Tracing Oklahoma State’s still expanding sports legacy of outstanding athletes to its roots reveals one man, albeit one big man. Bob Kurland.
The key figure on two Oklahoma A&M basketball national title teams and two U.S. Olympic gold medal squads, Kurland died Sunday at his home in south Florida following a lengthy illness. He was 88 years old.
“Bob Kurland was really a quality guy,” said former Cowboys player and coach Eddie Sutton. “He had already finished when I got to college, but I got to know him quite well and he was a marvelous man.”
Before Shaquille O’Neal. Before Hakeem Olajuwon. Before Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Before Wilt Chamberlain. Before Bill Russell.
There was Bob Kurland.
By all accounts, Kurland was the original great basketball big man, a 7-footer who dominated at a time when players his size were seen as a liability, believed to be lacking in stamina and coordination. Under the tutelage of coach Henry P. Iba, Kurland changed that thinking — and changed the game — both in style and in fact, with his propensity for blocking shots eventually leading to the goaltending rule in place today.
After arriving from Jennings, Mo., as a project, Kurland developed into the centerpiece on A&M’s national championship teams of 1945 and ’46. He was a three-time All-American and a two-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Kurland’s takeoff also launched the Cowboys rise nationally, with that ’45 team winning it all in the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s really kind of the start of everything here at this school,” said OSU football coach Mike Gundy. “We were known for basketball then, and he was in that first group.
“I see the pictures with he and Coach Iba. Pretty neat deal. Back then, we didn’t have the exposure we have nowadays. But he was as big a name as anybody.”
Big in every way, including impact on the game.
And on OSU.
“We wouldn’t have two national championships if it wasn’t for Bob Kurland,” Sutton said. “He had some nice players with him, but Mr. Iba told me that there’s no way they’d have won either national title without him.”
Paul Geymann, a teammate of Kurland’s on the 1946 team, doesn’t disagree.
“We won two national championships and he was the reason,” said Geymann from his Bartlesville home. “He’s what made things go. Everything went through Bob, all our plays and everything. He was instrumental.”
Kurland’s arrival in Stillwater in the fall of 1942 didn’t offer even a hint at what was to come.
A gangling redhead, some stories documenting his early days at A&M joke at how he’d trip over the stripes painted on the maple floor. Iba, however, took a chance on Kurland. And he was rewarded.