Gary Mitchell was the Dean Smith of National Academic League in Wichita.
During his 17 years coaching at Wilbur Middle School, Mr. Mitchell’s teams won a dozen City League championships and one national title in the quiz bowl-style academic competition. Their win-loss record was an astounding 174-24.
“He would just work and work with those kids, and he brought out the best in all of them,” said Barbara Brotton, Mitchell’s co-coach for 15 years.
“He was tough with the kids, but they didn’t even realize it. He would do everything to make them get better.”
Mr. Mitchell, a former librarian and coach who continued to volunteer with National Academic League after retiring, died Monday of cancer. He was 65.
Former colleagues remembered Mr. Mitchell’s dedication and competitive spirit, which was evident in 2003, when Wilbur won its first-ever NAL championship over a Utah junior high school. The coach promised his students he would shave his head if they won.
He also took a few moments toward the end of the competition to let them know how proud he was of their accomplishment.
“There was about 30 seconds left in the game, and he calls a timeout,” said Jamie Heintz, a technology specialist at Wilbur who shared an office with Mr. Mitchell. “Everybody was like, ‘What in the world is he doing?’
“So he walks over to them and smiles and just says, ‘I want to be the first to congratulate you on winning a national championship.’ ”
National Academic League competitions feature questions about math, politics, science, history and geography. The game is broken into three fast-paced quarters in which students are quizzed on a variety of subjects. The other quarter features an oral presentation by each team.
Brotton said Mr. Mitchell’s formula for success was simple: lots of practice and plenty of pizza.
“We figured out pretty quickly that kids will do just about anything for pizza,” she said.
Mr. Mitchell spent lots of his own money on supplies and treats for his NAL teams through the years, Heintz added. The students practiced two to three times a week starting in September; competitions began in early November and went through February or longer.
Mr. Mitchell also helped students with their National History Day exhibits, using his mat-cutting skills and supplies to help them upgrade their displays.
“We had wonderful things happen with some of our kids,” Brotton said. “It’s an amazing program for teaching kids not just knowledge and trivia, but how to work as a team, how to speak in front of groups.
“There are some kids who don’t do sports, and Gary knew this was one way to really celebrate excellence,” she said. “Everybody thinks you’re great for being smart, and sometimes in middle school that’s not the norm.”
In 2011, when the Wichita school district proposed cutting funding for National Academic League, Mr. Mitchell spearheaded an effort to keep the program alive. He helped secure grants and corporate sponsorships, and he volunteered as a judge and program administrator.
Well after retiring, Mr. Mitchell continued to counsel new coaches, including Kate Sims at Robinson Middle School.
“He was a wonderful resource and always so generous with his time,” Sims said. “A lot of his advice shaped the way I coach.”
When he wasn’t teaching or coaching, Mr. Mitchell spent time with family and his beloved cocker spaniels, Jackson and Dottie, said his twin brother, Larry. He also had a passion for genealogy and spent years researching his family tree.
“He had a very likable personality and got along with everybody,” Larry Mitchell said. “He’s going to be missed.”
Mr. Mitchell’s family and friends plan to gather from 5 to 7 p.m. Friday at Carlson Funeral Home in El Dorado. A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the funeral home.
Memorial contributions in his name may be directed to Heartland Hospice.