(Image: Kansas City Star)
Legendary college basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour died in his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home today at the age of 72. Spoonhour spent nearly 20 years as a head coach in NCAA Division I college basketball, having served as head coach at Missouri State University (then known as Southwest Missouri State), Saint Louis University and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). Spoonhour had been in poor health in recent years. He was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2010. He received a lung transplant at the Duke University Medical Center in August of the same year.
Charlie Spoonhour rose to prominence in the mid 1980s when he turned the university now known as Missouri State -- then, as previously noted, a little-known state school in the Ozarks known as Southwest Missouri State -- into something of a mid major college basketball powerhouse. Spoonhour had nearly twenty years of paid coaching dues under his belt when he arrived at the Springfield, Missouri, school in 1983 to begin his career as an NCAA Division I head coach, a mere year after the Southwest Missouri State men's basketball program began competing as an NCAA Division I institution.
During his time at Southwest Missouri State (1983-1992), Spoonhour led the Bears' basketball program from obscurity to relative national prominence (short-lived though it may have been). From 1986 to 1992, Spoonhour's Southwest Missouri teams were fixtures in the post season: during that stretch, the Bears made five NCAA Tournament appearances and appeared in the NIT twice. But it was the 1986-87 team that caught the attention of the the national media and thrust Charlie Spoonhour into the spotlight. Led on the court by future NBA point guard Winston Garland, Spoonhour's 1986-87 Bears steamrolled their way to the Mid-Continent Conference championship, finished the season with a 28-6 overall record and upset the Horace Grant-led, 13th-seeded Clemson Tigers in the NCAA Tournament. But "Spoon," as he was affectionately known, didn't gain notoriety solely on the basis of his on-court exploits. By the late 80s, the man at the helm of the little school from the Ozarks with the somewhat bewilderingly directional name (at least bewildering to media types in Manhattan and Bristol, Connecticut) had garnered the attention of the national sports media in part because of his endearing personality. A son of Kansas and Arkansas, Spoonhour combined a crusty, old school demeanor with a sharp wit and a folksy, yet charismatic persona.
In 1992, Spoonhour left Southwest Missouri to take on the challenge of returning the once-prominent Saint Louis Billiken basketball program to college basketball relevance. At St. Louis, the "Spoon" succeeded and then some. In seven seasons as the Billikens' head coach (1993 to 1999), Spoonhour's teams made three NCAA Tournament appearances; went from playing sparsely attended home games in a small, antiquated gym to regularly playing in front of full houses in the new 19,000 seat downtown St. Louis home that they shared with the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues -- the then-newly-opened Kiel Center (now known as the Scottrade Center); and convinced the most sought-after St. Louis prep basketball star in a generation -- Larry Hughes -- to resist both the temptation of jumping directly from high school to the NBA draft, and the pull of playing for one of college basketball's high-profile, elite programs (Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Arkansas, Missouri, etc.) in order to stay home and play for the Billikens.
As it happens, Hughes left college for the NBA after playing only one season (and it was a relatively tumultuous season at that), but his unexpected decision to stay home and play for Charlie Spoonhour made it abundantly clear that Coach "Spoon" had put the St. Louis Billikens back on the college basketball map. Unfortunately for St. Louis, the Billikens' time in the sun was short-lived. During Spoonhour's tenure, St. Louis was a program that routinely acquitted itself well in Conference USA -- when C- USA was considered a major conference (St. Louis' Conference USA rivals included Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, Memphis and Alabama-Birmingham [UAB]). But the program regressed to perpetual mediocrity shortly after Spoonhour's 1999 departure. The Billikens last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2000 ( under the stewardship of Spoonhour's successor, Lorenzo Romar).
Saint Louis' fortunes fell further in 2005, when Conference USA came apart after most of the aforementioned power programs left for the Big East. Saint Louis joined the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2006, where the Billikens remain. The Atlantic 10 is, to be sure, a quality league, but there's no doubt that its stature is a notch or two (or three) below the stature of the old C-USA. And it's only been in the last two years, under the guidance of another larger-than-life head coach -- Rick Majerus -- that the Billikens have been competitive in their new conference home.
But while Saint Louis was fading from its brief, Spoonhour era return to college basketball's national scene, Charlie Spoonhour was busy trying resurrect another well-known college basketball program -- the once-fabled Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) Runnin' Rebels. In 2001, Spoonhour was hired to replace former John Calipari assistant and one-time coaching wunderkind Billy Bayno as the head basketball coach at UNLV after Bayno landed the historically scandal-ridden Rebels' basketball program in hot water with the NCAA (who'd have thunk it!) over improprieties pertaining to the recruitment of then-prep star Lamar Odom. At UNLV, "Spoon" did what he was hired to do: right the ship, make the Rebels' notoriously sleazy basketball program respectable, get the program off of the NCAA's hit list, and win basketball games. But Spoonhour inherited a program that the NCAA had placed on probation for four years as punishment for Bayno's sins. Spoonhour compiled a respectable 54-31 record -- not bad for a program on probation! -- but failed to win over UNLV alumni and fans the way he'd won fans over in St. Louis. Spoonhour abruptly retired during the middle of the 2004 season.
The following year, Lon Kruger was hired to steer UNLV back to respectability. Kruger succeeded in short order, but he couldn't have done so if not for the foundation that Coach Spoonhour had spent the previous three years laying down.
In the years that followed his retirement from the coaching ranks, Charlie Spoonhour did yeoman's work as a television analyst for Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball games. Though Spoonhour's TV work for the Missouri Valley never reached a big, national audience (thanks to the Valley's relative obscurity and strictly regional appeal), "Spoon" was easily one of the best color commentators in the business. Much like the "color work" that Bob Knight currently does for ESPN, Spoonhour drew on a lifetime of basketball knowledge to break the game down into terms that entertained, but more importantly, informed the viewer. His breezy, down-home style was engaging and fun, but if you listened closely, the "Spoon" could be heard putting on a veritable coaching seminar. A better example of "wit and wisdom" could hardly be found.
Charlie Spoonhour will be missed.