Ralph Miller, who won 220 games in 13 seasons as University of Wichita basketball coach, had just suffered through a painful near-miss with his Shockers.
WSU was defeated 94-86 by Kansas State in the NCAA Midwest Regional championship game at the Roundhouse, now Koch Arena. The Wildcats, not the Shockers, were headed to the Final Four.
Many would argue that, at 23-6, it was Miller’s best Wichita team – even better than the 1953-54 team that went 27-4 – with All-American forward Dave Stallworth leading the way. Stallworth scored 37 points against K-State, but the Shockers couldn’t overcome a 13-point halftime deficit.
Soon after the game, rumors began to circulate that Miller was being wooed by Iowa. Sure enough, two weeks later he announced he was leaving for the Hawkeyes and the Big Ten.
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“We were surprised,” said John Criss, a sophomore guard on the 1963-64 team. “I think it was probably an opportunity for Ralph to build another program. Not that it was a step up, because the Missouri Valley was the ‘Valley of Death’ at that time, but Iowa was certainly a bigger university.”
Miller, a Chanute native, was a standout athlete at Kansas and coached for three-plus seasons at East High, where he led the Aces to a 68-17 record and one state championship. He took over at WU in 1951.
According to newspaper clips, Miller was paid $18,000 to coach at Iowa, a significant bump from the $10,500 previous Hawkeyes coach Sharm Scheuerman was making.
One of Miller’s players at East was a scrappy guard named Gary Thompson, who later played for Miller at WU and joined his coaching staff in 1957.
Miller and Thompson were practically tied at the hip.
There was no nationwide coaching search for Miller’s replacement. Athletic director Bob Donaldson said he interviewed several candidates via the telephone, but none were brought to Wichita.
Thompson, highly recommended by Miller to be his successor, was hired, just as everyone thought he would be.
He took over a loaded 1964-65 team – now called Wichita State after the university became a Board of Regents institution that summer – but with the understanding that the great Stallworth would be eligible for only the first semester.
“Gary was very self-assured,” said Dave Leach, a standout forward for the Shockers and a senior on the 1964-65 team. “No, he was cocky. He thought he could get the job done with everyone coming back.”
Thompson was 31, just a few years older than senior forward Larry Nosich, who started his college career late after playing industrial league basketball in Pennsylvania.
Besides losing Stallworth after 16 games in 1964-65, Thompson also endured the loss of 6-foot-10 center Nate Bowman for academic reasons after 14 games.
The Shockers were left without a contributing player taller than 6-5. Leach moved to center and 6-3 sophomore Jamie Thompson became a starter.
Wichita State and its first-year coach were in a precarious situation.
“Gary really didn’t try to change a lot when he took the job,” Leach said. “He was confident enough that he thought he could do the job and we were comfortable with Ralph’s system.”
But Ralph’s system was built around Stallworth and Bowman. Now that they were gone. Thompson had to think of something.
He instilled a more deliberate offense. The Shockers made more passes before they shot, recognizing that close to 40 points per game had been taken away.
Thompson was a revelation as a shooter and scorer. Kelly Pete became the Shockers’ best player. Leach, Criss and senior Vernon Smith were solid and sophomore Melvin Reed provided some punch off the bench.
It was a struggle, but the Shockers started to figure out life after Stallworth and Bowman. They won the Missouri Valley Conference championship by two games over Bradley and Saint Louis, and defeated Southern Methodist and Oklahoma State to reach their first Final Four.
“I thought we were a really good team before, so I really wasn’t concerned that we were going to get worse,” Nosich said. “I thought we would still be a good team and I was right.”
Wichita State, though, was pounded by UCLA 108-89 in the national semifinals. The Shockers’ lack of size finally caught up to them as the Bruins, coached by John Wooden at the beginning of their remarkable stretch of domination of college basketball, dictated the pace of the game.
Miller’s first Iowa team, meanwhile, went 14-10 and finished fifth in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes did win two conference championships under Miller. He left Iowa after six seasons to coach at Oregon State, where he spent 19 seasons and won 359 games before retiring after the 1988-89 season.
Miller was a tough coach who stressed discipline. He was slow to give a compliment and quick to criticize.
“Ralph was maybe a little more strict than Gary,” Criss said. “Well, a lot more strict. I was going to say we all feared Ralph, but it wasn’t that way. We had a lot of respect for him but it was his way or there was no sense in even being out there. It didn’t matter whether you were first-team All-American or the 12th guy on the team, Ralph made his point distinctly and vividly.”
Thompson went about coaching differently, which surprised some because of how close he and Miller were.
“Different temperaments,” said Leach, a McPherson native who went on to join Miller’s coaching staff at Oregon State for 10 seasons from 1970-80 before taking over as coach at Boise State. “Probably, for some of the guys, they liked Gary’s style better. He wasn’t as tough on people as Ralph, although he still demanded that you do what you’re supposed to do. Just in a different way.”
Thompson never came close to duplicating the success of his first season. The bar was set too high.
“I’ve thought about it a lot over the years,” Criss said. “Gary might have had a longer coaching career if he hadn’t gotten to the Final Four his first year.”
Thompson was fired after the 1970-71 season, his seventh, with a 93-94 record. He coached some outstanding players: Warren Armstrong, Greg Carney, Ron Washington, Terry Benton, Ron Harris.
But the Shockers, as a team, went into decline, from 21-9 during the Final Four season to 17-10, 14-12, 12-14, 11-15, 8-18 and 10-16.
Thompson, who later became a Pizza Hut franchise owner and lived in Arizona and California, died in 2010 after suffering a heart attack while attending his 60th high school reunion in Wichita. He was 78.
During a 2005 interview, he said the highlight of his coaching career at Wichita State was coaching against Oklahoma State’s Henry Iba in the regional finals.
“I had so much respect for the man,” Thompson said. “I played against his team as a player; to get to coach against him was very special. I had a hard time walking from my bench to his bench after the ballgame to congratulate him because I knew he wanted to go to that Final Four.”
It was Thompson who took his team to the Final Four that season. Against long odds.
“After we went to the that Final Four and didn’t win the thing, I don’t think I watched a college basketball game on TV for three or four years,” Nosich said. “I kept thinking about how close we were and that this was something that was going to bother me the rest of my life. Well, here I am 50 years later and I still think about it.”