Former Citadel basketball coach Mel Thompson, immortalized by author Pat Conroy in the book, "My Losing Season," died last Thursday in Indianapolis.
Thompson was 76.
Thompson played basketball for legendary coach Everett Case at North Carolina State, is a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, was drafted by the NBA and even pitched in the Chicago Cubs organization.
But Thompson, who was born Oct. 5, 1932, in Richmond, Ind., is probably best remembered as the difficult, distant coach described by Conroy in his 2002 book about Conroy's senior season at The Citadel.
The Bulldogs had an 8-16 record in 1966-67, the last of Thompson's seven years at The Citadel. Former Citadel athletic director and coach Les Robinson first met Thompson when Robinson was a freshman at N.C. State.
"Coach Thompson was a wonderful yet very competitive man of few words who kept his emotions to himself," Robinson said. "I remember coach Case speaking so highly of him as a player."
In "My Losing Season," Conroy — a cousin of current Citadel coach Ed Conroy — wrote of a coach who worked his players hard and kept his distance personally.
"Mel Thompson was famous for working his team hard on the first day and traditionally ran us so much that the first practice was topped off by one of us vomiting on the hardwood floor," Pat Conroy wrote.
Conroy also remembered how his coach ignored him at a summer basketball camp.
"His failure to acknowledge me left me feeling sullied and insulted ..." Conroy wrote. "I witnessed his laughter, but always from a distance, and when he smiled, his face was transformed, making it softer, almost handsome."
But Conroy also remembered a final grace note in his relationship with the coach, after the Bulldogs lost to Richmond in the SoCon Tournament in the author's last game at The Citadel.
"The next morning," Conroy wrote, "Mel Thompson, who had never offered me a compliment, said in the News and Courier, 'Pat Conroy gave another great effort. That kid gets more out of his talent than any player I've ever coached.' "
Thompson himself was a three-sport star as an Indiana schoolboy, and his N.C. State team won the first ACC Tournament in 1953. Case once called Thompson "one of the finest competitors I've ever seen."
At The Citadel, Thompson took over for Norm Sloan in 1960 and led his first team to a 17-8 record. But he managed only one other winning season, a 13-11 mark in 1964-65, and finished his Citadel career with a record of 67-96.
Thompson returned to a career in business in the Midwest and raised five children, often traveling to the South to play golf during the winter months. According to the Richmond (Ind.) Palladium-Item, Thompson was preceded in death by his wife, Julia Thompson, and is survived by children Sharon Thompson-Brubeck of Findlay, Ohio; Mike Thompson, M. Keith Thompson Jr. and Laura Thompson-Ponsler of Indianapolis; David Thompson of Catania, Italy; his ex-wife and caregiver, Pat Bittner Thompson of Indianapolis; and nine grandchildren.
Funeral services are set for today in Indianapolis.
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