Charlie Spoonhour's friends didn't tell him he was crazy when he left a secure little coaching job at Southwest Missouri State two years ago for a more recognizable, but certainly more stressful, position at Saint Louis University.
"They already knew I was crazy," Spoonhour said yesterday.
At the time, Southwest Missouri State had been to the NCAA tournament five of six years, and Saint Louis hadn't gone since 1957. The Bears had never experienced a losing record in Spoonhour's nine seasons in Springfield, Mo.; the Billikens were coming off a tumultuous 5-23 season during which four players quit the team.
But the man whose 33-year coaching career reads like a #F backroads map of Middle America knew that the talent eventually would stop coming to Southwest Missouri State
and head for places like, well, Saint Louis, which was joining the fast-rising Great Midwest Conference.
"I needed a change, and they needed to get fresh blood in there," said Spoonhour, a white-haired gentleman of 54 who doesn't look a day over 70. "I think it was a good move for everyone."
Debbie Yow, a former Division I women's coach who became the school's athletic director in 1990, made the hire in 13 days from a list of finalists that included four other head coaches and assistants all younger than Spoonhour, who was skeptical when he heard that he was still in the hunt.
"He asked me, 'Are you serious?' " Yow recalled yesterday. "I told him, 'I'm as serious as a heart attack.' Charlie's the total package. He's a great bench coach. He's an excellent communicator. The bonus for me is that he's down to earth. And he's got a system. It's called winning."
That's apparent. After showing signs of improvement in a deceptively competitive 12-17 season a year ago -- Spoonhour's first losing record ever as a coach on any level-- the Billikens became one of the biggest turnaround teams in the country this year.
A 14-game winning streak to start the season, and 19 wins in its first 20 games, pushed Saint Louis (23-5) into the Top 25 for the first time in 30 years -- getting as high as 16th -- and now into the NCAA tournament for the first time since former Baltimore Bullet Bob Ferry was the team's star.
The 24th-ranked Billikens, seeded seventh, will play Maryland (16-11), the 10th seed, in Thursday's Midwest Regional at Wichita's Kansas Coliseum.
"Everything's fallen into place," said Spoonhour, who has taken a group of junior college and Division I transfers and turned them into arguably the most disciplined three-point shooting team in the tourney. "We've been fortunate that the new guys fit in with the old guys, and the old guys have accepted the new guys."
The old guys included 6-foot-1 junior guard Erwin Claggett, the team's leading scorer (17.5 points a game) and the school's all-time leading three-point shooter; 6-8 senior center Evan Pedersen, who spent two years at Northwestern before going on a Mormon mission; and 6-5 junior swingman Scott Highmark, who does a little of everything.
The new guys included Claggett's backcourt mate, H Waldman, a 6-3 junior point guard who was a reserve on the University of Nevada-Las Vegas team that lost to Duke in the 1991 NCAA semifinals and transferred when Runnin' Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian was forced to resign; also Donnie Dobbs, a third-team junior college All-America who at 6-3, 220, patterns his game after Charles Barkley. He wears No. 34 and has half the Billikens' four -- count 'em -- four dunks -- on a team that includes a player named David Robinson.
"We don't have to dunk because we've got such great outside shooters," Dobbs said earlier this season. "But we can dunk if we get the opportunity. I had one against DePaul that I thought was pretty sweet."
Said Waldman: "Spoon recruits good people. It's like a bunch of church guys, nice guys, sort of like the kind of guys you'd want to introduce to your cousin. There's not a lot of egos."
They also have one of the country's most underpublicized coaches in Spoonhour, who grew up in Rogers, Ark., following the legendary Henry Iba's teams at Oklahoma A&M; on the radio. He first put Iba's theories into practice in his first coaching job at Rocky Comfort High School in 1961. "Smallest school in the state [of Missouri]," said Spoonhour. "There were 100 kids kindergarten through 12."
Spoonhour spent seven years at three different high schools, four seasons at Southwest Missouri as an assistant, two more at Moberly (Mo.) Junior College, one as an assistant at Oklahoma, six more as a head coach at Southeast Community College in Burlington, Iowa, two years as an assistant under Iba's son, Moe, at Nebraska, then back to Southwest Missouri State again as its head coach.
It was during those five NCAA tournament appearances that Spoonhour's national reputation, at least among the coaching fraternity, grew. While his teams were never seeded higher than ninth and won only once -- as a No. 13 seed, the Bears beat No. 4 seed Clemson in the opening round in 1987 -- they were always competitive against the likes of Kansas (67-63 that year), UNLV (54-50 in 1988), Seton Hall (60-51 in 1989), North Carolina (83-70 in 1990) and Michigan State (61-54 in 1992).
"I've gotten to shake a lot of famous hands," joked Spoonhour, one of a dozen finalists for the Atlanta Tipoff Club's Naismith Award, given to the top coach in Division I.
Come Thursday afternoon in Wichita, Spoonhour hopes that he doesn't have to take a consoling handshake from Maryland's Gary Williams. And the Billikens hope that they can keep their dreams and their season alive longer than all but one of Spoonhour's teams at Southwest Missouri did.
"We want to keep it going," said Waldman. "It's been like a Cinderella season. When I told people that I was leaving Vegas for Saint Louis, they couldn't believe I was doing it. But now they understand."
So do most of Charlie Spoonhour's friends back at Southwest Missouri State.
SAINT LOUIS vs. MARYLAND
* Day: Thursday
* Time: 12:20 p.m.
* Site: Wichita, Kan.
* Region: Midwest
* Seedings: Saint Louis No. 7, Maryland No. 10
* Records: Saint Louis 23-5, Maryland 16-11
* TV: Channel 11
* Radio: WBAL (1090 AM)
THE SAINT LOUIS FILE
Coach: Charlie Spoonhour, second year, 35-22
Conference: Great Midwest
Top scorer: G Erwin Claggett, 17.5
Top rebounder: F Donnie Dobbs, 6.0
Tournament history: First appearance since 1957, lost to Oklahoma City in first round. Also appeared in 1952, when it lost to Kansas in second round.