Almost every Iowan has heard of the “Roland Rocket” at one time or another and, at a very early age, I was no exception. Gary Thompson hailed from Roland, Iowa and was the earliest star of the Iowa State University basketball team. He was, for example, the first Cyclone to score more than 40 points in a game and over 1,000 points in his career. As a senior in 1956-57, Gary was named Big Seven Conference (which later become the Big 8 Conference and what is today the Big 12 Conference) player of the year, beating out Kansas star Wilt Chamberlain. He made the AP’s All-America 1st team. Quite appropriately, Gary’s No. 20 was the first jersey to ever be retired by Iowa State. And to underscore what a truly all-around athlete he was, Gary was a stand-out shortstop for the Cyclone baseball team as well. He led Iowa State to their inaugural appearance in the College World Series in 1957 and made the All-America 3rd team, becoming a rare two-sport All-American.
After his playing days, Gary enjoyed a successful 34-year career in television broadcasting. He provided analysis and “color” for network broadcasts of college basketball games on NBC and CBS, as well as for the Big 8 Conference Game of the Week. Gary worked with some of the best play-by-play talent in television during his day: Dick Enberg, Bob Costas, Jack Buck, Gary Bender, Charlie Jones, Tom Hammond, and Ray Scott. He even worked a game with a co-analyst by the name of John Wooden! Our company, Citadel Communications, purchased WOI-TV from Iowa State University in March, 1994. The station was the flagship station of the Cyclone Television Network. Coincidentally, Gary had announced at about the same time that he would be stepping down from his national network role and begin working exclusively as an analyst for the Cyclone Television Network. It was our good fortune to have someone with Gary’s ability and experience available to work on a local network, and my great privilege and pleasure to know him from that time forward.
Gary was initially paired with Keith Murphy, our sports director at WOI-TV from 1994-1996, who later moved across town to WHO-TV. Gary then had a long run with WOI-TV’s next sports director, John Walters, from 1996-2003. With my full support and backing, John moved on to the Cyclone Radio Network to become the “Voice of the Cyclones” in 2003 following the untimely death of his mentor and legendary Iowa State broadcaster, Pete Taylor. It was, ironically, Pete who had reached out to give me a strong recommendation for John to succeed Keith Murphy in 1996. Gary then worked with Dave Armstrong, the No. 1 play-by-play guy on what was by now the Big 12 Conference TV package, from 2003-05. On March 2, 2005, Gary was reunited was his longtime partner on the old Big 8 Conference basketball network, Jay Randolph, to call the Missouri vs. Iowa State game for what would be the last game of the “Roland Rocket’s” stellar broadcasting career. There was hardly a dry eye in Hilton Coliseum that night. It can be easily overlooked that Gary also worked as an analyst on the Iowa High School Athletic Association’s boys state basketball tournament, an assignment that he loved as much as any other, for many years as well.
Gary’s athletic ability and competitiveness carried over to his love for the game of golf. He was a very accomplished amateur player throughout his adult life. I was fortunate enough to enjoy several fun golf experiences with Gary over the years. The first was in 1994 just after our company had acquired WOI-TV in Ames, IA. Knowing that our station would continue to serve as the flagship station of the Cyclone Television Network, the Iowa State Athletic Department paired me up with Gary in their annual media day golf outing at Veenker Memorial Golf Course. Rounding out our foursome that day were the new Men’s Basketball Coach, Tim Floyd and longtime Des Moines Register sportswriter, Rick Brown. Gary was the best golfer in the group, no doubt about it! In 2005, Gary and I would play together again in the Allianz Championship Pro-Am (now the Principal Charity Classic) which was part of the Champions Tour. We were paired up with professional golfer Brad Bryant that day on the Tournament Club of Iowa course in Polk City. More recently, we participated together in the 2016 Dick Vitale Golf & Awards Dinner in support of The V Foundation. Gary’s determination and perseverance were on full display at the Talons of Tuscany in Ankeny, Iowa on this day as he had received chemo treatments for Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma earlier that same week. The highlight of the day occurred on our par 5 first hole as John Walters, my former colleague and Gary’s one-time broadcast partner, made a long putt for an eagle 3!!
Gary is a WINNER who has been inducted into both the Iowa and National High School Halls of Fame. He is a member of the Iowa State University Letterwinners Hall of Fame. In June of 2005, it was my distinct honor to nominate Gary for induction into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He continues to be as loyal and steadfast supporter of Iowa State athletics you will find anywhere. Susan and I were guests of Gary and Jan in their private suite when the Iowa State Cyclone football team upset No. 4 ranked TCU in October, 2017. No one in sold-out Jack Trice Stadium cheered louder – or smiled more after the win that day – than one Gary Thompson!
To learn more about this outstanding Iowa icon, read Gary Thompson: All-American (2008) by Chuck Offenburger.
Gary Thompson All-American by Chuck Offenburger (Hexagon Grandhaven Group, 2008)
Peterson, Randy (June 23, 2016) “Vitale and Thompson together battling cancer” Des Moines Register
“Gary Thompson” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org