Life is full of second chances. Just ask Oklahoma sophomore men's basketball player Ryan Spangler. The small-town Oklahoma product wanted to be a Sooner from the time he was little. But when OU didn't come calling, he was forced to make other plans.
Here's the story of how Spangler, who began his post-high school career 1,700 miles away in Spokane, Wash., made it back to Oklahoma for his final three years of collegiate basketball in Norman. And how the influence of his close-knit family and country upbringing helped shape the player -- and person -- he has become.
Growing up, Ryan Spangler always wanted to play for the University of Oklahoma. But just like most others who have ever held childhood aspirations of one day suiting up for the Sooners, it looked like Spangler would never get the chance.
The reason for Spangler's dashed dreams, however, was different. Whereas the vast majority of high school athletes don't have the credentials to be offered an athletics scholarship by OU, he seemed to hold the qualifications.
A standout prep football and basketball player at Bridge Creek High School in nearby Blanchard, Okla. (the high school is 21 miles from the OU campus), Spangler, who is now 6-8 and 230 pounds, received attention from major colleges in both sports. The Arkansas and Texas Tech football programs hosted the quarterback on unofficial visits his sophomore year. After he decided to focus on basketball midway through his high school career, he received scholarship offers to play on the hardwood by several Division I schools, including Colorado, Creighton, Gonzaga, TCU and Tulsa.
One school he never heard from when it came to hoops, though, was Oklahoma.
"I wasn't recruited by OU," recalled Spangler, who has lived in five different small towns in Oklahoma. "I've always been an OU fan. My sophomore year I started getting looks from everybody for basketball. Oral Roberts offered me, Tulsa offered me, Oklahoma State was recruiting me. And you would think that being right outside OU's back door that they would have at least talked to me. It was disappointing."
Disappointing not only because he was a Sooner fan but also because he felt like he was good enough. All Spangler did during his four-year career on the Bridge Creek varsity team was average 23.7 points, 14.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game while shooting 67 percent from the field. As a senior, he averaged 29.2 points, a gaudy 17.2 rebounds and 5.8 blocks en route to being named the Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year and earning fourth-team Parade All-America honors.
With no option of becoming a Sooner, in the fall of 2010 Spangler did what he thought was the next best thing: sign with Gonzaga. Under the direction of head coach Mark Few, the Bulldogs at the time had won at least 23 games in 11 straight seasons and made the NCAA Tournament each of those years. Spangler was going to a top-notch program located in Spokane, Wash.
As a freshman during the 2011-12 season, Spangler played behind veteran big men Elias Harris and Robert Sacre, both now with the Los Angeles Lakers. He saw action in 22 games, averaging 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 6.6 minutes a contest, and played some of his best basketball late in the season. He scored a season-high 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Longwood on Feb. 27 and pulled down a team-high eight boards in an NCAA Tournament win over West Virginia. Along the way, he missed five games due to a hand injury that required the insertion of pins to heal broken bones in his pinky finger and knuckle.
Even though Spangler said he truly enjoyed his time at Gonzaga, he decided soon after the season to transfer. The chief reason, he said, was to get closer to home.
"It was a good experience," said Spangler. "I got to play a little bit -- although not as much as I wanted -- and I met some real good friends up there like (guard) Kevin Pangos, who I still talk to all the time. I had fun up there, but it just wasn't the place for me. I wanted to play a lot and I wanted my family to be able to watch me every game. So I decided to leave."
I had fun (at Gonzaga), but it just wasn't the place for me. I wanted to play a lot and I wanted my family to be able to watch me every game.
All of a sudden Spangler was about to be re-recruited. For him, the big question was whether Oklahoma would show interest the second time around.
With a new OU coaching staff in place (Lon Kruger was named the Sooners' head coach on April 1, 2011), Spangler quickly got an answer.
"Gonzaga gave me my release on a Friday and that Saturday they put my name on a list of transfers," recounted Spangler. "That's when all the college coaches could start to call me. And OU was one of the schools that did.
"Creighton and Colorado offered me again, TCU offered me and so did Boise State and Missouri. But I was pretty sure I knew where I wanted to go. I told (OU assistant) Coach (Steve) Henson I wanted to set up a recruiting trip and two weeks later I was in Norman and I committed."
