MURRAY — Family and friends gathered to remember and honor Murray State legendary coach Cal Luther on Sunday at J.H Churchill Funeral Home.
Luther, one of the icons in the history of Racer athletics, died May 8 at his home in Martin, Tennessee. His passing means Murray State has recently lost two of its coaching legends as Ron Greene passed on March 31. Greene coached the MSU men’s basketball team from 1978-85.
Luther was hired at MSU after a successful four-season (1954-58) stint at DePauw, as he began coaching the Racers in the 1958-59 season. When his 16 seasons came to an end with the 1973-74 season, Luther had coached the Racers in 395 games, a record that stands today. His longevity produced three Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championships and a pair of OVC Coach of the Year awards and NCAA Tournament appearances.
Luther was inducted into the Murray State Hall of Fame in 1986 and later to the OVC (2000) and UT Martin (2017) halls of fame.
Luther also coached at Longwood (1981-90), UTM (1991-99) and Bethel (1999-00). In all, Luther won 500 games in 40 seasons. He coached 17 All-OVC players for the Racers who were honored 28 times and three that earned the OVC Player of the Year award four times including Jim Jennings (1963-64), Claude Virden (1968-69) and Les Taylor (1971-72, 1972-73). All three are members of the MSU Hall of Fame. Dale Alexander, Steve Barrett, Dick Cunningham, Herb McPherson and Jimmy Young gave Luther eight members of the MSU hall.
Luther’s 1963-64 team became Murray State’s first squad to play in the NCAA Tournament. He led the Racers back to the NCAAs at the end of the 1968-69 season. The 1964 team was honored at Racer Hoopalooza in 2017, when the team made it back to Murray State along with Luther. It was obvious even 42 years after he coached a game at MSU how much he adored the place.
“Anybody who doesn’t think that old friends are the best friends hasn’t been to one of these functions, I’ll tell you that,” Luther said. “This is an inspiring feeling to see all of these people from the past that are sincerely interested in this school and the program.”
Luther continued those sentiments on the Runnin’ with the Racers podcast in 2019: “Murray State has a manner about it and people are attracted to it and stay attracted even after they leave,” he said. “There are very few schools that can match what has gone on here for 50 years or so in men’s basketball.”
During Luther’s tenure, Murray State was one of the first universities in the South to desegregate athletics. Stewart Johnson was one of the first Black student-athletes to play at Murray State, arriving from Pittsburgh to play for Luther.
In the time of OVC history when the Racers were in constant battles with Western Kentucky, Luther’s teams consistently played at a high level and had one five-season run from 1967-71 in which they either won the OVC basketball title or finished second.
In the Luther era, Racer fans camped out days before a game just to get a seat at Racer Arena, which was a new building having opened only four years before he arrived. From Nov. 27, 1968, to Feb. 21, 1970, Luther’s teams set the arena home winning streak of 27 in a row, while winning 80% of the time.
Accepting the additional responsibilities of athletic director in 1967-78, Luther’s zeal for sports kept the Racers strong in the OVC, winning the coveted OVC All-Sports Trophy in 1973 and finishing in the top three in All-Sports competition in eight of Luther’s 11 years. During that span, MSU claimed nine conference championships in various sports. Luther was AD when Murray State opened Roy Stewart Stadium in 1973.