by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14
Growing up in Oklahoma, with a few years in Texas sprinkled in between, Ryan Spangler learned quickly that in his household, a couple things were sacrosanct: hard work, and Sooners football.
Spangler’s father, Larry, was a high school football coach, and the family relocated frequently as Larry undertook new posts. But there was always the constant of fall weekend trips to Norman. Spangler estimates that during his youth, he attended “almost every Oklahoma home football game.”
Both of Ryan’s brothers, Rob and Russ, were standouts on the gridiron, and Ryan quickly showed a knack for the sport as well. He played quarterback for Bridge Creek (OK) High, in Blanchard. His coach, Jerry Wallis, once told Oklahoma’s official website that Spangler threw for over 3,000 yards in each of his junior and senior seasons.
But Spangler had a passion for basketball as well. Most afternoons, after football practice ended, he could be seen in the Bridge Creek gym, hoisting jumpers and working on his game. Spangler estimates he stood around 6-2 when he entered high school, but he kept on growing to his current height of 6-8. He considers football to have been his best sport, and while he drew some interest from colleges, there was a sense that at the highest level he’d be forced to switch positions. After his sophomore year, he decided to pursue basketball as his future option.
He thrived on the hardcourt. During his four-year career at Bridge Creek, Spangler averaged 23.7 points, 14.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists, while hitting 67 percent of his shots. He topped it off with a sensational senior season, when he posted 29.2 points, 17.2 rebounds and 5.8 blocks, earning Oklahoma’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
Spangler wanted to go to Oklahoma—wanted more than anything to fulfill that childhood dream. But Jeff Capel, then the head coach of the Sooners, never called. Not a single letter with the OU logo came in the mail; there were no invites to summer camps in Norman. There’s a trace of bitterness in Spangler’s voice when he recalls this.
Never one to mope, he began looking at other schools, Gonzaga in particular. He liked the Zags’ Cinderella story, and he developed a good relationship with Ray Giacoletti, then a GU assistant. (Giacoletti was named the head coach at Drake last year.)
Gonzaga was the first national power to recruit Spangler for basketball, and it came totally by accident. Giacoletti was in Tulsa, OK, for a junior college showcase in July, 2010. He’d arrived early, and decided to stop by a high school tournament before heading over to the JuCo event. Spangler happened to be playing in the first game of the day. “Literally, seven minutes into the game, I was like, Who is this kid?” Giacoletti says. “He could run like a deer, and he rebounded every ball. You don’t find many kids like that. And no one knew who he was.”
So Giacoletti walked down to where Doug Wojcik, a good friend who was then the head coach at Tulsa, was sitting. Wojcik didn’t recognize Spangler either, but he asked around, and by the end of the day informed Giacoletti that Spangler had flown under the radar because everyone thought he would pursue football.
Giacoletti couldn’t believe his luck. He traveled twice to watch Spangler play football for Bridge Creek, and recalls thinking that he would’ve made a pretty darned good quarterback at the next level. Thankfully, Spangler had chosen basketball. Giacoletti soon offered a scholarship. Spangler visited the Spokane campus on a fall weekend in his junior year, and loved it. There was something about the Jesuit school nestled in Eastern Washington that felt a little like home. He committed on the spot.
Spangler was one of five freshmen to join Gonzaga ahead of the 2011-12 season, prompting his classmate and roommate, Kevin Pangos, to call them the Fast Five. Those kids slept in the locker room on weekends, Giacoletti remembers. They were gym rats, always looking to add something to their games. Spangler played well for the Bulldogs, if sparingly, and shrugged off an injury to his left hand that required the insertion of pins to heal a broken pinkie and knuckle. He only missed five games. His parents flew up to Spokane about once a month, and made it to a number of road games, including a test at Illinois.
Gonzaga bowed out to Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32—Spangler had come close to posting a double-double in their Round of 64 win over West Virginia—and within a month, Spangler had decided to transfer. He liked Gonzaga, but homesickness had worn him down. He wanted move back to Oklahoma.
Fate intervened on his behalf. Lon Kruger had taken the helm in Norman on April 1, 2011, less than a month after Capel was fired for going 17-36 in his final two seasons. When Gonzaga granted Spangler his scholarship release, Kruger called him the following day.
