Bob Vanatta might be best remembered for coaching the Missouri State (then Southwest Missouri State) men’s basketball team to back-to-back national championships, but his lesser-known influence on Springfield sports lingers to this day.
Vanatta died Saturday in Melbourne, Florida, at the age of 98. Two days later, the club he helped establish 64 years ago mourned him. Vanatta started the Springfield Quarterback Club in 1952 to drum up interest in high school and college football in Springfield. Vanatta is gone, but a proud tradition lives on each Monday as fans gather to hear updates from seven high school football coaches and two college coaches.
A sister club, the Springfield Tipoff Club, holds similar meetings on Mondays during basketball season.
Before he became a college coach, Vanatta got his start coaching at Springfield Senior High School (now Central) in 1944. His schedule would be a nightmare for modern day coaches. By 1945, Vanatta was Springfield High’s athletic director and head coach of the football, basketball and baseball teams.
In Vanatta’s first season as a varsity basketball coach, Springfield went 30-3 and finished second to Conway in the state tournament. Gerald Jinks was a sophomore on that basketball team and remembers Vanatta’s passion as a coach.
“His personality was excellent,” Jinks said. “He was a player-coach and he had all kinds of personality. He actually got more potential out of an individual than you would expect.”
Vanatta was the varsity football coach for one year. In 1945, the Bulldogs went 10-0. Jinks was a tight end on that football team and said Vanatta was firm but fair with his players.
“(Vanatta) wanted you to do your job. If you weren’t playing well, you didn’t play. He would enforce his rules, but you didn’t want to get out of line. He was like such a father to all the boys, and that made a great, great situation for us,” Jinks said. “(Vanatta) was just fun to be around.”
70 years later: Springfield’s 1945 football team still holds record
Jack Hunt, Ray Haley and Jinks led an offense considered “high speed” by sportswriters of the time.
Thad Peak, Marvin Estes, Merle Blakely, Jim Julian, Jim Barber and Scott Angevine blocked for Springfield High’s talented stable of backs. Hunt scored 121 of the Bulldogs’ 342 points. Springfield High held opposing offenses to just 50 points in 10 games.
Former Missouri State athletic director Bill Rowe credited Vanatta for coaching Missouri State into notoriety with its men’s basketball NAIA championships in 1952 and 1953.
“We can never forget where we came from,” Rowe said. “(Vanatta) knows that was never forgotten, and his players—they were very, very—they taught all of us a lot about togetherness. Those guys still stay in touch to this day.”
Vanatta went on to coach at Army, Bradley, Memphis State, Missouri and Delta State. He served as an athletic director at Oral Roberts University and Louisiana Tech, commissioner of the Ohio Valley, Atlantic Sun and Sunshine State conferences and executive director of the Independence Bowl.
Throughout his travels, Vanatta maintained contact with friends in Springfield, even through his retirement years in Florida.
“He had stayed in touch with us and still was very rational,” Rowe said.
Springfield Quarterback Club
The Springfield Quarterback Club holds its final meeting of the 2016 season Monday. Senior players from seven teams will be on hand to be honored, and the club will present four annual awards. The Quarterback Club meets Monday at noon at the Elks Lodge at 2223 East Bennett Street in Springfield. Admission is open to the public, lunch is included and the cost is $10 per person to attend.