A man in a suit stands behind a podium, giving a speech
Bill Thomas compiled a 16-year head-coaching record of 265-158 losses, twice was honored in 1974 as National Association of Basketball Coaches National Coach of the Year.


The foundation for Missouri State basketball in the NCAA Division I era was laid by the man who passed away last weekend at the age of 91 and his contributions should never be overlooked.

It would not be a stretch to call Bill Thomas the most important figure in the school’s basketball history. He won big, as both a player and coach. There probably should be a statue of Thomas outside of the school’s historic basketball venue, where tickets were golden. 

One of his former players referred to Thomas as “Mr. McDonald Arena.”

“You could walk from his office to the playing floor and it would take about 10 seconds,” said Mike Keltner, who played for Thomas’ teams from 1971-75. “At home we were awfully good — and good enough on the road to win a lot of championships.”

Before coaching days, he was part of the ‘Fab Four’

Thomas, a native of Buffalo, Mo., was a three-year starting guard for Southwest Missouri State when he arrived on campus after one season at Westminster College. The 1951 Bears were MIAA Conference runners-up and won league titles the next two seasons, going on to win NAIA National Championships in 1952 and 1953.

The 1952 team will always be remembered as the “Fab Four” after multiple players fouled out, leaving only four Bears, Thomas included, on the floor for the final three minutes of the national semifinal game against Indiana State. 

Known for his tough defense, Thomas was an NAIA All-American in 1953. He returned to SMS in 1956 as an assistant to Eddie Matthews, with the Bears finishing as the NCAA Division II national runner-up in 1959.

Thomas’ sudden promotion to head coach

In 1965, Thomas suddenly became head coach when Matthews died of a heart attack. The program didn’t miss a beat with Thomas coaching the likes of Danny Bolden, Curtis Perry and Lou Sheppard, with the Bears again finishing as NCAA Division II runner-up in 1967 and 1969.

Later, with the school’s career scoring leader Daryel Garrison leading the way, Thomas’ team was again a DII national runner-up in 1974. Keltner was a member of the 1974 team and remained close to Thomas after starting his own Hall of Fame career as a high school coach.

Black-and-white photo of a basketball coach giving instructions to his players
Bill Thomas, who died at the age of 91 last weekend, was a standout player and coach covering three decades at Missouri State University when it was known as Southwest Missouri State. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

“First thing I think of is what a great motivator he was,” Keltner said. “You wanted to play well for him, you wanted to play hard for him. He said the right things. He could get you ready on the road, he could get you ready at home. I think the Bears’ winning percentage in McDonald Arena was about 83 percent.”

His Bears were the cause of basketball fever in the Ozarks

Basketball fever was rampant in the Ozarks during that era. Getting a ticket was a treat, where you often had to know someone with connections. Capacity in McDonald Arena was listed as 3,033. Thanks to folding chairs on the floor and people standing in the walkways, the program averaged 3,047 from 1973-75.

These were the days that stock-car racing at the Fairgrounds Speedway, high-caliber fast-pitch softball at Fassnight Park and Bears basketball at McDonald Arena were the major sports entertainment options. 

Not only did the Bears play winning basketball under Thomas, they were entertaining, with scoring averages of 83 points per game in 1969 and 80.1 in 1974. This was without the aid of a shot clock or the 3-pointer.

“He was known as a player for what a good leader he was, which transferred into coaching, but also for what a good defender he was,” Keltner said. “He was 6-3 with long arms. He could deflect passes in the passing lane. If he guarded somebody, he was there to shut them down.

“When he started coaching he always wanted us to push the basketball and wanted us to take the first good shot we could get.”

Transitioning to Hammons Student Center

The Bears’ success led to the construction of Hammons Student Center, which opened in 1976 for a memorable inaugural game against Arkansas. It was highly unusual for a Division I program to agree to pay a visit to DII school, but Thomas had developed a relationship with Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton that helped the game happen.

Sutton nearly regretted it. Arkansas escaped with a 72-71 victory. 

A basketball player poses for a photo in a defensive stance
During his playing days for the Bears, Bill Thomas was known as a leader and tough defender. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Ironically, the Bears had only two winning records over the next four seasons and Thomas retired after the 1979-80 season. A transition to Division I was coming. 

“He made the comment that he was a McDonald Arena coach, coaching in Hammons Student Center at the time,” Keltner said. “I think he really felt comfortable there. He played there, he was an assistant there and he was a head coach there.

“He was a great motivator. His pre-game talks, halftime talk, post-game … were always spot on and really good.” 

Thomas compiled a 265-158 record in 16 seasons as head coach. In 1974, he was named DII Coach of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

His genuine approach made Thomas a success

Thomas remained on the faculty as a physical education teacher until he retired in 1997. He never lost his love for Bears basketball, rarely missing a home game as the program transitioned to Division I and really took off when Charlie Spoonhour — once a young graduate assistant under Thomas in the McDonald Arena days — was hired.

One of Thomas’ pre-game rituals, up until about three years ago, was stopping by the media table before a game, to say hello to radio play-by-play voice Art Hains, game analyst Keltner and the print reporters. He always offered a handshake, a smile and encouraging words. 

It was that genuine approach that made Thomas a success as a coach and as a friend to so many. 

“He made us all better than we were,” Keltner said. “He was really good at putting a team together.”

Memorial services scheduled for April 29

Memorial services will be at Gorman-Scharpf Funeral Home, 1947 E. Seminole. Visitation will be on Saturday, April 29, from 1- 2:30 p.m., followed by a Celebration of Life at 2:30 in the chapel. A private burial will take place prior to the visitation.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial donations be made to the Coach Bill Thomas Men’s Basketball Scholarship, Missouri State University Foundation, 300 South Jefferson Avenue, Springfield, Mo., 65806. Online contributions can also be made at MissouriStateFoundation.org.

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton