I’ll always appreciate Gary Thompson’s strong connection to Wichita State’s basketball glory years, even though there’s nothing glorious about his seven seasons as the Shockers’ coach.
From the 1964-65 season, when he took over for Ralph Miller, through the 1970-71 season, after which he was replaced by Harry Miller, Thompson, who died Saturday at the age of 78, was 93-93 overall and 49-55 in Missouri Valley Conference games. Gary Thompson But there is perspective for Thompson’s so-so record. First, he was not the kind of head coach his predecessor was; few were. Ralph Miller built a dynasty at Wichita State and Thompson, one of Miller’s former players at East High and WSU, was not capable of maintaining that legacy.
Secondly, and most important, the Missouri Valley Conference was a much different thing than it is today. The Valley of Death, as it was affectionately called in those days, included teams that were in the national-championship picture on almost a yearly basic.
When Thompson took over the Shocker reins, Cincinnati was in decline after being one of the country’s heavyweights during the early 1960s. But Louisville and Drake, who combined for five Valley titles during Thompson’s seven seasons, stepped in admirably as the conference’s best teams.
Some of the best players in the Valley’s history passed through during those seasons and some of them played for Wichita State. However, the Shockers went from a Final Four participant in 1965 to eighth-place finishers in the Valley by Thompson’s final season in 1970-71. After going 11-3, 9-5 and 9-5 in conference games during his first three seasons, Thompson’s record in his final four sesons was 20-41.
Still, he coached Warren Armstrong – who changed his name to Jabali after the conclusion of his college career – and that was enough for me.
Jabali is one of the greatest Shockers of all-time, WSU”s career leader in assists and No. 7 in rebounding. He also ranks 17th in points. That’s a complete player, folks, and on top of it all, Armstrong was a 6-foot-2 forward/guard who jumped center.
I contacted Jabali, who went on to have an outstanding career in the American Basketball Association, via Jabali during his ABA days e-mail to get his response to Thompson’s passing. Here’s what he wrote back:
I came out of high school (Kansas City, Mo., Central) not really comprehending the NCAA recruitment process related to winning conference and national championships. My decision to come to Wichita was an emotional one, based on my like for the Wichita players and for Gary. He remained a likable personality throughout, but was not proficient at coaching and recruiting. I understand he was highly successful in his second career (as a Pizza Hut franchisee) where his personality attributes were more applicable. Overall, I considered Gary a good man.
I’ve talked to Jabali occasionally over the course of my career and always found him to be fascinating. Remember, this is a player I idolized when he was at Wichita State. My aunt, Dr. Phyllis Burgess, was a professor in the School of Education at WSU at the time and she had Jabali in some of her classes. It was fascinating to hear her talk about him and how intelligent, but angry, he was. There was strong racial tension in the country at the time and Jabali was one of the most vocal leaders on the WSU campus.
My aunt found him to be charismatic and highly intelligent. My dealings with him have normally been brief, but pleasant. I’m not sure he trusts me. A few years back, I tried to get a movement started to have his jersey retired at Wichita State, joining the likes of Dave Stallworth, Cleo Littleton, Antoine Carr and Cliff Levingston to be so honored. It hasn’t happened.
I was interested in Jabali’s assertion that he chose to come to Wichita State – and he was very heavily recruited at the time – because of his interaction with players. In another e-mail, I pressed Jabali for more details. Again, he was brief:
Ron Washington, Melvin Reed, Jerry Davis, Kelly Pete and others who were football players. On my recruiting trip, we all sat in the dorm and laughed and talked late into the night. That didn’t happen on my other trips. I was right at home.
You’re probably asking yourself: Wait, this was supposed to be a tribute to Gary Thompson and it’s turned into a Warren Jabali love-fest.
Guilty as charged. But I can’t think back to those Thompson years – enjoyable ones even though the Shockers didn’t win as much – without thinking of my favorite WSU player next to Stallworth.
Thompson also coached many other talented players: Pete, Reed, Washington, Stallworth, Jamie Thompson, Dave Leach, Nate Bowman, Vernon Smith, Ron Mendell, Greg Carney, Ron Harris, Terry Benton and Vince Smith among them.
On a personal note, my father, Ray, worked with Gary Thompson’s father-in-law, Jim Gist, at Beechcraft. So I felt like I got some of the inside scoop on what was going on with the Shockers in those days. I was just a nine-year-old kid when Thompson took over as the Shockers’ coach and a know-it-all 16-year old in his final season. He was an important figure in my formative years and he’ll be missed. And forever remembered.
I’m sure Wichita State will have a befitting tribute to Thompson before the Shockers’ season opener Tuesday night at Koch Arena against Texas Southern. Hopefully, every WSU fan will appreciate how integral he was to the long-lasting love affair the city of Wichita has with the Shockers.
* I was glad to see Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley apologize for not shaking hands with his Denver counterpart, Josh McDaniels, after the beat-down the Broncos put on Kansas City on Sunday.
I never thought McDaniels and the Broncos were trying to run up the score on KC. If anything, Denver’s continued passing after the game was out of reach probably allowed the Chiefs to make the final score a little more respectable than it was.
If I’m McDaniels, I’m wanting to instill as much confidence as I can into a team that probably didn’t have much going into Sunday’s Haley scolds McDaniels game. With the AFC West completely up for grabs now, a hot streak by the Broncos can push them toward the top spot.
KC, meanwhile, is 5-4 and fortunately gets Arizona at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday. The Cardinals are probably not equipped to go into Kansas City and win, although the Chiefs have to be wavering after an overtime win over then-winless Buffalo and consecutive road losses to Oakland and Denver.
The ultra-competitive Haley seemed to be scolding McDaniels as they met near mid-field after the game. Speculation is that he wasn’t happy that Denver continued to pass the football, especially after the Chiefs got Jamaal Charles off the field in the regular-season finale of the 2009 season even though he was chasing a rushing record.
I appreciate Haley’s burn. After having some doubts about him early, I think he’s the perfect coach to lead Kansas City forward. For the most part, he’s controlled his temper better this season, which is something a head coach has to master. It got away from him after Sunday’s game but he did the right thing a day later.