Like father, like son: Spoonhour follows in father’s footsteps
November 13, 2014
A 15-year-old Jay Spoonhour was anxiously huddled next to a phone mounted on the wall of his Iowa home in 1986.
“It was an awful, yellow-colored phone,” Spoonhour said.
He gazed out of the living room window where flood lights shined over the back of a farm blanketed in snow, where Spoonhour and his mother were living at the time.
Spoonhour was fighting the urge to call the scorer’s table at the first round game of the National Invitation Tournament between Southwest Missouri State and Pittsburgh.
His father, Charlie, was coaching the then Southwest Missouri State men’s basketball team in its first postseason tournament as a Division I program.
“I had to have called at least a dozen times,” Spoonhour said. “I wore them out; they were mad. I kept calling because they didn’t know it was me. They were hoping the call was coming from New York City.”
Spoonhour’s dad was in his third year coaching a team that had only been Division I for four years. Charlie and the Bears found themselves as underdogs against the Big East Conference’s Pittsburgh.
So, could you blame a young Spoonhour?
Just five years prior, a win over Texas-Arlington was considered a big deal to Southwest Missouri State. Its biggest rivalry was with a Division II program.
His excitement was uncontrollable and understandably so.
“What I thought was 20 minutes was three minutes,” Spoonhour said. “Eventually they said, ‘who is this?’ So, I told them who I was, and they said, ‘OK, you can keep calling.’”
So he did, and Missouri State won the game 59-52.
Spoonhour spoke with his father after the game, who did his best to calm a young Spoonhour. But no easy task. Spoonhour said he was more excited than when the St. Louis Cardinals won a World Series.
“He said, ‘we’re going to play again here in a couple of days, so don’t call the scorer’s table again,’” Spoonhour said.
Then, Southwest Missouri State won that game, too, Southwest Missouri State 83, Marquette 69, before falling to Florida 54-53 in the quarterfinals.
Despite the loss, the program had made it. Charlie used his first head coaching job at the Division I level to propel him and a small-time program to new heights.
Friday night, the Eastern men’s basketball team and head coach Jay Spoonhour open the regular season against now Missouri State (formerly Southwest Missouri State), where Charlie began his illustrious coaching career and brought prominence to the program from 1983-92.
Missouri State will be honoring its former coach by raising a banner in the JQH Arena and, courtesy of Spoonhour’s stepmom, who is also endowing a scholarship in Charlie’s name. Charlie died at the age of 72 in February of 2012 after a two-year battle with a lung disease.
There will also be a Thursday-night banquet hosted by Missouri State, featuring burgers, fries and key lime pie — Charlie’s favorite dishes.
“It’s really nice what (Missouri State) is doing for him,” Spoonhour said. “My dad would have really enjoyed it.”
Charlie had a 197-81 record in nine seasons as the Bears’ head coach, leading them to five of their six NCAA Tournament appearances, as well as two NIT appearances.
Rand Chappell, a current assistant coach for the Eastern men’s basketball team and former player and assistant coach at Southwest Missouri State during Charlie’s tenure, said from 1983-92, the entire community rallied around the Bears.
“He is a larger-than-life person to (Missouri State),” Chappell said. “He changed the community into something similar to what fans of the 1985 Chicago Bears felt. It was that kind of atmosphere.”
Eastern and Missouri State will tipoff at 7:05 p.m. Friday at the JQH Arena in Springfield, Mo.
As a player at Pittsburg State University (1990-94) in Pittsburg, Kan., Spoonhour still could not bear the idea of being unable to know how a Charlie Spoonhoour-coached team was fairing.
Now, Charlie had jumped to the head coaching position at Saint Louis. But Spoonhour did not have to stand impatiently by a phone mounted on the wall anymore.
Instead, Spoonhour got in his car and drove to the local bank in Pittsburg. There, underneath the roof in the very last lane of the bank’s drive thru, is where Spoonhour was able to get reception of St. Louis’ 550 AM.