Born into a sports family, Spangler was destined to be an athlete. His father, Larry, was a longtime high school head football coach, while his mother, LeAnn, was a special education teacher who also coached high school basketball. His oldest brother Rob played basketball, baseball and football, and Russ, another older brother, concentrated on baseball and football.
If, on the day of his birth, Spangler had any notions of sports not playing a big role in his life, they were put to rest later that evening. With his dad coaching the Healdton High School football team, his mom drove Ryan to the game in support of Larry mere hours after Ryan was born in nearby Ardmore.
"I don't think we left the car, but I was still at the game," said Spangler. "My dad’s team won, so I guess I got the job done."
Due to Larry Spangler's profession, much of Ryan's childhood was spent on the move. In addition to Healdton, the family lived in the small Oklahoma towns of Crooked Oak, Warner, Marlow and Tuttle, and also spent time in Houston and Denison, Texas. Spangler said it seemed they moved roughly every three years.
My dad always had me cutting down trees or mowing the yard or things like that. That's just the way I was raised; work hard and do the little things.
Regardless of the family's mailing address, when Spangler had free time growing up he could usually be found in one of two places: his dad's football practices or his mom's basketball practices. The constant exposure to those two sports had a big impact on him, as did the strong work ethic his parents exhibited.
"When I was growing up, we never just sat around the house," explained Spangler. "My dad always had me cutting down trees or mowing the yard or things like that. That's just the way I was raised; work hard and do the little things."
James Fraschilla, an OU junior guard and one of Spangler's roommates, said Spangler's rural background has likely contributed to the way he approaches basketball.
"He's a big 'ol country boy," said Fraschilla. "I think you can tell just from the way he's all about business and working hard. He's the farthest thing from flashy. He's all about doing the dirty work. He doesn't care where the points come from; he just wants to help his team."
Spangler provided an example.
"When I was growing up, everybody wanted to shoot and be flashy. I've never been that way. For me, I'll do whatever it takes. Two points is two points. If I can get a rebound and an easy layup, that's as good as hitting a 15-footer."
By all accounts, Spangler has always showcased a blue-collar mentality both on and off the playing surface. Dedication to his craft is one of his hallmarks. So is winning. Spangler's hard work translated to success on the high school basketball court -- he led Bridge Creek to the Class 4A state title game his senior year -- but also on the gridiron.
At least in comparison to his basketball exploits, relatively few people are aware of his dominance on the high school football field. The quarterback finished his high school career with 6,951 passing yards and 71 touchdowns (against 20 interceptions) while completing 60 percent of his passes. As a junior, he led Bridge Creek to a 78-34 second-round state playoffs win over Atoka by completing 20-of-27 pass attempts for 315 yards and five touchdowns. Spangler estimates he threw for more than 400 yards at least 10 times in his high school career.
"In 35 years of coaching football, he's by far the best quarterback I've ever had the opportunity to coach," said Jerry Wallis, former Bridge Creek head coach who now serves the school solely as its athletics director. "He threw for over 3,000 yards in each of his junior and senior years and could do just about anything he wanted to do. Basketball was his passion and love, but he was a heck of a football player for us. I still feel like he could have played Division I."
After finally making it to OU following the 3,500-mile round-trip detour through Spokane, Wash., Spangler had more waiting to do before he could wear the Sooner uniform. NCAA regulations stipulate that Division I basketball transfers must sit out a year after going from one school to another. Spangler could practice with his new OU teammates during the 2012-13 season, but he couldn't play in games.
Although more than occasionally frustrating for him -- Spangler said he felt helpless on the bench while watching the Sooners compete on game days -- he used the year to his advantage. He thinks he's a much better player than he was this time a year ago.
"When I got to OU, I couldn't shoot that well," admitted Spangler. "But Coach Henson really worked with me and I'm able to step out and shoot now. Opposing guys have to watch me now because I'm not going to just stay inside; I can actually shoot. I also got in better shape and sitting out a year made me hungry."
It didn't take long for OU players and coaches to figure out Spangler was going to be a key performer for the Sooners in 2013-14 and beyond. His bulldog approach on the scout team in practice last year routinely caused headaches for those doing battle against him.
