Vic Thixton, one of the key players on the undefeated 1964 Columbus High School basketball team, demonstrated his shooting abilities for television cameras during a practice session before the team%u2019s appearance in the state championship that year. Thixton, who will be inducted into the University of Tampa%u2019s Athletic Hall of Fame later this year for his achievements on the basketball courts there, credits much of his success in life to a former coach, Don McDonald.
FOR a fellow who was told in his junior year of high school that there was no room for him on the team that would become a Columbus High School legend, Vic Thixton has turned out OK.
In fact, that turndown by another CHS legend — varsity basketball coach Bill Stearman — just might have been what the slender guard needed to become something of a basketball legend himself.
Later this year Thixton will join an elite group of athletes at the University of Tampa in Florida where he will be inducted into the school’s athletic hall of fame. It will be in recognition of his achievements as a player for the Florida school from 1964 to 1968.
Vic is pretty sure he wouldn’t be getting any of those accolades at the Oct. 18 hall of fame banquet had it not been for that rejection in 1962. It gave him another year with a coach he considers a guiding influence in his sports career and life — Don McDonald.
Back on the eve of the 1962-63 season, Thixton was pulled aside by Stearman and given the bad news that there was no room for him on the varsity roster.
“He told me that he had too many guards and that he would leave it to McDonald to decide whether I should play with the Bull Pups (the junior varsity team),” Thixton said earlier this week from his business office in St. Louis.
Such an assessment might have devastated most others, especially since this particular Bull Dog team held out the promise of being one of the best in the school’s history. They actually were, going on to win 20 straight regular season games.
But McDonald worked with the 5-11 backcourt player and the results were clearly evident in Thixton’s senior year when he became one of the mainstays on the 1964 varsity, a team that most local fans old enough to remember still consider the best in local history.
Some go so far as to say it was the most talented collection of players in the state.
“I owe everything to Mac,” Thixton remembered this week. “He had faith in me and went out of his way to work with me one on one.”
There were many early mornings when the assistant coach and the player were the only people in cavernous Memorial Gym. “He’d have me out there shooting free throws.
He’d stand under the basket and throw the ball back to me, making comments all the time and telling me what I needed to do. It was monotonous, but it paid off in the long run.”
The Bull Dogs that year not only posted a perfect season record but marched to the Final Four at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. They were denied the state title by Huntington in the afternoon round.
Despite his late start, Thixton attracted the attention of some college basketball teams.
Ironically, the University of Tampa’s interest was facilitated by a former Columbus resident, Mike Moore, a 1959 CHS graduate. “Mike had taken a job as sports information director at the University of Tampa and during a conversation with the basketball coach, Bob Lovoy, learned that the team needed guards,” he said. “He told them about me, and they sent word to Columbus that they’d like to see game films.”
Those films sold Thixton to Tampa, and he was awarded a scholarship. Unfortunately he suffered an injury in his freshman year and was only able to appear in 10 games. Things looked up in his junior year when Dana Kirk, who would later lead Memphis State to the NCAA Final Four, took the Spartan coaching job and immediately began making changes.
One major step was to integrate the team. In 1966, black basketball players in the segregated South were rare. Ironically one of the key individuals in breaking the color barrier was Columbus product Mike Moore. “Dana Kirk happened to tell Mike that some of the most talented basketball players were blacks, but he was reluctant to recruit them because of the barrier,” Thixton said. “Mike happened to be good friends with the university president. He told him about Dana’s wish to recruit players, and the president simply said, ‘Do it.’”
The first black player for Tampa was Rudy Bradley, and Thixton was assigned as his roommate.
“I wasn’t concerned about anyone’s attitudes,” he said. “My parents raised me free from prejudice.”
Bradley would not only prove to be a basketball star but later in life would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. President George W. Bush invited him to speak before the Republican National Convention.
Thixton also emerged as a star his last two years, earning a place on a number of all-conference teams.
After graduation he went into coaching, at one time serving as an assistant to former Columbus basketball star Max Perry, but eventually he settled into a business career.
Today he’s a human resources director in St. Louis.
He still maintains ties in the Columbus area. His mother lives in Seymour, and he often visits with former Bull Dog teammate Steve Arnholt when he’s in town. But one of his most meaningful ties was severed in 1981 when McDonald died after a lengthy illness.
Thixton had a lot of regrets about his former coach’s passing. One was that so many young players were denied the benefits of his coaching.
Harry McCawley is associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached by phone at 379-5620 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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