El Paso has a rich sports history carved in more than athleticism. It’s carved in heart.
But who are the most important figures who embody that history, that heart? Whose stories, challenges, triumphs and contributions might we honor if the Sun City had a Mount Rushmore of sports? Whose faces might we carve, say, into the Franklin Mountains?
My list of El Paso sports legends, although subjective, includes players or coaches who grew up or spent at least 10 years living in the city and made a true impact here.
That rules out some who come to mind, notably, basketball great Tim Hardaway. He starred at UTEP and had a terrific 14-year career in the NBA. However, Hardaway did not live in El Paso very long.
After careful consideration, my “Mount Rushmore” of El Paso sports – depicted in a cartoon by El Paso artist Nacho Garcia – would feature Don Haskins, Nolan Richardson, Don Maynard and Andy Cohen.
Haskins is the first and most obvious member of this exclusive club.
He arrived in El Paso as a 30 year old who had never coached a college game. He was a terrific recruiter and instantly built a successful foundation at Texas Western College (now UTEP).
According to legend, he spent much of his 1962 recruiting budget on Jim “Bad News” Barnes – then defeating him in a free throw contest to get him to play for the Miners.
Barnes led Texas Western to the 1963 and 1964 NCAA Tournament and was drafted No. 1 overall by the New York Knicks. Some teammates of Bad News, including El Pasoan Nolan Richardson, have said that the 1964 Texas Western team was better than the group that won the NCAA Championship two years later.
That 1966 team made history for starting five black players in an NCAA championship game – the first time ever – at the height of the civil rights movement. And, they defeated an all-white, No. 1-ranked Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp. That was the first and only national championship won by a Texas school.
“Some say I am a pioneer, but all I was trying to do was win some games. … Two or three years later, the Southwest got some black players. That did get the ball rolling. If we had something to do with that, I am proud of it,” Haskins told ESPN in a November 2003 interview.
His 1966 title has been the subject of numerous books and a popular Disney movie, “Glory Road,” but his coaching career was not defined by that single moment.
Haskins won 719 games for Texas Western and later UTEP over his 38-year career.
In fact, his teams dominated the 1960s and later the 1980s, winning 14 Western Athletic Conference Championships, 14 NCAA Tournaments, and another seven trips to the National Invitation Tournament.
Haskins had only five losing seasons in those 38 years despite having to handle NCAA probation late in his coaching tenure. In 1997, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. His 1966 team followed 10 years later.
Affectionately known as “the Bear,” Haskins loved hole-in-the-wall bars, driving his big pickup truck, having a drink with anyone, hunting and fishing. And, he loved basketball, and would not hesitate to draw up plays on a napkin if you asked him about his Xs and Os.
Richardson grew up in El Paso, playing for Haskins during his final two seasons at Texas Western.
Richardson became a legend of his own: He is the only coach in the history of college basketball to win a Junior College National Championship, a NIT Championship and a NCAA National Championship. He made the postseason an incredible 20 times in 22 seasons as a Division 1 head coach, including three Final Four appearances. Richardson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014.
“To be able to go into the Hall with some of the greatest athletes, coaches, players, and contributors is the ultimate,” Richardson told the El Paso Inc. that year.
“I was talking ... at the Hall of Fame dinner about how you feel, and one person said, ‘Well Nolan, now that you’re in the Hall of Fame, there’s only one other honor you can get, and that’s heaven.’ That might be true, but I don’t want to go right now.”
Richardson took pride in his upbringing in Segundo Barrio. He was an unbelievable athlete at Bowie High School, where he was an all-district performer in baseball, football and basketball. He played right field for the Miners in 1963 when the school started its baseball program.
He started his coaching career at his high school alma mater in 1968, and Bowie named its gym after him 48 years later.
He is best known for his “40 minutes of hell”, a relentless style of play his teams exhibited on the court.
Although he lives at his 155-acre ranch in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Richardson frequently returns to El Paso and calls the city his home. He returns to El Paso each year for his charity golf tournament in his daughter’s memory.
Maynard came to El Paso in 1954 when he transferred to Texas Western from Rice University.
In three seasons, he caught 10 touchdowns for the Miners, added 843 rushing yards, and had 10 interceptions while playing defensive back.
Maynard was drafted by the New York Giants and played in 1958, including the legendary overtime game against the Baltimore Colts in the NFL title game. He played for the New York Titans and Jets, and quickly became one of the best receivers ever to play professional football. He finished his 15 seasons in pro-football with 633 receptions, 11,834 receiving yards and 88 touchdowns, including a Super Bowl ring with the Jets. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
“I don’t really look at it like I’m the greatest receiver. After you play awhile anybody can break certain records. Longevity is the key,” Maynard said during the induction ceremony.
Maynard is known as one of the most colorful and eccentric athletes ever to play the game of football.
The night before the Jets AFC 1968 title game against the Raiders, Maynard told his teammates that he would jump into the ice-cold swimming pool fully dressed at the team’s hotel if they anted up enough money.
According to the story, Maynard made more than $125 – and jumped into pool wearing his Jets wool travel blazer. The next day, he caught 10 passes for 228 yards and scored two touchdowns.
His trademark cowboy boots have accompanied him at every event and appearance since his playing days more than 50 years ago. Maynard made El Paso his home throughout his pro-football career and in the years following his retirement.
Cohen moved to El Paso from Baltimore, Maryland, when he was 4 years old. He quickly became a star athlete and lettered in baseball, basketball and football at El Paso High. Cohen played all three sports at the University of Alabama, but he left school early to pursue a professional baseball career.
He signed with the New York Giants in 1926, and played three seasons for legendary manager John McGraw. His major league career was cut short after breaking his leg in the 1929 season.
Cohen played in the minors until 1942, when he joined the U.S. Army and fought in World War II.
Following the war, Cohen managed in the Minor Leagues for 15 seasons and was part of the Philadelphia Phillies big league coaching staff in 1960. His biggest contribution to El Paso sports came in 1963 when he helped form the Texas Western baseball program. For the first 12 years, he never took a salary. He won 300 games as coach of the Miners.
He was the first person ever inducted into the El Paso Athletic Hall of Fame.
Cohen was so popular in New York that he was carried off the field after his first game with the Giants. The team created “Ice Cream Cohens” sold during home games. Even when he spent the 1927 season in Buffalo, the Jewish community celebrated “Andy Cohen Day” and fans chipped in to buy him a diamond ring.
Years later, when Cohen returned to El Paso and coached UTEP baseball with his brother Syd, he befriended Haskins. (Cohen Stadium in Northeast El Paso is named after the Cohen brothers.)
In 1964, Cohen was unable to make a road trip to Santa Fe, so Haskins filled in for him. The Bear got tossed out of the game for arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire, and he watched the rest of the game from the school bus.
Cohen summed up his baseball career in a 1981 magazine article written by his daughter, Marina Lee.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and I’ve been a damn fool at times,” Cohen said. “But baseball has always been my life and it’s given me thrills that few people are fortunate enough to ever enjoy.”