A solid if unspectacular basketball player during his high school days at Notre Dame, Dennis Haskins wanted one thing above all others as he headed off to college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
"I wanted to make UT's freshman team," said the actor who became Bayside High School principal Richard Belding on "Saved by the Bell," the teen-focused early 1990s sitcom. "Stu Aberdeen was the freshman coach, and he told me I'd made it. Then they cut me the next day. I was devastated."
Devastated, but not beaten. Less than a year later he appeared in University of Chattanooga basketball coach Leon Ford's office. Haskins told Ford about his UT experience. Ford gave him a second chance. Haskins lasted the whole season as a walk-on.
"He was a pretty good shooter," recalled one of the Mocs' stars from that time, Tom Losh, who now works with the university system's alumni association. "But what Dennis really had was heart. He told me one time, 'I wasn't going to quit, no matter how many beatings I took.' I think that's a big reason why he made it in Hollywood. He wouldn't take no for an answer."
Never was that heart and refusal to quit on greater display than Saturday morning, when the 65-year-old Haskins finally earned his liberal arts degree in theatre from UTC.
"It's official," Haskins posted on his Instagram account. "Tassel moved from right to left! I'm a graduate! #UTC #TheaterandSpeech #GoMocs."
A statement by Haskins on UTC's website read: "As successful as some have said I've been, from the incredible success of Saved by the Bell, other quality acting roles, the books I've written, and even UTC Distinguished Alumni in 2000, there's always been something missing for me — my college degree."
UTC even had the band strike up the "Saved By The Bell" theme song when he received his diploma.
Though not connected, Haskins is donating 100 of his scripts from that show to the school's shimmering new library, as well as a suit he wore while playing the famous role.
"Mr. Belding is iconic," noted Steve Ray, the interim head of UTC's theatre department, during a reception to honor Haskins on Friday afternoon. "All of our students know Mr. Belding."
Around UTC, he's long been known as one of the school's biggest supporters, regardless of his graduation status.
"He's a tremendous fan," said Mocs football coach Russ Huesman, who attended the reception. "Dennis is one of those rare guys who wants nothing from you. He just wants you to know how much he supports you. Almost every time he comes to town we get together for lunch at Shuford's."
That's not to say lunch hasn't changed for Haskins at the popular barbecue joint at the foot of Signal Mountain. The actor has lost more than 70 pounds over the past year and intends to lose more. So the smoked turkey sandwiches with cole slaw, two sides and banana pudding that he used to order have now shrunk to "a couple of turkey slices and a few bites of fried okra."
But the basketball, the diploma and the weight loss only begin to tell of his determination to succeed.
It took seven auditions for him to win the role of Mr. Belding, which he wound up playing for 11 years. Talking to UTC's current theatre majors, Haskins said, "Enough people will try to limit you. Don't limit yourself."
He certainly never limited himself to one TV show. Haskins once wore a Mocs ball cap during an episode of "Magnum, P.I." He was on "The Dukes of Hazzard." In recent years he's made appearances on the critically acclaimed "Mad Men" and "Hot In Cleveland" with Betty White. Hoping to reach "The Tonight Show" since 1989, he finally got his wish this past winter when host Jimmy Fallon staged a "Saved By The Bell" reunion skit.
Another example of Haskins' ability to fight for his own career: Before Fallon moved from "Late Night" to his current gig, the former "Saturday Night Live" star adopted the 2009 UTC men's basketball team — remember "John Shulman, the Don Juan of the SoCon"? — for its brief stay in that year's NCAA tournament.
Moved by the Mocs, Haskins called his agent for help. The agent said he was working on more important gigs. But the actor persisted, calling the show himself. During Fallon's weeklong support for UTC, Haskins made an appearance, rising through a trap door in the floor to support his school.
Not that today's young people need to be reminded of Mr. Belding and his signature line, "Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, what is going on here?"
Upon asking the University of Texas administration to help pay Haskins' $5,000 speaking fee a couple of years ago, four male students were turned down because they weren't part of a recognized student organization.
Seizing the day, the quartet returned with a $75 check needed to become officially recognized as the "Bayside Preservation Society." Then they approached the school with their plan again, agreeing to cough up half the needed fee. The school wound up paying Haskins' whole fee. When he arrived for the event, nearly 1,000 students were there to hear him.
Yet his heart remains with both his hometown and his hometown university.
"I don't think he's ever turned down an offer to make an appearance here," said former chancellor Fred Obear. "Dennis comes back every chance he gets."
And when he does, as Huesman noted, it's always about everybody else. He spent Friday morning at Notre Dame, helping with a fundraiser and encouraging the student body to chase their dreams.
During the Friday afternoon reception at UTC, Haskins noted how former theatre department head Jim Lewis would make sets out of Styrofoam for "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Regarding his belated degree, he observed with great emotion, "This chapter of my life is now healed," before joking, "Having played a principal, it's about time I got my degree."
Haskins then returned to memories of Leon Ford, who now lives in Florida.
"Coach Ford encouraged me to take a theatre course," Haskins said. "Everything else has been a dream come true."
For both Haskins and the school he's now a graduate of.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com.