Basketball Coach, 1950-53
Inducted October 18, 1975
Bob Vanatta spent only three seasons at SMS but he brought the Bear basketball program from the McDonald Era into current years with the biggest three-year victory total achieved by any three SMS teams ever. Vanatta came to SMS in 1950 from Central College and took SMS to a 22-3 season and a runner up spot in the MIAA with a 7-3 mark. The following year, his Bear team produced the school’s all-time record for single season victories in a 27-5 campaign. SMS swept undefeated to the conference title and the district playoffs into the NAIA national tournament in Kansas City. The Bears were given little or no chance in the power-packed national field; having lost starter Jack Trogdon at mid-season, with leading scorer Jimmy Murphy quitting the team near the end of the regular season, and with center Fred Stephens suffering a sprained ankle in the playoffs which caused him to miss the national meet. But, the “Cinderella” Bears prevailed in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, defeating Chadron (Neb.) State, Indiana State, Morningside College, and Southwest Texas State before beating Murray (Ky.) State 73-64 for the championship.
The following year SMS was 8-2 in league play and won the MIAA title by one game over Northeast Missouri State. The Bears beat Missouri Valley in the state playoffs and went on to Kansas City to down Gonzaga, Stetson, Nebraska Wesleyan and Indiana State before turning back Hamline (Minn.) 79-71 in the finals to finish 24-4 and become the first school in the history of the 32-team NAIA meet to win back-to-back titles. The 1953 team would come to be remembered for its “Fabulous Four” as five SMS players fouled out of the semifinal game with Indiana State leaving Vanatta with only starter Bill Thomas and reserves Don Duckworth, Bill Price, and Ray Birdsong to battle the Sycamore five the last three minutes of the game. The score was tied 72-72 at the time but the SMS quartet was sparked by a sweeping left-handed hook shot by Birdsong and deadly free throw accuracy by Thomas and held on to put out an 84-78 victory and advance to the finals.
During his three-year tenure, Vanatta’s teams were 73-11 overall and 25-5 in MIAA play and outscored their foes by more than 14 points a game. Vanatta also served as athletic director for two years and brought SMS an MIAA all-sports championship in 1952 as Bear teams won four league titles and tied for a fifth in the five league sports then being played.