From obscurity to an obsession.
An SMS club sport is celebrated on campus.
“I’m signing an autograph, what,” asked Michael Engelmeyer a former SMS Racquetball Bear. “The buzz was super fun.”
“You have to have the backing of the administration for anything along those lines,” Missouri Sports Hall of Fame Legend, Ned Reynolds said. “The key individuals throw their support and you can have a viable outfit.”
And SMS President Dr. Marshall Gordon was a huge fan of Coach Baker and his racquetball team. Most importantly, a huge fan of success.
“In those days Marshal’ Gordon’s assignment and goal was to finally leave the regional university optics and to get Missouri State up to Mizzou,” KY3 News Anchor Steve Grant said, “by any means he deemed necessary.”
In Gordon’s tenure, the campus improvements were many but Gordon wanted his school to be seen on a national stage as well.
“College wanted a national champion,” Reynolds said, “and even though it was not an NCAA sport, a club sport, they presented themselves in great fashion.”
SMS had a plan. Since the racquetball club was not governed by the NCAA’s restrictions, the Bears could have amateurs who were on the pro tour and playing for money compete for SMS.
They would give them scholarships out of the General Scholarship Fund.
There are no grade point requirements for the scholarship under University policy. In 1991, SMS Regent Bob Blakemore said the university “can recruit students who will be an asset to the university.”
In another words, the recruiting of some of the top amateurs in North America was totally legal.
“Right here,” Engelmeyer said pointing outside the Hammons Student Center Racquetball Courts, “you turn around from playing and there’s Dr. Gordon smiling and watching.”
From bake sales, to bank roll. The racquetball team was funded like an NCAA program from travel to travel expenses. Team physicians to a team psychologist.
But it was up to Baker to make it all work.
“He made it fun,” former SMS Racquetball Bear Jen (Yokota) Sherman said. “Man, I wish I had his negotiation skills now he was a great negotiator.”
Baker had been coaching racquetball at SMS since 1981. He had an eye talent, producing a handful of national champions before this run in the early ’90s.
“He’s a cross between Louis Gossett, Jr., the drill sergeant from An Officer and a Gentleman and Don King of the racquetball world,” Engelmeyer said. “He could get anything done, and he always operated in the best interest of his players and this university.”
“George was even keeled,” former Racquetball Bear Tim Sweeney said, “focused on the positives, ‘you can only control what you can control.”
And soon that life lesson would present itself to the Bears team.
“It happened so quickly in front of us.”