Bill Strannigan’s short tenure as the Iowa State men’s basketball coach will be remembered as one of the most prosperous periods in ISU hoops history. Strannigan compiled a five-year mark of 70-45 (60.9) from 1955-59, one of the highest winning percentages in school history, led the Cyclones to their first-ever national ranking and captured ISU’s first conference tournament title in school history (1955).
Strannigan, who was born in Dalry, Scotland, in 1918 and raised in Rock Springs, Wyo., started his college coaching career at Colorado State in 1951 after earning All-America honors in basketball at the University of Wyoming. After leading the Rams to the Skyline Conference Championship in 1954, he was hired by Iowa State athletics director and ISU hall-of-famer Louis Menze to replace Clayton Sutherland, who was 6-15 overall and 2-10 in the Big Seven in his final season.
Strannigan, a personable and effervescent personality who was considered a “public relations genius,” immediately showed his basketball brilliance, leading ISU to its first winning season in seven years with an 11-10 record. The Cyclones were led by senior Chuck Duncan and a sophomore guard named Gary Thompson, who would become the leader of Strannigan’s hard-nosed teams for the next two seasons. Strannigan made a statement in just his second season with the Cyclones, helping ISU become one of the biggest surprises of the 1955-56 campaign. Led by first-team all-Big Seven guard Thompson, the Cyclones broke the school-record for wins in a season (18-5) and finished tied for second (8-4) in the Big Seven, one game behind Kansas State. A victory at No. 8 Vanderbilt and three wins in Kansas City to win the Big Seven Holiday Tournament, ISU’s first conference tournament crown, helped propel the Cyclones into the national spotlight. Iowa State appeared in the national rankings for the first time in school history and was ranked No. 19 in the nation in the final International News Service poll.
With virtually all of his top players returning, expectations were riding high in Strannigan’s third season (1956-57). Thompson was heralded as one of the best players in all of college basketball and junior forward John Crawford was returning after an outstanding sophomore season in which he averaged 13.5 points and 9.7 rebounds. Crawford was the first African-American basketball player in Iowa State history and joined the Cyclone squad because of Strannigan. ISU jumped out to a 7-0 record and a No. 14 national ranking before losing its first game of the season on a last-second shot (58-57) to top-ranked Wilt Chamberlain-led Kansas in the first round of the Big Seven Holiday Tournament. With the loss to KU behind the them, the Cyclones vowed revenge against the Jayhawks when they arrived in Ames on Jan. 14. In arguably the greatest victory in ISU basketball history, the Cyclones defeated No. 1 Kansas 39-37 on a last-second shot from Don Medsker, as Thompson outscored Chamberlain 20-19 and the Cyclones registered their only win against a team ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press poll. After the landmark victory, a crowd of 300 students converged on campustown and carried cries of “no school tomorrow” to the front lawn of The Knoll, home of ISU President James H. Hilton. The crowd later stormed Lincoln Way, starting a bonfire and cutting off traffic for the rest of the evening.
The win helped ISU achieve its highest ranking in school history (No. 3) and put the ISU basketball program in the national spotlight. ISU ended the season at 16-7 and finished third in the Big Seven (6-6), as Thompson earned first-team All-America honors and Big Seven Player of the Year accolades after averaging 20.7 points per game. Strannigan was picked to coach the West team in the East-West Shrine All-Star game at the conclusion of the 1957 season, where his star pupil Thompson helped his West squad come away with a 64-60 victory.
Strannigan’s fourth year (1957-58) with ISU was yet another outstanding season for the Cyclones, as attendance records and sellout crowds were the norm in the Armory. Crawford paced ISU with a 14.1 ppg average, as the Cyclones finished 16-7 overall and 8-4 in the Big Seven, tying for second place for the second time in three seasons. ISU was once again ranked in the top 20 during the season, marking the third-straight year under Strannigan’s watch where the Cyclones achieved top-20 status. Crawford was named first-team all-Big Seven for his performance in 1958.
Strannigan had been courted by a number of top schools for his coaching services throughout his five years in Ames, turning all of them down and honoring his commitment to the Cyclone program. However, after the 1959 season ended, the opportunity to coach his alma mater (Wyoming) proved too powerful, and Strannigan packed his bags and moved to Laramie. He coached at Wyoming until retiring after the 1973 season, compiling a 179-187 mark and leading his team to the 1967 NCAA Tournament and two NIT appearances (1968 and 1969). He was named the Western Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 1967 and was inducted to the Wyoming Hall of Fame in 1994.
Strannigan’s three-year run at ISU from 1956-58 still ranks as one of the greatest periods in the history of Cyclone basketball, amassing a 50-19 overall mark, a 22-14 Big Seven record and finishing second, third and second in the tough Big Seven Conference.