Terrell Lester Column
Don Sumner and Saint Gregory’s are together again.
Don Sumner was so synonymous with Saint Gregory’s, was so much a part of the Saint Gregory’s image, it was downright impossible to think of one without the other.
It came as no surprise that Don Sumner’s retirement from Saint Gregory’s didn’t last.
It couldn’t last.
Don Sumner was not the same without Saint Gregory’s.
He was an athletic legend without a school.
Saint Gregoryís was not the same without Don Sumner.
It was a school without a face.
Upon convincing Sumner to end nine years of retirement, Abbot Lawrence Stasyszen, Saint Gregory’s president, said: “During his time here, Don committed himself to his students’ success and to the mission of Saint Gregory’s. I think he brings with him the affection and esteem of generations of Saint Gregory’s alumni.”
Sumner spent more than half his life with Saint Gregory’s, 36 years in fact.
He was basketball coach, football coach, director of athletics, fundraiser, classroom teacher.
He was, in effect, Saint Gregory’s.
Partly as a result of his Saint Gregory’s connection, he is the most recognized citizen of Shawnee.
Sumner was born in Shawnee, reared in Shawnee, lionized in Shawnee.
He was a high school sports star in Shawnee.
He was a collegiate sports star in Shawnee.
He was he a coaching star in Shawnee.
His name still appears in the basketball record books at Oklahoma Baptist in Shawnee, where he is enshrined in the OBU Sports Hall of Fame as a player.
After winning 621 games as a basketball coach, he was inducted in the Saint Gregory’s Sports Hall of Fame.
He was in the first induction class of the Oklahoma Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
Don Sumner and Saint Gregory’s are indelibly etched together in the legacy of Shawnee and Oklahoma athletics.
He was there when Saint Gregory’s was a modest two-year institution. He has returned to an ambitious four-year university.
“Saint Gregory’s is my love,” the 71-year-old Sumner says.
He recently accompanied the love of his life to Claremore, watching Saint Gregory’s men’s and women’s basketball teams take on Rogers State.
Sumner, director of athletics for Saint Gregory’s, packaged a lot of activity into one day.
He renewed some friendships that stretch back two and three decades, he evaluated his two basketball teams, and he toured the RSU athletic facilities to compare them with his school’s growing needs.
A former student guided him around the Hillcat Complex, the softball and baseball fields west of the campus where lighting has just been installed. The one-time Saint Gregory’s student, Thomas Volturo, is now executive vice president for administration and finance for of Rogers State University.
Another old friend, Eddie Jackson, is the assistant athletic director at RSU.
The last time Sumner was on the RSU campus, he was coaching Saint Gregory’s basketball team in Bushyhead Fieldhouse against Claremore Junior College and head coach Ken Trickey.
“It’s bigger than I remember it being,” Sumner said. “And so much brighter and nicer.
“I was impressed. The offices. The weight room. I was very impressed.”
His visit conjured up memories of the campus when it was home to Oklahoma Military Academy.
“I was refereeing football,” he was saying. “One of the coldest nights I had was refereeing junior college up here, and Red Rogers was coach.
“An ice storm came in and I nearly froze to death.
“I have a lot of fond memories of Claremore.
“You know, this school has had five different names since I’ve been at Saint Gregory’s. OMA, Claremore Junior College, Rogers State College, Rogers State University.”
While some of his memories included refereeing in Claremore, he spent considerable time talking basketball and basketball games with another former official, Eddie Jackson.
While they kibitzed and reminisced, Sumner’s legendary humor began to surface.
He has long been considered one of basketball’s premier funnymen. His running commentary with officials during games has become part of basketball of folklore.
“Coach Sumner was a to-the-point type of guy,” said Jackson, who called games for the Saint Gregory’s coach for several years.
“He would say exactly what he thought. And, he would do it in a lot of comical ways.”
Jackson said that there were instances during games when it was difficult to keep his composure when Sumner was at his working best.
