The coach who helped build some of Wichita State’s best teams — and led the Shockers to their greatest success — died early Saturday morning.
Gary Thompson, 78, coached the Shockers to the 1965 Final Four, part of a playing and coaching career that started at the university in 1951. He died from complications from a heart attack at Via Christi-St. Joseph Campus with wife Betty and Cory, one of his three children, with him.
“He was very honest, and his integrity was really high,” Cory Thompson said. “I had a very fun childhood. We got to sit on the bench. We would make one road trip a year, to some place like Des Moines or Tulsa. And at that time, the Missouri Valley Conference was the best conference out there.”
Mr. Thompson suffered a heart attack on Oct. 21 while visiting Wichita for his 60th reunion at East High. He spent most of his time at his home in Coronado, Calif.
He coached seven seasons at WSU, compiling a 93-94 record. He played for the Shockers from 1951-54 and served as an assistant to coach Ralph Miller from 1957 until replacing Miller after the 1964 season. He was fired after the 1971 season and entered private business as a Pizza Hut franchisee.
Thompson was a constant in most of the top moments in the 1950s and 1960s, when the program grew from small-college status to a national power.
“Gary took up a lot of my life,” said Cleo Littleton, who played with Mr. Thompson at East High and the University of Wichita. “He was well-respected and a very nice gentleman. He also passed the ball to me.”
Mr. Thompson is one of nine men to take a team to the Final Four in their first season as coach. At 32, he took over for Miller and led the Shockers to the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll on Dec. 15, 1964. They won the Missouri Valley Conference title and defeated SMU and Oklahoma State to advance to Portland, Ore., for the national semifinals. There, WSU lost to eventual champion UCLA and Princeton in the third-place game.
In a 2005 interview, Mr. Thompson named the 54-46 win over Oklahoma State in Manhattan as his best victory. The Shockers entered the NCAA Tournament as an underdog after forward Dave Stallworth ended his eligibility at the semester and academic problems benched center Nate Bowman. With no starter taller than 6-foot-5, the Shockers made history.
“It was the fact I got to coach against Mr. (Henry) Iba,” he said. “I had so much respect for the man. I played against him 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.”
He played for Miller at East and followed him to the University of Wichita. He started at guard for the 1954 NIT team, the first Shocker team to make a splash nationally with Littleton as its star.
“He didn't score a lot, but that wasn't his job,” former teammate Paul Scheer said. “He handled the ball well and was a good defensive player. He was smart.”
As a player, Mr. Thompson showed traits that foreshadowed his coaching career. His long association with Miller made him the perfect player to carry out the coach’s plans.
“The coach always made him the captain because of that demeanor,” Littleton said. “He had some authority about him. He ran the plays and called out the defenses. We all fell in line. He knew what the coach wanted done.”
With Mr. Thompson as his assistant, Miller built a team that played a national schedule with stars such as Stallworth. The Shockers went to the NIT in 1962 and 1963 and won their first MVC title in 1964 to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The success of the teams in the early 1960s packed what is now Koch Arena and set the stage for a passionate fan base that continues to this day.
“(Miller) was such a successful coach, it was going to be a tough situation,” Mr. Thompson said in 2005. “Most coaches at the major-college level would rather go into a situation where it wasn't successful. It was an honor for me to be picked as their head coach."
Dave Dahl, who played for Mr. Thompson from 1968-71, remembers him as a cheerful man who always had time to talk to players.
“He was very intelligent, and had a very engaging personality,” Dahl said. “He recruited some excellent players.”
Mr. Thompson is survived by his wife, Betty, sons Paul and Cory and daughter Laurel Thompson, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
The service will be private for the family, Cory Thompson said.