For years St. Louis has been a city where the two favorite wintertime sports were 1) NHL hockey and 2) talking about how the Cardinals will do next summer. But suddenly the Gateway City has gone cuckoo over Spoonball, the name given the heady basketball being played by St. Louis University under coach Charlie Spoonhour. The 17th-ranked Billikens finished last week with a 19-2 record, but before losing 82-77 in overtime at Dayton on Sunday, they had the best record in Division I, despite the fact that they don't possess a starter taller than 6'8" and have a grand total of four dunks this season. Why, heck, unless Spoonball becomes Swoonball down the stretch, St. Louis appears to be a cinch to get its first NCAA tournament bid since 1957.
And there are other good reasons to be crazy about the Billikens. Here's a team that's playing its final season in drafty, old St. Louis Arena, where birds live in the rafters and cats have been brought in to curb the mouse population, yet which still draws near-capacity crowds of more than 16,000 for most games. The power forward is a 6'3", 230-pound Charles Barkley wannabe, the top scorer is a serious NBA prospect whose high-trajectory three-point delivery seems to have been inspired by the Gateway Arch, and the point guard is a UNLV refugee whose first name, H, isn't really a name at all.
And then there's Spoonhour, the white-haired, 54-year-old coaching lifer who became a sort of underground legend in his nine highly successful seasons at Southwest Missouri State. For years Larry Brown—he's with the Indiana Pacers now, isn't he?—has been telling anybody who would listen that Spoonhour can hold his own with any coach in the college game. At times Spoon makes you think that he loves the Cardinals and '50s rock-and-roll almost as much as he does his dunkless wonders, but don't let him fool you. He's crazy about his Billikens. "We're the ugliest 19-1 team I've ever seen," said Spoonhour after the Billikens defeated Iowa State 90-75 on Feb. 9. "I mean, dang, we're something pretty special."
There was a time when St. Louis was pretty special almost every year. Under coach Eddie Hickey, the Billikens were a national power back in the late 1940s and '50s. They rode Easy Ed Macauley's sweeping hook shot to the '48 NIT title, and the '57 team, which was built around Bob Ferry (father of the Cleveland Cavaliers' Danny), won the Missouri Valley championship to get into the NCAA field, where it lost to Oklahoma City in the second round.
But then St. Louis began a long downhill slide that bottomed out in the late 1970s, and the university, a private Catholic school run by Jesuits, faced a tough economic choice: Either basketball or hockey would have to go. Basketball survived, and in the '80s Rich Grawer rebuilt the Billikens, who didn't have a losing record for six straight seasons, from '85-86 through '90-91, while playing in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. "When Rich Grawer came in, St. Louis was really down," Spoonhour says. "He turned it into a very reputable program."
In 1990 the university hired Debbie Yow as its athletic director. She had been a successful women's basketball coach at Kentucky, Oral Roberts and Florida, and is as gung ho as Grawer is dour, so it was hardly surprising that they locked horns over what direction the Billikens should take. Their most serious disagreement was over whether St. Louis would be able to compete in the newly formed Great Midwest Conference. Yow pledged to increase resources for basketball, but Grawer remained skeptical to the point that Yow felt her ability to lead was being undermined. After the Billikens went 5-23 in 1991-92, the first year of the Great Midwest, Grawer and St. Louis parted company. Three starters had quit during that season, and attendance had dropped to around 7,000 per game.
Under fire from Grawer's supporters, who assumed St. Louis couldn't attract anyone better than their man, Yow went after Spoonhour, who had quietly put up a 197-81 record in nine seasons at Southwest Missouri, including a 7-1 record against St. Louis. At first the skeptics scoffed at Yow's wooing of Spoonhour, reasoning that since Spoonhour had turned down more attractive offers—in 1988 the Kansas job was his for the taking—why would he want to come to St. Louis? But where other people saw trouble, Spoonhour saw opportunity.
"I had talked to other schools over the years, but nothing seemed right at the time," Spoonhour says. "I've never had a big master plan. But Debbie convinced me that there was a commitment to try to compete and be a team in the top 30 or 40, which would give us a chance to get some bigger kids. Plus, the league makes this job attractive right now. The coaches get along, and we get to play in great arenas. The league is great." Indeed, the underrated Great Midwest could conceivably send five teams (Alabama-Birmingham, Cincinnati, DePaul and Marquette as well as St. Louis) to the NCAA tournament in March.
The Billikens were 12-17 in their first season as Spoonball U, 1992-93, not bad for a team that went through the season' with only eight scholarship players. The starters had to play so many minutes that they were exhausted at crunch time. Once the Billikens were on the brink of an upset of DePaul, only to lose when Erwin Claggett, their star guard, dribbled a ball off his foot in the closing seconds because he was so tired.
But with all those minutes last season came valuable experience for this year. And while they may not be flashy, the Billikens are well grounded in the game's fundamentals, a Spoonhour trademark.