“Yeah, that’s probably happened more times than not,” Jackson said with a smile.
An example, he said, was during a Saint Gregory’s game against Bacone, when both were junior colleges.
During a crucial stretch, Sumner called time to verbally confront his players. Jackson, knowing that Sumner was not all too pleased with a few of the calls made by the two officials, moved away from the Saint Gregory’s bench area during the break.
“When we came back from the timeout, I was getting ready to throw the ball in play, and two of his players just came up and just guarded me,” Jackson said. “Just guarded me!
“I said, ‘Don, what ARE they doing?’
“He said, ‘I told ’em to guard the people that’s hurting us the worst. And that’s you!”
“I just died laughing,” Jackson said.
There was another time, another story, another set of officials, that involved Saint Gregory’s and Bacone.
The official this time was the Hall of Famer Bud Brown of Tulsa.
“I was on ol’ Bud to call it at both ends,” Sumner remembered.
“One time during the game, he walked across the floor, came up to me and said, ‘I can’t, because I’m only on one end at a time.’
“Later in the game,” Sumner continued, “I hollered to get them (Bacone players) out of the lane.
“We fouled someone. Bud gave the ball to the shooter and walked over to me. I told him, ‘I bet you can keep them out of the lane and call three seconds sometime before the game is over.’
“I just knew I was going to get a T. He said, ‘How much do you want to bet?’
“I said, ‘I’ll bet you a dollar.’
“The game went on, and he still hadn’t called three seconds,” Sumner said. “Finally, the game got over, and I pulled a dollar out of my wallet and was getting ready to hand it to him.
“Bud said, ‘Keep it. I’ve got you again Monday night at Eastern, and I’ll bet you double or nothing.’”
As director of athletics, and with a vantage point in the stands rather than on the bench, Sumner sees officials in a different light these days.
“They’re a lot better now than I thought they were,” he said.
“As a spectator, they’re not as bad as I thought they were when I was coaching.
“But I’d never tell them that.”
Still, Jackson said that Sumner was one of the most respected coaches among officials.
“He would get on us so much out there,” Jackson said. “But when it was over, it was over.
“That’s one of the things I really respect about coach Sumner.
“In fact, he would take us back to his office at Saint Gregory’s, and that’s where we dressed.
“He would talk about a lot of things, but he wouldn’t talk about the basketball game. He was always so generous and so professional.”
Sumner could be funny, but he was seriously competitive.
As a player, he was a two-time all-conference performer at Oklahoma Baptist.
As a coach, he was five times selected conference coach of the year.
He arrived at Saint Gregory’s in 1961, taking over a basketball program in only its third year of existence.
For two seasons, he coached women’s and men’s teams.
In the ’60s, when Saint Gregory’s also had a high school, as OMA did at the same time, he coached the football team.
He was a coach, but he was a teacher, first and foremost.
He was named Saint Gregory’s teacher of the year in 1977.
He taught the natural sciences — biology, zoology, nutrition.
“I enjoy teaching more than I do coaching,” he said. “I miss teaching a lot more than I miss coaching.”
But coaching misses Don Sumner.
After he retired from the court, he remained one year as alumni director.
When he left Saint Gregory’s, he opened a restaurant in Shawnee.
He eventually sold that, and joined the Sooner Athletic Conference as an evaluator of basketball officials.
“And I was pretty tough on ’em,” he said, trying to hide a smile that was breaking through.
In that role, he never was far from the game he loved.
And never far from the school he loved even more.
When that school beckoned, he came running.
“My wife, she can tell how much better my attitude is since I’m back in it,” he said.
“The old saying: ‘Dance with the one who brung you.’ Well, that’s where I am.”
Sumner was hired to reconnect Saint Gregory’s with the community of Shawnee.
No one knows Saint Gregory’s, no one knows Shawnee, like Don Sumner does.
He’s danced with both of them.
He’s still dancing.
Terrell Lester Column