Charlie Spoonhour won big wherever he went, and left "em all smiling.
The popular, homespun coach who put Missouri State on the map with five NCAA tournament appearances and led Saint Louis to three more with a mixture of sharpshooting and tenacious defense known as Spoonball, died Wednesday after a two-year battle with a lung disease. He was 72.
"Charlie was one of a kind," Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. "He was magnetic, charismatic. Just an unforgettable character."
Spoonhour was diagnosed in 2010 with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which required a transplant at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. He died in nearby Chapel Hill, N.C., said Chuck Harker, the funeral director at Walker's Funeral Home in Chapel Hill.
In 19 seasons as a Division I head coach, the last three at UNLV from 2001-04, Spoonhour compiled a record of 373-202.
"Coach Spoon was an incredible person," said Dave Rice, current head coach at UNLV and a former UNLV assistant under Spoonhour. "I learned so much from him about coaching, but more important, he taught us how to keep things in perspective and showed us how to be better people."
Spoonhour lost none of his popularity after ending his coaching career, serving as TV analyst for the Missouri Valley Conference, and was in high demand on the banquet circuit. Retired Missouri State athletics director Bill Rowe, who hired Spoonhour to his first Division I head coaching job, recalled a Will Rogers-like wit.
"Give him a napkin and four or five words and that's all it took," Rowe said. "He'd have the place in stitches."
Rick Majerus was well aware of Spoonhour's legacy when he was hired as Saint Louis coach. The Billikens were ranked for one week earlier this season, their first appearance in the Top 25 since Spoonhour's glory days in 1994.
"He had great rapport with his players, was an outstanding tactician and generally a great person," Majerus said. "He really loved the game."
Spoonhour built his reputation at Missouri State, then known as Southwest Missouri State, where he was 197-81 from 1983-92. Rowe interviewed a half-dozen candidates for the school's head coaching vacancy, but was impressed by Spoonhour's success at the junior college level and by his reputation as a strong recruiter.
"I had Charlie in my mind all the time," Rowe said. "As far as really getting the program moving, we couldn't have picked a better guy. It was a perfect fit. He was very, very popular right away and our crowds really picked up."
Missouri State held a moment of silence during a pre-game tribute before its game against Wichita State on Wednesday night.
Saint Louis won just five games the season before Spoonhour arrived, but in his second season the Billlikens were 23-6 and ended a 27-year NCAA tournament drought by leaning on the outside shooting of guards Erwin Claggett, Scott Highmark and H Waldman, combined with stingy defense. The 1994-95 team, which also won 23 games and went to the second round of the NCAA tournament, set a school record with 284 3-pointers.
"What I always liked was we could play a team like Memphis, and Memphis would dunk two and just pull the goal down," Spoonhour recalled in 1996. "Then we'd hit two 3's and be up by two points. You could see them going, "This doesn't seem right.' I always sort of liked that."
It wasn't run and gun at all. Spoonhour preached patience on offense and often stomped his feet to make sure players were paying attention at both ends of the floor.
"Defense was a big, big deal," Rowe said. "And if you were going to dunk, that was fine, but you'd better make it."
Spoonhour could be stern, but usually would leaven ire with cornpone criticism such as calling a player a "Hickory Nut Head." Following a 27-point loss at home against Cincinnati in 1998, Spoonhour deadpanned: "I would suggest we get out of here before the roof falls in."
During Saint Louis' heyday in the mid-90s, the Billikens played to consistent sellout crowds of 21,000 and students planted plastic spoons all over campus in tribute. Average attendance increased by about 10,000 fans.
"Charlie Spoonhour was a man of great character and integrity," said Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the school president. "I will always remember his positive personality, his energetic spirit and his deep devotion to his players."
Saint Louis' first-round victory over Minnesota in 1995 was the school's first in 43 years. The Billikens lost in the second round to a Wake Forest team led by future NBA star Tim Duncan. Saint Louis also went to the NCAA tournament in 1998 but freshman sensation Larry Hughes then jumped to the NBA, leaving a talent gap Spoonhour couldn't solve. He resigned in 1999, but kept the mood light.
"I am not sick, no matter how I look," Spoonhour said. "I'm not getting divorced. There's just a point when you have to get off the merry-go-round, and that point is now."
After compiling a 122-90 record in seven seasons at Saint Louis, Spoonhour retired briefly before returning to coaching at UNLV. He was 54-31 in three seasons, resigning with 10 games to go in 2003-04.
Spoonhour's son, Jay, is an assistant coach at UTSA. Jay Spoonhour was assistant coach under his father at Saint Louis and UNLV, and was 6-4 as interim head coach after Charlie Spoonhour stepped down.
Spoonhour will be inducted into the Valley Hall of Fame in March. Elgin said he spoke recently to Spoonhour, who had been excited about making the trip to St. Louis.
"He was probably one of the greatest teachers that I ever had the privilege to be involved with," said Kelby Stuckey, who played for Spoonhour at Missouri State from 1985-89. "The lessons he taught me helped me, not just on basketball court, but life in general."