Jon Teitel's "Coaching Greats": Missouri State/Saint Louis/UNLV's Charlie Spoonhour

February 6th, 2012

In the latest installment of his "Coaching Greats" series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Jay Spoonhour, the son of the late Charlie Spoonhour. Spoonhour is widely regarded as the greatest coach in the history of Missouri State basketball, where he led the Bears to four conference titles and five NCAA tournament appearances. Spoonhour moved on to Saint Louis and UNLV, and he was an outstanding coach at the junior college level as well. Spoonhour passed away on February 1st at the age of 72. 

Jon Teitel: In 1969 your dad was an assistant coach at Missouri State (then called Southwest Missouri State) as they went 24-5 and made it to the Division II title game before a four-point loss to defending champ Kentucky Wesleyan and tournament MOP George Tinsley. Did he consider it a success (due to making it so far) or a failure (due to not winning it all)?

Jay Spoonhour: He would never consider finishing second in the country to be a failure.

JT: In 1973 he was an assistant coach for the Mexican national team at the World University Games in Moscow. Why did he take the job, and how did he enjoy the experience?

JS: I know he enjoyed it, and the best part of the whole deal was just his stories about traveling around. His team was not very good and few of the players spoke English, so it was little rough at times.

JT: Your dad compiled a 205-63 record as a junior college coach, and was inducted into the NJCAA Hall of Fame in 1991. What made him such a great junior college coach, and where did the induction rank among his career highlights?

JS: I think that was pretty high on the list. He always had a deep respect for junior college basketball, which has produced some great players like Bob McAdoo and Rickey Green (Vincennes JC). At the junior college level you have to keep things fairly simple because you only have guys for two years, and you have to communicate well and be able to pull everyone together as a group. He would say he was a good junior college coach because he was at good programs with good track records (Southeastern CC and Moberly JC).

JT: What are your memories of the 1987 NCAA tournament, the first in Missouri State history (Wayne Garland scored 24 points in a five-points upset of #4-seed Clemson, but Danny Manning scored a career-high 42 points in a four-point Kansas win)?

JS: The 1986 team went to the NIT and really made basketball explode at Missouri State by beating Pitt and Marquette before losing to Florida. We had Winston Garland, who ended up playing in the NBA for a decade. Just making it to the NCAA tournament was the greatest thing ever: they had only been in Division I for a couple of years at that point and here they were upsetting a team featuring ACC Player of the Year Horace Grant. It was a typical game, as we kept it in the fifties. Nobody could guard Manning...especially when the guy you put on him is only 6'7".

JT: After the 1992 season your dad became coach at Saint Louis. Why did he make the switch, and did he have any regrets?

JS: No regrets at all. He always saw SLU as a great program dating back to the 1940s and 1950s in the era of Ed Macauley. He always said that since they were once great they could be great again. I do not know what the deciding factor was but he might have just thought it was time for a different challenge. SLU was another program that had not been to the big dance in awhile but he was able to get them there after only a couple of years.

JT: Your dad was known for his possession-oriented style of play at Missouri State, but became a high-scoring/three-point shooting team at SLU. Why did he make the change in style, and how did his ability to adapt help his ability to coach?

JS: His ability to adapt was the main reason why he was such a good coach. You still have your same basic ideas, but the SLU players were good long-range shooters so he made use of their skills. They were not very athletic but they could play together and figure out how to win the game.

JT: In 1994 your dad led SLU to the NCAA tournament (its first since 1957) and won the USBWA Henry Iba Award as National Coach of the Year. How big a deal was it for the school to make it back to the tournament, and what did it mean to him to receive such an outstanding individual honor?

JS: Henry Iba's son Moe was one of my dad's best friends in the world, so winning any award with the Iba name attached to it was a pretty big deal. Those awards are usually reserved for coaches at big-time schools, so to win it while coaching SLU was very special. SLU only averaged about 4,000-6,000 fans a game the year before he got there, but they consistently averaged 17,000 fans a game for most of his time there (which was one of the biggest crowds in the country). To have everyone in a big city like St. Louis on board was amazing.