D.J. Bennett, another 6-8 forward who redshirted with OU last year, said Spangler's list of on-court attributes are long. Bennett has become quite familiar with Spangler's game, as the two frequently defend each other in practice and pick-up games.
"I like his energy and his enthusiasm," began Bennett. "And guarding him? For his size, he's so strong and fast. I'd say he's best at positioning on the court. He's got a really good outside shot, too. That's something that surprised me about him. And I'd also say his rebounding ability. His timing and his awareness really help him with that.
"He's just really court smart and knows where he has to be. For example, when somebody shoots the ball, he can tell where he needs to be before the ball comes off the rim. A lot of times in practice, he'll get me at just the right angle to where all he has to do is stick his hand out and catch the ball. He anticipates really well."
I like his energy and his enthusiasm. And guarding him? For his size, he's so strong and fast.
OU senior forward Tyler Neal, who like Spangler is an Oklahoma native, expounded on Bennett's assessment.
"Ryan's a very smart player," said Neal, Spangler’s other roommate. "No matter how hard you work and no matter how athletic you are, that's something you can't teach. You can tell he's been brought up the right way as far as basketball is concerned because whether he's posting somebody up or he's running and has the ball in his hands, he sees the floor really well -- almost like a point guard. He can deliver it and get guys shots in the right spots, even when the play may be drawn up for him. Another strength is his relentlessness on the boards. He never relaxes in that area. He’ll give opposing guys fits this year."
As Nov. 8 approaches, Spangler gets more and more anxious. That's the date the Sooners open the regular season against Alabama inside the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. By that time it will have been more than a year and a half since he played in a college basketball game.
Spangler did get a small taste of what the upcoming season could be like when he joined the Sooners for their five-game exhibition tour in Belgium and France in August. He started each game at the 'five' position and averaged 12.4 points and a team-high 8.0 rebounds a contest as OU went 4-1. The time and effort he put into improving his shot the previous year evidently paid off, as he posted a 65.8 percent field goal mark in Europe and went 5-for-8 from behind the longer international 3-point line (62.5 percent). He also added six blocked shots and five steals on defense.
"Ryan did a really good job in Europe, especially given that he hadn't played organized ball in quite a while," said Kruger, who is starting his third season as OU's head coach. "He was anxious to go and his enthusiasm level, his intensity on both ends of the floor, his ability to run the floor and rebound the basketball all showed well in Europe. He'll just keep improving and will be a fun guy to watch."
Spangler agreed that it was good to get on the court against outside competition, and the trip showed him how much he's improved in a year's time. However, he knows certain areas of his game need additional honing.
"I still need to get better with my ball handling," he said. "I still need to work on my shot. But I'd say the biggest thing I need to work on is my leadership. I lead by example because I always work hard, but I need to be more vocal -- pick people up verbally and lead the team that way."
Player leadership will be important to a youthful OU squad this year. Last season it was senior Romero Osby who thrived in that role. Kruger thinks Spangler, despite being just a sophomore athletically, is a candidate to provide great assistance in that department this year and beyond.
"Ryan will be a good leader for us right off the bat," predicted the head coach. "He's got the respect of his teammates, he works so hard and he's very genuine in his interest of doing whatever he can to help the team. He'll help us there right from the start."
Ryan will be a good leader for us right off the bat. He's got the respect of his teammates, he works so hard and he's very genuine in his interest of doing whatever he can to help the team.
The Sooners have more than leadership to replace in 2013-14. They lost 68 percent of their scoring and 62 percent of their rebounding from last year's 20-12 team that qualified for OU's first NCAA Tournament since 2009. Spangler is one of nine players on this year's roster who have never suited up for the Sooners.
Asked to describe this year's squad, Spangler, who said his No. 1 personal goal this season is to lead the Big 12 in rebounding, couldn't help but smile.
“I think we're going to be exciting to watch," he said. "We're fast, we can shoot, and we're all full of energy and are going to play hard.
"Yeah, we are young and we'll go through some spots where that might be evident, but I think energy will take over. We all just want to win and fight. Teams don't usually have all five starters willing to dive on the floor or just run the whole game, but we do."
Ryan Spangler will do all of those things in 2013-14. And he'll do them as an Oklahoma Sooner.
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