John E. Hoover: State title caps special year for Memorial and athletic director Robert Sprague
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Sunday, March 10, 2013
3/10/13 at 8:51 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.Original Print Headline: Title caps special year for Memorial, Sprague
ATHLETIC DIRECTOR Robert Sprague had just finished describing his intense love for Memorial High School when the door to the Chargers' locker room swung open.
One after another, players spilled out and into Sprague's arms.
"Coach Sprague! Coach Sprague!"
"I love you, coach."
"Thanks for everything, coach. Everything."
Sprague watched from 15 rows up on Saturday at the Mabee Center as Memorial won another state championship, this time defeating Oklahoma City Bishop McGuinness 59-42 for the Class 5A crown. He was calm and composed most of the game, but as the clock ticked toward an inevitable triumph, he fidgeted, applauded and shook hands with those around him.
"I've got a special feeling for Memorial High School, period," he said.
Sprague never won a state title as Memorial's head coach, but was on Mike O'Rourke's staff when the Chargers won it in 1994, was runner-up as head coach in 1997, and was athletic director as his hand-picked successor, Eric Savage, won championships in 2003, 2008 and now 2013 (they also finished second in 2010).
"He's definitely been an inspiration to me," Savage said, "and the peoples' lives he's touched has been uncountable, from what I've seen."
This is a special season for Sprague and for Memorial.
Memorial celebrated its 50th homecoming last fall. It's Sprague's 40th season in the Tulsa Public Schools system. And it's Sprague's 25th year at Memorial.
Sprague, 62, grew up in Nowata, where he played for forgotten Oklahoma civil rights hero Ken Zacher and was best friends with new Oklahoma Coaches Association Hall of Fame member Mark Campbell. Sprague played a year at Northeastern State under coaching legend Jack Dobbins, then was a student-assistant for three seasons at NSU as Dobbins gave him a tuition scholarship. Sprague then spent two years at Webster under Bill Allen before heading across town to Hale and finally working for O'Rourke at Memorial.
"I've been under some great coaches," Sprague said. "They taught you how to be a coach and a family man, how to treat people right and be happy and not be boastful. I've really, really been blessed by being around great, great coaches. And I've really tried to pass that on to my young assistants."
He's succeeded with Savage, who, along with ex-Chargers Brandon Loyd (class of '94) and Nate West (class of 2005), make up "the perfect role model for kids," Sprague said.
Savage, who took over for Sprague in 2001, is just the fifth boys basketball coach in 50 years at Memorial. Tradition helps Memorial maintain success. Every day, players see portraits of all 22 state tournament teams. It establishes a standard, and tells them they are expected to win.
But Sprague said it goes beyond winning championships. He said that after Friday's semifinal victory over Lawton MacArthur, he received more than 80 congratulatory text messages from former players.
Answered each one of them, too.
"It's a special family," Sprague said.
Players know the standards they have to meet, and they usually meet them.
"First of all, you're gonna work hard," Sprague said. "Then you're gonna act like you're supposed to act. You're gonna be academically sound. You're not gonna embarrass us. Or you're not gonna be part of this team."
When young people know what's expected of them, and when they receive guidance on how to achieve it, and when standards are applied consistently, success in life should be inevitable. It's the very essence of teaching and coaching: shaping a new generation, positively impacting families and creating or building on a legacy.
Loyd, a former Tulsa World Metro Player of the Year and a guard on the UCLA basketball team, got choked up trying to describe what Sprague means to him.
"Coach Sprague is one of the ... yeah," he began, pointing to his eye as tears welled. "So. He's ... um, I can't really describe him, how important he is. He was at my wedding. When my mom passed away, I called him. Just a true father figure - for a lot of people. Not only the players, but everybody in the program and everybody involved."
Sprague said he had intended to retire as AD this year, but he decided to hang around until the program moves into its new $12 million arena currently under construction.
"I want to see us into that," Sprague said. "So I'll go at least one more. One more for sure."
Maybe Sprague's timing is perfect, though the Chargers graduate four starters from this year's squad. Still, it's Memorial. Players next season know the expectation will be the same for them that it was for this year's team: get to state, win a gold ball.
Savage, like he frequently does, asked Sprague to speak to the team Saturday morning before the McGuinness game.
But Sprague declined this time.
Instead, he had a better idea. He spoke with each player individually.
Among the wisdom he imparted, Sprague pulled from his coat pocket 16 different-colored OSSAA state tournament sideline passes - one for each year since 1988 that he's helped take a Chargers team to state.
"I said, 'This is what this means,' " Sprague said. "... It's just been an unbelievable run."
When Sprague hired Savage from Wright Christian Academy 15 years ago as an unknown assistant, Savage knew he had been given a tremendous opportunity. Saturday's triumph was Savage's way of continuing to repay that debt.
"This state championship," Savage said, "is dedicated to coach Sprague."
Memorial athletic director Robert Sprague (left) shakes hands with the Chargers' Grant Murphy after Saturday's win. Sprague has been in the Tulsa Public School system for 40 seasons, including 25 at Memorial. MATT BARNARD/Tulsa World