In his brief time at UNLV, Charlie Spoonhour helped restore respect and stability to a basketball program that was in turmoil.
He was a friend to the Rebels’ greatest coach, Jerry Tarkanian, and a mentor to their current coach, Dave Rice, and remained close to both while battling health problems in recent years.
Spoonhour, 72, died Wednesday from a lung disease at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C., less than two years after receiving a lung transplant at nearby Duke University Medical Center.
“Spoon” was UNLV’s coach from 2001-04, compiling a 54-31 in two-plus seasons before retiring in February 2004.
“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,” said Rice, who was an assistant to Spoonhour. “Coach Spoon was an incredible person.”
In between the Tarkanian and Rice eras, Spoonhour came out of retirement and rescued the Rebels from NCAA sanctions, and the coach who followed him, Lon Kruger, returned UNLV to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.
“Charlie was a great coach,” Tarkanian said. “He wanted to bring all the former Rebels back and embrace the past. He did a nice job at UNLV, and then Lon took it to another level.”
Spoonhour won 373 games in 19 seasons as a Division I head coach, including tenures at Saint Louis (1992-99) and Southwest Missouri State (1983-1992).
Lured out of retirement in March 2001, Spoonhour replaced interim coach Max Good, who had taken over midway through the previous season for Bill Bayno. Spoonhour was hampered by scholarship limitations but coached the Rebels to 21 victories in each of his first two seasons and twice led the team to the National Invitation Tournament.
“Anytime you go through an NCAA situation, it hurts a little bit. I thought the idea was to get guys to go to school and try to make sure we didn’t get in any more NCAA difficulty. I think it was pretty apparent if there were any more rules violations, they were going to shut things down,” Spoonhour told the Review-Journal in 2006. “In the long run, I think we accomplished a lot of what the administration wanted us to do.”
On Feb. 17, 2004, during Spoonhour’s third season, he stepped down citing health issues. After reporting tightness in his chest and numbness in his hands, he was diagnosed with symptoms related to stress. He resigned with a year left on his contract.
His son, Jay, coached the team for the final 10 games and returned to the NIT. The Rebels lost in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game all three years of the Spoonhour era. Jay Spoonhour applied to become UNLV’s full-time head coach, but Kruger was hired instead.
“I told Spoon this, and this is not a criticism, but he was known as a defensive and ball-control coach, and he tried to change because he was coaching the Runnin’ Rebels,” Tarkanian said. “I told him, ‘You don’t have to run. Just tell them you’re running, and they won’t know the difference.’ His teams played great defense.”
Freddie Banks, the No. 4 all-time leading scorer at UNLV, was a senior at Valley High School in 1982-83, when Spoonhour was in his final year as an assistant coach at Nebraska.
“A great coach and a great man,” said Banks, who was recruited by Spoonhour but chose to stay home and play for Tarkanian.
Banks, the boys basketball coach at Canyon Springs High School, has a nephew, Jevon Banks, who played on Spoonhour’s first Rebels team.
“Spoonhour did help put UNLV back on the map. He pointed the program in the right direction when he was there, and he kind of settled everything down,” Freddie Banks said. “He was one of the coaches who followed the rules, and he cleaned things up. He did do that for the university.”
In Spoonhour’s first season, the Rebels advanced to the second round of the NIT after defeating Arizona State for the program’s first postseason victory since 1997. That team led the Mountain West in scoring average, and Spoonhour was named the 2002 United States Basketball Writers Association’s District VIII Coach of the Year.
While at UNLV, Spoonhour coached future NBA players Louis Amundson and Marcus Banks.
Spoonhour, born June 23, 1939, in Mulberry, Kan., was raised in Arkansas and played basketball at University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Ark., where he graduated in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. He earned his master’s in education in 1972 from the University of Arkansas.
Spoonhour was a college basketball broadcaster before and after he was UNLV’s coach. He was living in Las Vegas in 2010, when he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a scarring or thickening of the lungs without a known cause. He was not a smoker, said his wife, Vicki, and the disease hit him suddenly that summer.
Jay Spoonhour, head coach at Moberly (Mo.) Junior College, told Stlouistoday.com, the website of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that his father died peacefully surrounded by his family. Funeral services are pending.
“This is a terribly sad day for UNLV basketball,” said Jerry Koloskie, the school’s deputy athletics director.
“He was a great guy and a great friend.”
Contact reporter Matt Youmans at myoumans@review journal.com or 702-387-2907.