Several schools jostled for position alongside the Sooners, but Spangler quickly set up a trip to Norman. Two weeks later, he visited and committed. “You could tell family was important to him,” Kruger says. “He enjoyed the coaches and the people at Gonzaga, but he wanted to be closer to home, where his family can share the experience with him. We encouraged him to take the opportunity as a Sooner. It’s been great for all concerned.”
NCAA rules required Spangler to sit out for a year after transferring, and while he thought he would hate the time away from playing, Kruger says Spangler’s redshirt year “was as good as it could be.” Spangler worked fastidiously to improve his skill set, and challenged his teammates each day in practice. It was a similar approach to what Spangler had witnessed the year before when, as a freshman at Gonzaga, Bulldogs forward Kelly Olynyk had redshirted the 2011-12 season.
A solid, if unspectacular forward who grew late, Olynyk tended to gravitate toward the perimeter during his first two seasons. But during his year away from games, he stripped down his game and rebuilt it. He filled out, improved his footwork and honed a devastating inside-out approach on the offensive end. When he returned as a junior in 2012-13, Olynyk became one of the most efficient players in college basketball, and, at 7-0, perhaps its most complete big man. This was a guy who hit long-range jump shots in transition. It was a transformation with a science-fiction bent. The Boston Celtics selected him with the 13th pick in the NBA Draft last June.
At Gonzaga, Spangler expressed amazement at Olynyk’s relentless approach in practice. Agility drills, weight lifting sessions, five-on-five scrimmages—it didn’t matter, Olynyk went hard. During games, Olynyk sat on the bench and tracked statistics for the big men. Then, when the final buzzer had sounded and the crowd had trickled out the McCarthey Athletic Center doors, you’d see him back on the court, getting up shots. “I think that probably made an impression [on Spangler],” says Giacoletti. “It made an impact on all of us at Gonzaga. Olynyk didn’t let a day go by that he didn’t get better. He had a plan.”
Spangler displayed the same initiative in Norman that he’d seen from Olynyk in Spokane. He got in better shape and worked on his jump shot and rebounding. He became a better dribbler. Giacoletti remembers asking Oklahoma assistants from time to time how Spangler was doing. They had nothing but good things to say.
It has coalesced into supreme productivity this season. Spangler, now a 6-8, 232-pound sophomore, was a starter from the season opener, when he posted a double-double. He’s been one of the Big 12’s top performers, twice named Big 12 Newcomer of the Week. His improved dribbling allows him to facilitate dribble hand-offs on the perimeter. His emergence as a low-post threat has freed up the Sooners’ guards.
Oklahoma has surprised many by jumping out to a 17-4 record and earning the team’s first top-25 ranking in a major poll since the 2009-10 season. They kicked off conference play by taking down two teams recently ranked in the nation’s top-12—Iowa State (No. 9) on January 11 and Baylor (No. 12) on January 18. Spangler averaged 11.5 points and 12 rebounds in those two contests.
He followed up a career-high 15 boards against the Cyclones with a career-best 21 points, in a loss to Kansas State on January 15. All three of these games, against the Cyclones, Wildcats and Bears, came on the road.
As of Tuesday, January 28, his 10.1 rebounds led the Big 12 and ranked 16th nationally. His 11.3 points is third-best for the Sooners, and his field-goal percentage (.628) is downright gaudy. Since conference play began, Spangler is hitting 83.3 percent of his free throws (35-42.) It’s coincided with a 6-2 conference record for the Sooners, who are second place in the Big 12.
In addition to his relentless work in the low post, Spangler has displayed a prescient positional savvy. Kruger raves about his awareness—if he’s mired in foul trouble, Spangler will adjust his approach to prevent against infractions while maintaining his impact on the proceedings.
He couldn’t be happier. His parents are established just 30 minutes away in the town of Tuttle. Larry Spangler moved on from coaching when Ryan was in the sixth grade, and now works as an engineer in an oil field. Kruger has fostered a family-first atmosphere, and recognizes the effect a successful local product can have for a program. It attracts others to the cause. Spangler can head home on weekends, and his parents can come to all his games.
Most nights, Giacoletti will scroll through scores in his Drake office. This season, he keeps finding Spangler’s name listed among statistical leaders for Oklahoma games. “He’s having a heckuva year,” Giacoletti says. “He’s a great kid, he’s got a great family, and I’m happier than hell for him.”