JT: What are your memories of the 1995 NCAA tournament (three-point overtime win over Minnesota for the school's first tourney win in over four decades, but Tim Duncan had 25 points and three blocked shots in a five-point win by one-seed Wake Forest)?

JS: The SLU center was Donnie Dobbs (who was 6'1") and he had to guard Duncan. Duncan scored at will on the inside but it was hard for a tall guy to guard a guy like Dobbs who had a lot of spin moves. That team lived by the three and died by the three.

JT: Your dad recruited future lottery pick and hometown hero Larry Hughes to SLU (the first McDonald's All-American in school history). Was Hughes the best player your dad ever recruited, and how was he able to convince him to go to SLU?

JS: Larry's younger brother Justin was in the middle of some serious medical problems while waiting for a heart transplant. Larry wanted to stay close to home, but we were competing against schools like Kansas and Syracuse to get him. If Larry was not the best then it would have to be Garland. The year before Larry got there we had a losing record because most of the stars had graduated, but Larry helped win 22 games during his one year at SLU.

JT: What are your memories of the 1998 NCAA tournament (Hughes scored 18 points in a five-point win over UMass, but tournament MOP Jeff Sheppard scored 18 in a win by eventual national champion Kentucky)?

JS: I was on the coaching staff that year. It was an early afternoon game in a big dome and UMass went 0-11 from behind the arc, so it was pretty ugly. We actually thought we could beat Kentucky, but their point guard blew right past us on the first possession of the game and it just got worse from there.

JT: After retiring from SLU in 1999 he spent two years in the booth as an analyst on college basketball broadcasts. How did he like the analyst gig compared to the coaching gig?

JS: I think he loved it, even though I think he planned on staying retired. He got to do everything he enjoyed (like being around coaches), but the best part was that after the game he could get in his car and leave!

JT: In 2001 he got out of the booth and back on the sideline by becoming coach at UNLV. Why did he decide to get back into coaching?

JS: He loved Las Vegas and lived there even after retiring. It was a great program that had hit some hard times and he had a clean reputation with the NCAA, which is what UNLV needed back then. We were on probation for three years there (including scholarship restrictions), but still averaged 20 wins per year.

2002 Mountain West Tournament

JT: Lou Kelly scored a career-high (and tournament-record) 35 points in a three-point double overtime win over New Mexico. Where does that game rank among the best you have ever seen?

JS: We were playing at home, but I am not sure if it was that big a benefit.

JT: Tournament MVP Randy Holcomb scored 20 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, and Kelly's half-court shot at the buzzer hit the back of the rim in a three-point San Diego State in title game. How devastating was that loss, and did you think Kelly's shot was going in?

JS: We had beaten them twice during the year and played well throughout the game, but turned the ball over late. Kelly thought he could make the shot and was actually mad because he thought it should have went in!

JT: What are your memories of the 2003 Mountain West tournament title game (Brian Greene scored 22 points, including a jumper with 5.7 seconds left, in a one-point Colorado State win)?

JS: We were up by ten points with about six minutes to go on our home floor against a team we had beaten twice before that season, but I do not think we made a field goal in the final four minutes.

Spoonhour is also on Jon's list of best coaches in MVC history.

Bradley: Chuck Orsborn (1956-1965) 194-56, 1 conference title, 3 NIT titles, 2-time conference COY
Creighton: Dana Altman (1994-2010) 327-176, 7 NCAA tourneys, 3 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Drake: Maury John (1958-1971) 211-131, 3 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Evansville: Jim Crews (1985-2002) 294-209, 4 NCAA tourneys, 5 conference titles, 4-time conference COY
Illinois State: Bob Donewald (1978-1989) 207-122, 3 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
Indiana State: Glenn Curtis (1938-1946) 122-45
Missouri State: Charlie Spoonhour (1983-1992) 197-81, 5 NCAA tourneys, 4 conference titles, 3-time conference COY
Northern Iowa: Ben Jacobson (2006-present) 125-66, 2 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 2-time conference COY
Southern Illinois: Jack Hartman (1962-1970) 142-64, 1 NIT title
Chris Lowery (2004-present) 145-109, 3 NCAA tourneys, 2 conference titles, 1-time conference COY
Wichita State: Ralph Miller (1951-1964) 220-133, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY