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Charlie Spoonhour 1999

Charlie Spoonhour announces his retirement as St. Louis University's basketball coach on March 5, 1999. (Photo by Laurie Skrivan / lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

His college basketball teams won 373 games and, with high school and junior college, the total was just short of 700.

But what Charlie Spoonhour really had wanted to do growing up in Rogers, Ark., was to play second base for the Cardinals.

Spoonhour, the former Missouri State and St. Louis U. coach who died at age 72 in Chapel Hill, N. C., Wednesday after battling a lung affliction for two years, was a Cardinals fan his entire life. He regularly would come to spring training in either St. Petersburg, Fla., or Jupiter, Fla., after whatever team he was coaching had been eliminated from postseason play.

Once, after his University of Nevada-Las Vegas club had lost at South Carolina in the NIT, he bolted immediately to the airport, flew to Atlanta, spent the wee hours in the airport there and arrived in Jupiter well ahead of his luggage, wearing only his Runnin' Rebels warmup jacket and the same pants he had sported at the game.

Another time, Cardinals manager Joe Torre suited Spoonhour up for an exhibition game and had him sit on the bench next to him. He even let Spoonhour try to flash the squeeze sign to the third-base coach although by the time "Spoon" had gone through his gyrations, everybody on both sides knew what was up.

"He loved baseball," said Henry Iba Jr., perhaps Spoonhour's best coaching friend. "If that wasn't his first love, it was his second, as far as sports."

Spoonhour had been in and out of the Duke University Medical Center for the past couple of years after getting a lung transplant there in 2010. He had been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis _ a scarring of the lungs.

There had been plans to replace Spoonhour's other lung but there were too many complications from the first surgery and his body never was strong enough to endure another procedure. Spoonhour, whose weight had dropped to 110 pounds, was brought home to Hospice care in Chapel Hill, on Tuesday.

"It was peaceful," said his wife, Vicki, who was at his side with other members of his family. "It was better than being in the hospital."

Testimonials from all over the country poured in Wednesday and a couple of hundred spoons were stuck in the ground at a SLU quadrangle in honor of Spoonhour.

When his teams were filling the old Arena in the mid 1990s at 17,000 a night, the sign everyone wanted to see at the end of the game was the one which said, "Stick a Spoon in Them. They're Done."

As much as Spoonhour loved both basketball and baseball players and friends loved him as much, if not more.

"I don't think you can think of anybody who disliked Charlie," said Iba, who had Spoonhour on his staff as an assistant at Nebraska from 1981-83 before Spoonhour got his first head coaching job at Southwest Missouri State the next season.

Larry Garrett, Spoonhour's longtime friend from Rogers, Ark., said, "there have been at least 12 people who have said Charlie was their best friend. You don't hear of that very often."

At Southwest Missouri (now Missouri State), Spoonhour's teams were 197-81 with five NCAA appearances. At SLU, Spoonhour compiled a 122-90 mark with three NCAA appearances.

He finished his coaching career at UNLV from 2001-04 with a 57-31 mark before retiring with a heart issue.

Scott Highmark, a star in the mid-1990s under Spoonhour at St. Louis U., said, "Coach Spoon always wanted us to have fun. When he came here, the tone was pretty negative. But he said to (Erwin) Claggett and me, ‘We're just going to have fun. This is not like life and death.

"He was like a pied piper. People would come to a game just to see Charlie Spoonhour coach. Who does that? He was such an interesting character. He'd go to Tom's Bar and Grill after a game and somebody would run up to the bar to talk to him and soon they'd be saying Charlie was their best friend.

"He just had a way of connecting with people better than anyone I've ever been around. The wins and losses were great. But it was more the human being. He just drew people to him.

"He'd come across as this ‘aw, shucks,'country guy, but he was brilliant."

Highmark said Spoonhour was the master psychologist as he made sure he let the role players know how important they were to the team. "He was great at reading people and motivating them, pulling just the right strings, getting them to do what he wanted them to do, even if it was hard.

"He would have Jeff Harris set 40 screens for Claggett and me and make it seem like fun for Jeff. We never ran any plays for Jeff.

"We'd have games we played where we would have just a terrible effort and we would come to practice the next day thinking he's going to kill us. And we'd end up playing wiffle ball. It was counterintuitive. Then we'd beat somebody like Cincinnati and we'd be feeling pretty good about ourselves and he'd absolutely destroy us at practice the next day. He wanted to bring us down.

"He was one of a kind."

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins knows that. Huggins, one of Spoonhour's closest friends in the business, got to know Spoonhour best when the former coached at the University of Cincinnati and Spoon was at SLU.

"Guys in our profession know that it's gone well beyond what it used to be," said Huggins. "Guys were friends and you had dinner the night before a game. It always happened with us. We always got together the night before a game and sometimes afterwards."

Huggins, as a big a man as Spoonhour was small, once came in three nights before a game to be with Spoonhour.

Huggins' favorite story concerning Spoonhour took place in March, 1995 at Milwaukee, site of the Great Midwest Conference tournament. All the teams were staying at the same hotel.

"We're getting ready to play DePaul and (coach) Joey Meyer," said Huggins, "and he calls me and says, ‘Come up here (to his room). I said that I was watching DePaul tape. And he says, ‘Then you're not as smart as you think you are. You've already played them two times.'

"So I go upstairs and sit around and do what we always do (12-ouncers were involved). We both win and the next night we're getting read to play Memphis and he's playing Marquette. He calls me and says, ‘Junior (his nickname for Huggins), I believe it's your night to host.' I was watching Memphis tape but I said, ‘All right, come on down.' He was in my room all night.

"We beat Memphis and they beat Marquette and now we're playing each other in the tournament championship. He says, ‘Junior, I'm a man of my word. It's my turn. Come on up.' When I get to his room, they're watching film of us and he told his coaches to cut it off.

"It's the third time we're going to play them," Huggins recalled Spoonhour saying to his coaches. "You know what they're going to run and he knows what we're going to do."

After another night together, the two then walked near Lake Michigan the next morning before the game and Huggins and his team repaired for a pre-game meal. For one reason or another, Spoonhour had been closed out of his team's meal so, when Huggins saw Spoonhour standing near the door of the restaurant, Huggins invited Spoonhour to eat with his team.

As was his custom with nearly everyone else, the home-spun Spoonhour had Huggins and the Bearcasts in stitches. The game ensued and Cincinnati won by two points on a last-second shot. "We slap hands afterward and then Spoon says, ‘Well, Junior, it looks like you're hosting tonight,' '' said Huggins.

"There was nobody better," said Huggins. "There's never been a better person. He's a really special guy."

Iba said, "He was more like a brother to me than anything else. I never had one. He touched a lot of people and not just in basketball. His people skills were unbelievable. When you were around Charlie, you were going to have a good time and you were going to laugh."

For many years, when he wasn't coaching, Spoonhour was an analyst, most often for the Missouri Valley games. In fact, Spoonhour will be among the honorees on March 2 here as he and five others are inducted into the Missouri Valley Conference Hall of Fame.

MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said, "He was very upbeat about that. Right up until the end, he was very excited about coming back here.

"Charlie was unforgettable," said Elgin. "He was a very legendary figure - bigger than life - both as a person and as a coach. And whatever you saw with him wasn't a schtick. He never forgot his roots. He may have moved on to St. Louis and other places but there still was a lot of northwest Arkansas and southwest Missouri down-home-boy in him."

Spoonhour started his coaching career at Rocky Comfort (Mo.) high school in 1961 when he also drove the team bus. He also was a head coach at Bloomfield and Salem high schools in Missouri and at Moberly and Burlington, Iowa, on the junior college ranks.

Current SLU coach Rick Majerus took on Spoonhour for three seasonswhen Majerus coached at Utah and Spoonhour at UNLV.

Majerus said, "Charlie Spoonhour will be remembered by his players and fans most of all for his authenticity. He was genuinely a great guy who cared about the players and the people in his life. Charlie was a fantastic coach, a wonderful teacher of the game and a competitor extraordinaire. He was a ‘coaches' coach,' and will be missed by one and all."

Vicki Spoonhour said Charlie told her in his final hours, "‘Don't spend the money on a funeral.' He didn't want all of his friends flying in for a funeral and crying. He said, ‘Have a party.'"

"He had a lot of friends," said Vicki Spoonhour. "He had 348 contacts on his phone. I think everyone considered him a friend. That says a lot about him."

Services will be private in North Carolina, Vicki Spoonhour said. Spoonhour is survived by sons Jay, head coach at Moberly Area Community College, and Stephen, in addition to five grandchildren.