The footprint Charlie Spoonhour left on Missouri State Bears basketball is almost too large to measure. The impact he left in the hearts of all who knew him is not.
The coach who ushered in the start of the Missouri State success story in Division I, Coach Spoonhour passed away peacefully and surrounded by his family at his home in North Carolina on Feb. 1. He was 72 and was survived by his wife, Vicki, and sons Jay and Stephen. Spoonhour was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2010.
The 2011-12 basketball season is the 25th anniversary of the Bears' first NCAA tournament appearance at the Division I level. Spoonhour was the architect of that memorable national tourney trip to Atlanta in 1987 as the 13th-seeded Bears barged into town riding a 14-game winning streak and promptly upset the fourth-seeded Clemson Tigers to become the winningest team in what was then nearly 80 seasons of Bears' basketball. The hopes and dreams of legions of Bears' followers haven't leveled off in the quarter century since.
A native of the Ozarks who got his college coaching start as a Bears' assistant to Bill Thomas and Jay Kinser from 1969 to 1972, Spoon's start in Springfield was itself the stuff of stories. His arrival on campus gave the Bears' a three-person coaching staff for the first time and his desk was in a mechanical equipment room behind Thomas's office in the southeast corner of the upper concourse of McDonald Arena. Spoon referred to it as the "fan room."
After 11 years away and two head coaching jobs at the junior college level and positions as an assistant at two Big 12 Conference schools, Spoon returned as Bears' head coach in 1983. What he gave the program and the school over the next nine seasons tacked a magnificent new chapter of success at the NCAA Division I level onto a program which had known nothing but winning for decades.
Beginning with a team where his starting center stood 6-feet, 3-inches, Spoon had the Bears in the National Invitation Tournament by his third year at MSU. MSU hosted and knocked off Pittsburgh and Marquette in that 1986 NIT and got within one point of a trip to the tourney semifinals in New York's Madison Square Garden.
Spoonhour's teams won 197 games in his nine MSU seasons, taking the school to seven straight 20-victory campaigns with postseason tournament appearances. He authored the first five of the six trips MSU has made into the NCAA tournament, won four straight Mid-Continent Conference championships and chalked up the Bears' only Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.
He did it with a patient offense and a tenacious man-to-man team defense where players learned to guard without fouling. In his years with the Bears, his teams MADE 600 more free throws than their opponents ATTEMPTED.
During Spoon's time at Missouri State, the rulesmakers added the shot clock and the three-point field goal. Through those major changes, he never altered his approach to how he coached the game.
He left Springfield in 1992 for seven seasons coaching at Saint Louis University, spent three years at Nevada-Las Vegas and then became a highly-sought analyst for college basketball telecasts. His career record for 19 seasons as a college head coach was 373-202.
And, the unique nature of the man's demeanor and his unbelievable sense of humor sometimes made his coaching talents seem like an afterthought.
He remembered people and stories and good times like few folks any of us have ever known. And, his ability to spin off a one-liner, tell a story or lighten a serious moment made everyone around him better on a daily basis.
He was a one-of-a-kind original who inspired as many funny stories as he told and the loyalty and friendship of everyone he knew.
He was a special person and a special coach. He was a true Bear.