For Tommy Boyer, it wasn’t a question of if UAFS should honor basketball coach Gayle Kaundart; it was a question of when and how.
Boyer, a member of the University of Arkansas System Board, took that question to Chancellor Terisa Riley in her first weeks on campus.
“I told him I’d treat his request as I would any request from the community, so a not-so-fast process,” she said.
Boyer was undeterred.
“I’d probably had conversations with 30 to 40 former players who wanted to know when UA Fort Smith was going to do something,” Boyer said.
Boyer’s esteem for Kaundart dates back to his basketball-playing days at Fort Smith High School.
Kaundart “had a unique ability to take average players and make good players out of them, and sometimes he would turn an average player into a great player,” Boyer said.
“The years I spent with him molded my entire life,” said Boyer, a successful businessman and entrepreneur.
Playing for Kaundart for three years, he said, taught him the value of hard work. Basketball practice was three hours a day Monday through Saturday, with a two-hour “optional” session on Sunday that wasn’t so optional.
Boyer remembers a day when the three-hour session ended, and Coach Kaundart looked at the clock and mused about the team’s next opponent, saying, “I wonder if the boys at Little Rock Central are still practicing. You know, it’s important to put in more time practicing than they do because if we practice more, our chances of beating them will be better.” Practice continued.
He learned how to face challenges. “He taught me how to step up and face some headwinds and not walk away from them.”
He also learned psychology. “He loved teaching you that you could do things you never thought you could.”
Kaundart won five state championships at Fort Smith High School/Northside, but the team Boyer knows best is the one he played on.
“We were one of the two best high school teams in the country that year,” he said about 1959. “What a privilege it was to be taught by the best and to learn to play for the best and to learn how to play the game the right way.”
Kaundart, who went on the play for the Razorbacks, supports his judgment with statistics. “Out of those eight players, six went on to play college ball on scholarships: three went to Division 1 schools, one went to a Division 2 school, and one to a junior college. That just does not happen.”
Boyer went to the University of Arkansas as a scholarship All-American basketball player. He is in both the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Kaundart eventually took his successful formula to Westark Community College, where he coached for 13 years, leading the Lions to eight NJCAA Tournament appearances. In 1986, he brought the first national collegiate basketball title to Arkansas.
So Riley asked staff members to perform due diligence. The university talked to residents, former players, the Fort Smith School District. They researched statistics and read newspaper stories.
When the results were in on Kaundart, the chancellor took a proposal to the University of Arkansas System, where, she said, many of the members knew the coach, and all the members endorsed it.
Ruth Kaundart, Coach Kaundart’s widow, said she is “just thrilled” about the naming.
“He loved Westark top to bottom,” she said. “He always said it was the greatest two-year college in the country, with the greatest faculty and the greatest students.”
She said her husband “under all that crust” was kind and compassionate, and what he wanted for the men he coached was that they find a way to be successful in their lives while remaining kind.
Over the summer, the basketball arena floor was refinished to accommodate new NCAA regulations about the three-point line. Before the surface was resealed, the coach’s signature, writ large, was added to indicate that the floor and seating are now to be known as the Gayle Kaundart Arena at the Stubblefield Center.
Using the signature is a way to say, “you left your mark, and your legacy will not be forgotten,” Riley said.
Athletic Director Curtis Janz said the university is planning a ceremony to dedicate the naming when it becomes possible to have such a gathering; he hopes that will be this spring.
“Coach Kaundart embodies the ideal of striving to be excellent and creating a great human being at the same time,” Riley said. “He represents a goal we can strive for, a role model. I am not going to let that man down.”
The court and seating in the Stubblefield Convention Center have been named the Gayle Kaundart Arena in honor of the successful coach who brought the first national collegiate basketball title to Arkansas in 1986.
Coached at Westark Community College: 13 years
Win/Loss record: 379-87 record – 81.3 percent
Average wins: of 29 wins per season
NJCAA Tournament appearances: 8
Bi-State Conference Title: 9
Region 2 Conference Title: 7
Arkansas Junior College State Championships: 11
National Junior College Championship: 1 in 1986