"Don got more out of his teams and players than any coach who has ever coached college basketball," Knight said.
Haskins, the Hall of Fame coach credited with helping break color 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," Knight, the winningest men's coach in the sport's history, said Sunday. "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."
"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," Knight added. "To me that tells me more about the man than anything. ... There was never anyone like him before and there will never be one like him again."
Haskins, who was white, was an old-time coach who believed in hard work and was known for his gruff demeanor. That attitude was portrayed in the 2006 movie that chronicled Haskins' improbable rise to national fame in the 1966 championship game against an all-white, heavily favored Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp. Nolan Richardson, who coached Arkansas to a national title, played for two years under Haskins.
"I think one of the truest legacies that he could ever leave was what happened in 1966. He was never political. Those were the times and the days the black kids didn't play at other schools, but he started five and was able to win with them without worrying about what color they were," Richardson said.
Haskins retired in 1999 after 38 seasons at the school. He had a 719-353 record and won seven Western Athletic Conference titles. He took UTEP to 14 NCAA tournaments and to the NIT seven times and briefly worked as an adviser with the Chicago Bulls.
Haskins, 19th on the Division I men's victory list, 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 WAC.
Former 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."
Haskins, born in Enid, Okla., 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 Kentucky. The Miners won 72-65, 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."
The coach always was focused on the game of basketball. He had a reputation for working his players hard.
"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 helped 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," Richardson said. "He opened the door for African-American players to play basketball."
Former UTEP and current Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie said every conversation he had with Haskins left an impression.
"I looked forward to the phone calls after each and every game. He was watching almost every game of our team," Gillespie said. "It was just like having another coach on the bench present at every single practice. I took every single thing he said to heart. I knew he didn't have any agenda, he was just trying to help one of his friends win a game."
Doc Sadler, also a former UTEP coach and now head coach at Nebraska, said Haskins called frequently last season just to discuss strategy and outcome.
"If you were one of his guys, you were one of his guys," Sadler said. "He was bigger than life. The word I was told was that he was the John Wayne of college basketball. He had that much respect."
Haskins was hired in 1961 as a virtual unknown. Ben Collins, the school's athletic director at the time, said he consulted people who knew more about basketball than he did. And from the beginning, Collins said Sunday, he never had a second thought.
"He was a success almost from his first year," Collins said.
"That in itself speaks a lot about his ability as a basketball coach."
Haskins' health had been an issue for several years, stretching back to his final season at UTEP when he was often forced to remain seated during games. The program that Haskins built 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.
In recent weeks his health had declined rapidly, prompting friends and some former players to make special visits to see the ailing coach.
"It was a blessing ... for us to go by and visit with Coach Haskins," said Togo Railey, a guard/forward for Haskins' 1966 team.
"He was still just full of life, as sick as he was. We talked about of our old friends. Don, as sick as he was, had a little smirk on his face and was telling jokes and fibbing on one and another. It was just a blessing."
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.
"We are losing a national treasure," Barbee said. "I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know him over the last two years. The information he shared with me was invaluable to a first-time head coach. He is a Hall of Fame coach and a Hall of Fame person."
UTEP athletic director Bob Stull called Haskins an "icon."
"He has had a huge impact on the city and the University of Texas at El Paso," Stull said. "He remains one of the most revered and honored coaches in basketball history. His decision to start five black players in the 1966 national championship game ... changed college basketball and the sports world. He will always be remembered for that."
Haskins is survived by wife Mary and son Brent, David and Steve. A fourth son, Mark, died in 1994.
Brent Haskins said the family would likely schedule a private funeral and burial before a public memorial service at UTEP. "My father was beloved by the city of El Paso and he loved El Paso too," Brent Haskins said. "It was a mutual relationship."
Associated Press Writer Linda Franklin in Dallas, AP sports writers Janie McCauley in San Francisco, Noah Trister in Little Rock, Ark., and Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.