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Former UNLV basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour dies after battle with lung disease

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Ethan Miller

UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour during a game against Montana at the Thomas & Mack Center on Dec. 30, 2003

Updated Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012 | 11:52 a.m.

Remembering former UNLV coach Charlie Spoonhour

Former UNLV head basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour looks down the bench during the first round NIT tournament game against Arizona State on March 12, 2002. Launch slideshow »

If the out-of-sorts UNLV Rebels needed a certain kind of basketball coach in 2001, they got him in Charlie Spoonhour.

The program was struggling to collect itself and regroup after several years of high drama and distractions triggered by recruiting violations under coach Bill Bayno and a resulting NCAA probation.

It was time for everyone to take a deep breath and focus on rebuilding.

So Spoonhour — unflappable, patient, consistent — was brought in to do the job, pulled out of what was supposed to have been his retirement.

“I won’t forget the night the athletic department administrators went to dinner with him and talked to him about the job,” said Jerry Koloskie, UNLV’s deputy director of athletics. “The whole evening was very comforting.”

During Spoonhour’s calming 2 1/2-year run as head coach, the Rebels amassed a 54-31 record and reached the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game each of the three years.

Spoonhour died peacefully Wednesday with his family at his bedside at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 72.

Spoonhour had been in and out of Duke Medical Center the past few years after receiving a lung transplant in 2010. He had been battling lung-scarring idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

His wife, Vicki, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he told her in his final hours, “Don’t spend the money on a funeral.”

“He didn’t want all of his friends flying in for a funeral and crying,” she said. “He said, ‘Have a party.’ He had a lot of friends. He had 348 contacts on his phone. I think everyone considered him a friend. That says a lot about him.”

Funeral services are pending.

Spoonhour, who was born June 23, 1939, in Mulberry, Kan., raised in Rogers, Ark., and graduated from the University of the Ozarks, was not the Rebels’ first choice. Dusting itself off after the Bayno years and a half-season under coach Max Good, who was not retained, UNLV pursued former University of Kentucky and Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino, who spurned the university before choosing to work at Louisville.

Just as well. Spoonhour turned out to be the right choice.

“Charlie was a super human being, very mild-mannered, very easygoing,” Koloskie said. “He was passionate about coaching, but he was unassuming and didn’t need all that media attention.

“What he did was build the foundation for success, and you can see he did by looking at the success that followed Charlie when Coach (Lon) Kruger came in. It was Charlie who built that foundation.”

During his run, Spoonhour coached Marcus Banks and Dalron Johnson, among others, and recruited Joel Anthony. Current coach Dave Rice was an assistant during Spoonhour’s tenure.

“Coach Spoon was an incredible person,” Rice said. “I learned so much from him about coaching, but more important, he taught us how to keep things in perspective and showed us how to be better people. He truly made a difference and had the unique ability to make everyone around him feel so special.”

After posting back-to-back 21-11 seasons that ended in the NIT, Spoonhour stepped down 21 games into his third season citing health reasons.

His son, Jay, took over for the remainder of the year.

Before UNLV, Spoonhour had accumulated a 197-81 record while coaching at what was then Southwest Missouri State from 1983-92. In nine seasons, Spoonhour led the Bears to five NCAA Tournaments, including four in a row.

He then was recruited to St. Louis, where he compiled a 122-90 record in seven seasons and reached three NCAA Tournaments.

He retired — but only briefly, answering the call at UNLV. All told, he built an impressive 361-193 (.652) career mark over 18 seasons as a coach.

Spoonhour, immensely popular, spent part of his post-coaching life calling basketball games for the Missouri Valley Conference.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Charlie was a great guy and a great leader. His tenure at UNLV laid the groundwork for where we are today, bringing stability and respect back to a basketball program that had zero of each when he took over. After stepping down, he was still a frequent spectator in the stands, taking in our games as a fan (until the St. Louis Cardinals spring training started). Thanks for everything, Coach. Rest in peace.

  2. Very sad to hear that Coach Spoon has passed away. I know many people like to credit Coach Kruger with turning the men's basketball program around, which in large part he did. But as COrebel rightly notes, it really began with Coach Spoon. While we may not have won as much or made the Big Dance in those days, Coach Spoon definitely brought respectability, stability, and a sense of pride back to UNLV basketball. This is indeed a sad day for UNLV basketball. Coach, you will be missed.

  3. The first time I heard of Coach Spoonhour was when I watched the Rebels play SMSU in 1988 in the NCAA first round. They gave us all we wanted before the Rebs squeaked by in the end. Was fun to watch his St. Louis teams with H Waldman running the point. People like Coach Spoonhour and Coach Kruger certainly laid the ground work for the program's resurgance. Thoughts and prayers to his family.

  4. I started my journalism career covering the SMS Bears (now Missouri State) under Coach Spoonhour. He was a great coach, a master in the understanding of basketball, combined with that engaging personality. He'd always say if he could find players who could pass, catch and "guard," he could create a winning team. He proved that philosophy throughout his career, with that folksy smile and sense of humor, charming everyone he met. RIP, coach.

  5. Watched his teams play at Southeastern CC in Burlington, iowa. Established one of the top JC programs in the country there! Many D-1 players and future NBA players came through that program. A great coach and greater person!