1966 when he used five black starters to win a national basketball title for Texas Western, died Sunday. He was 78.

Dr. Dwayne Aboud, Haskins' physician, told reporters Sunday that Haskins had been suffering from congestive heart failure and died at home about 4:30 p.m. He was surrounded by friends and relatives, Aboud said.

"As many of you know, Coach Haskins has had some cardiac problems. He opted not to go back to the hospital but to remain at home," Aboud said, standing outside the UTEP basketball arena named for Haskins.

As word of Haskins' death spread Sunday afternoon, those who knew him were quick to sing his praises.

"The word unique does not begin to describe Don Haskins," former Texas Tech coach Bob Knight said. "There is no one who has ever coached that I respected and admired more than Don Haskins. I've had no better friend that I enjoyed more than Don Haskins."

Haskins was an old-time coach who believed in hard work and was known for his gruff demeanour. That attitude was portrayed in the 2006 movie Glory Road, the Disney film that chronicled Haskins' improbable rise to national fame in the 1966 championship game against Kentucky.

The movie, which was preceded by a book of the same title, also sparked renewed interest in Haskins' career.

"The myth that surrounds Don Haskins in the movie Glory Road and what he did for black players is better said that he cared like that for all his players. To me that tells me more about the man than anything," Knight said. "There was never anyone like him before and there will never be one like him again."

Haskins sparked change

Former Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said Haskins "had a tremendous impact on the college game. Anybody who's been around college basketball dating back to those days, they've seen how it changed after Texas Western won the national championship."

Sutton said he hadn't talked to Haskins for at least six weeks.

"Don had not been in good health and was having a hard time," Sutton said. "He'll be dearly missed. He was a great basketball coach."

During his career, Haskins turned down several more lucrative offers, including one with the now-defunct American Basketball Association, to remain at UTEP as one of the lowest paid coaches in the Western Athletic Conference.

Haskins retired in 1999 after 38 seasons at the school. He had a 719-353 record and won seven WAC championships. He took UTEP to 14 NCAA tournaments and to the NIT seven times and briefly worked as an adviser with the Chicago Bulls.

His health had been an issue in his final coaching years, often forcing him to remain seated during games, and his program struggled after twice being slapped with NCAA sanctions. Serious health concerns continued in his retirement. In the midst of a series of book signings and other appearances Haskins was hospitalized with various woes.

After his retirement, Haskins kept close ties with the Miners.

The school's most recent hire, Tony Barbee, said he even met with Haskins just after accepting the job.

"He is a guy who has forgotten more basketball than I will ever know," Barbee said.

Controversial decision broke barriers

Haskins played for Hall of Fame coach Henry (Hank) Iba at Oklahoma State, back when the school was still Oklahoma A&M. Haskins was later an assistant under Iba for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team in Munich.

As a coach, Haskins became a star early in his career by leading his Miners to the 1966 NCAA championship game, then making the controversial decision to start five blacks against all-white, heavily favoured Kentucky, coached by Adolph Rupp. The Miners won, and shortly after that many schools began recruiting black players.

"He took a school that had no reason to be a basketball giant and made it into one," Knight said.

Haskins said he wasn't trying to make a social statement with his lineup; he was simply starting his best players. The move, however, raised the ire of some who sent Haskins hate mail and even death threats during the racially charged era.

"When they won the national championship against the University of Kentucky, that changed college basketball," Sutton said. "At that time, there weren't many teams in the South or Southwest that had African-Americans playing. There was a change in the recruiting of the black athlete. It really changed after that. They've had a great impact on the game."

Haskins worked players hard

The coach always was focused on the game of basketball. He had a reputation for working his players hard.

"Don got more out of his teams and players than any coach who has ever coached college basketball," Knight said.

Our practices wore us out so much that we'd have to rest up before the games," said Harry Flournoy, a starter in the 1966 championship. "If you work hard all the time and if you go after every loose ball, you see things like that (championship) happen."

Haskins is credited with helping Nate Archibald, Tim Hardaway and Antonio Davis, among others, make it to the NBA.

In November 2000, Haskins was awarded the John Thompson Foundation's Outstanding Achievement Award during a tournament hosted by Arkansas.

"We couldn't think of anyone that deserves this recognition more than coach Haskins," said Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach who played under Haskins for two years. "He opened the door for African-American players to play basketball."