“I had the pleasure of working with Gary Thompson on the old Cyclone Television Network. He was as genuine, caring and respectful a person as you will ever find. It was during this period of time that I was able to gain a greater appreciation of just how accomplished Gary was as an athlete, as a coach, as a broadcaster, as a businessman … and as a person.”
~John Walters, the ‘Voice of the Cyclones’ and former sports director at WOI-TV, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
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, IA and was a star on the Iowa State University basketball team. He was 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, Jay Randolph, 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. It served as the flagship station of the Cyclone Television Network. Coincidentally, Gary had announced at about the same time that he was stepping down from his national network role and would begin working exclusively as an analyst for the Cyclone Television Network. It was 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 later 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.
Gary’s ability to describe the game during basketball broadcasts was both prodigious and down to earth. Details mattered. Insights gleaned from his playing days peppered his commentary. A true passion for the game — and those who played it — permeated every sentence. It didn’t matter if he was broadcasting a high school state tournament game or a national college game of the week. “I loved doing it because it allowed me to still be associated with the game,” Gary once said to me. “Many people came up to me over the years to say, ‘I bet you love being on television.’ I would always say in response, ‘No, that’s really not what’s important. What’s fun about broadcasting is being able to see a lot of great games and to come in contact with a lot of great coaches and players.’ Being around and associated with people who loved the game as much as I did was the most important thing.”
Gary’s athletic ability and competitiveness carried over to his love for the game of golf. He has been a very accomplished amateur player throughout his adult life. I was fortunate enough to enjoy several rounds of golf with Gary over the years. The first such experience was in May 1994 just after our company had acquired WOI-TV. 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, hands down, the best golfer in the group that day!
In 2005, Gary and I played together 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. And then in 2016, we played in the Dick Vitale Golf Outing in support of The V Foundation. Gary’s determination and perseverance were on full display at the Talons of Tuscany in Ankeny, IA 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 remains active and influential with Iowa State’s athletics department. In fact, it was his guidance that helped lead to the hiring of the current director of athletics, Jamie Pollard, who has since become one of the most respected ADs in the country. “If he hadn’t supported me, there’s a good chance I’m not the athletics director,” Pollard told me. “During the interview process, Gary was so passionate about Cyclone alums and former student-athletes. … I’m really proud of how in the last 15 years we have grown our Letter Winners organization immensely. We have multiple full-time staff members and we do so much to reach out with a ‘Once a Cyclone, Always a Cyclone’ message. None of that would have been possible if it weren’t for the passion Gary Thompson had for his alma mater and for all the student-athletes that wore Cardinal and Gold before and after him. … That’s one of the reasons we named the Iowa State Male Student-Athlete of the Year award after Gary Thompson.”
Gary has been inducted into both the Iowa and National High School Halls of Fame. He is a member of the Iowa State University Letter Winners Hall of Fame. And in June 2005, it was my distinct honor to nominate Gary for induction into the Iowa Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
Gary Thompson is a WINNER who has long been a champion in basketball, in baseball, in golf, in business and — most importantly — in life.
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
Last Updated: October 30, 2022