“For whatever reason, I knew I got reception there,” Spoonhour said. “There were probably better places in town, but that place was fine with me. They were closed and nobody cared I was there.”
So, at 8 or 9 p.m. on nights when Spoonhour didn’t have practice, he would listen to the Billikens coached by his father 306 miles away.
“I didn’t have a lot of girls back then,” Spoonhour said.
The game Friday night has been dubbed “turtleneck night,” because Charlie was famous for sporting turtlenecks on the sidelines during his time as a head coach, something Spoonhour picked up on from Charlie.
“I don’t like ties,” Spoonhour said. “I’ll be wearing something open-collar, and since they’re doing that, I’ll wear a turtleneck.”
Fans are also encouraged to wear turtlenecks to pay homage to the fashion that Charlie made famous for nearly a decade at Missouri State.
“A friend of my dad’s said, ‘hey, I got my turtleneck. I’ll see you at the game,’” Spoonhour said. “I guess it’s a thing that everybody is doing.”
Even Chappell said he will do his best to take on his former coach’s wardrobe.
“I was going to check if Jay was (wearing a turtleneck),” Chappell said. “We talked about it earlier. He wasn’t sure. But if he’s going to, I guess I’ll have to go in my closet and look.”
But turtlenecks are not the only trait of Spoonhour’s that emulates his father.
Like Charlie, Spoonhour is widely-known for his wise-cracking humor, postgame antics and light-hearted attitude.
“His outlook was really healthy,” Spoonhour said. “When he won, he never acted like it was the greatest thing ever; when he lost, he never acted like it was the worst thing ever. I think that was healthy for me and I think that was healthy for his players.”
Also taking after his father, Spoonhour is always guaranteed for at least two uniquely-charming quotes per interview (in this story there are several).
Growing up, Spoonhour spent his summer weekends on a pontoon boat on Table Rock Lake at the Arkansas-Missouri border with Charlie and 10-15 of his closest friends.
“We would huddle about 50 yards off the dock and shut it down and sit there and listen to the (St. Louis) Cardinals play,” Spoonhour said. “It may not sound like a big deal to a guy from Chicago, but that, for us, was great.”
Nothing changed for Charlie. He remained the same charismatic man who won the hearts of Bears fans before venturing off to Saint Louis and eventually UNLV.
“The only thing that changed was that the better his teams did, the bigger his boat got,” Spoonhour said.
Spoonhour’s summer weekends with his father were not unique. Every other boat on Table Rock Lake was essentially doing the same. But Spoonhour’s summer weekends were special.
“He would drive us around waterskiing,” Spoonhour said. “He could never get up in a set of waterskies. He wasn’t a very good athlete anyway.”
Charlie was indeed a hell of a coach.
In 1987, the season following the NIT berth, Southwest Missouri State earned it’s first-ever appearance and win in the NCAA Tournament.
Southwest Missouri State played a Horace Grant and Elden Campbell-led Clemson team, which had a 25-5 record. As a No. 13 seed, Southwest Missouri State beat No. 4 seeded Clemson 65-60 in the first round of the tournament, before losing to No. 5 seeded Kansas in the second round.
“When we got back, there were 10,000 people at the airport to meet us,” said Chappell, who was a graduate assistant at the time. “It was a cool time — stuff you can’t write and stuff you’ll never forget.”
But there was a time when Southwest Missouri State hosted teams in a seemingly empty arena. Pickup basketball games were being played on the courts directly connecting to the Hammons Student Center court, the home arena at the time.
“I say all of the time to (assistant coach) J.R. Reynolds,” Spoonhour said, “‘remember this. When (Lantz Arena) is jammed we’ll forget about times like this.’”
Charlie vitalized a program that had never experienced similar success, a level of nation-wide recognition and unconditional support from devoted fans, who sold out game-by-game.
“But it has to be a fun product to watch first,” Spoonhour said. “We’re getting there. I have no doubt that we will get there. And when we do, it will be the greatest.”
Like father, like son.
Anthony Catezone can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]