Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Key to Making Thomas Gym Special

"Before Hebron's Green Giants, before Cobden's Appleknockers and before Class A made all arguments meaningless, Pinckneyville was the symbol of small-school basketball triumphing over all odds." - Jerry Shnay, Chicago Tribune

On any given morning, afternoon, or evening, you can hear a basketball bouncing in Pinckneyville, Ill. The community of 3,400, in southern Illinois, is filled with rich basketball tradition dating back to the early 20th century and it will only be adding more when the town square opens its doors to the Illinois High School Basketball Hall of Fame & Museum in 2013. Pinckneyville is one of the most recognizable basketball programs, regardless of size, throughout the state. It was due to their recognition, success, and tradition that Pinckneyville’s Merrill "Duster" Thomas Gymnasium was a must-visit during our Illinois basketball trip.

Pinckneyville's Merrill "Duster" Thomas Gymnasium

While driving east on IL-51 outside Pinckneyville, anxiously on our way to West Frankfort, our family chatted particularly about what stories and gym features stood out to each of us. We agreed that most gyms have only a few characteristics that make it unique, such as its age, design, features, home court winning percentage, program success, etc. but the 2,400-seat Thomas Gymnasium was special since it encapsulated a handful of these measures.

The gym is truly one of the most colorful gyms that you will step into. Although I may be referring to the school colors that adorn the gym, I am also speaking of the intriguing stories and history that make the gym unique, special,…colorful. At the time of its construction, it was considered one of the state’s best high school basketball facilities. Sixty years later, it still reins among the best and is key in sustaining the program's success throughout the year.

So what makes Duster Thomas Gymnasium so special?

It all starts with the coaches who the gym and floor have been named in honor of.

Photo of "Duster" Thomas inside the gym
It can be debated that legendary coach, Merrill “Duster” Thomas, is amongst the state's greatest coaches. From 1938 to 1957, he compiled a 460-128 record (.78 winning %), while coaching the Panthers into the single-class state tournament eight times in ten years from 1947-56. More impressive, he would appear in the Final Four five times. In 1947-48, his Panthers finished their season with a state championship and a 33-1 record. His teams would place third in the state tournament in 1952, 1953, and 1954. Thomas’ 17 and 7 record in the state tournament puts him on a very short list of coaches who have won at least 70 percent of all state tournament games coached. As a monument to Duster Thomas’ accomplishments and the state championship in 1948, a special bond issue would pass and finance the build of the state of the art gymnasium, which would later be named in his honor.

"High school basketball was king in southern Illinois in the 1940s and 1950s and nowhere was it bigger than in Pinckneyville." - Taylor Bell, Chicago Tribune

Photo of Dick Corn and team inside gym
Most programs would be lucky to have one legendary coach lead their team, but Pinckneyville has had two. While the gym is named after Thomas, the court is named in honor of coach Dick Corn. Coach Corn retired in 2007 after 32 years as Pinckneyville High School’s basketball coach only after he compiled a career record of 708 wins and 260 losses (.73 winning %), with four state tournament appearances, including state championships in 1994 and 2001, a second place finish in 1988 and a fourth place trophy in 2006. Corn’s teams won 20+ games from 1983-1996 and his 23 Regional Championships ranks first in state history among all Class A coaches. He is a two-time winner of the State Coach of the Year award and earned National Basketball Coach of the Year in 2003.

Combined, these legendary coaches won 1,168 games in 51 years, while only losing 388 (.750 winning %), which was key in putting Pinckneyville on the basketball map and keeping them there. The Panthers have won over 1,500 games and appeared in the State Finals Tournament 11 times.

Gym and Court named in honor of coaches

As unique as the program is with capturing three championships, the gym’s unique design puts it into a small fraternity as well. The underground “bowl” design was patented by architect Ralph E. Legeman of Evansville, IN. He came up with a simple solution to a large problem, which was to build a gymnasium that could hold large capacity crowds but at a low construction cost. Legeman felt that his underground “bowl” design would be economical in construction, safe and convenient in use and attractive in appearance. In Legeman’s design, only the roof and upper walls stand above ground. In addition, the underground design would allow the spectators to enter the seats from above and leave in the same route, without interfering with persons on the playing floor and without obstructing the views of the persons in the seats.

Legeman’s design became so successful that he would eventually design 27 bowl gymnasiums for both high school and college and license 10 others during the late 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Pinckneyville’s Thomas Gymnasium would be amongst the first to be built with the design. It would accommodate Pinckneyville’s entire population and after it opened in 1952, the team would win 58 consecutive home games. Recently, as Pinckneyville is in the process of building a new school to replace the current 80 year old facility, they will build around the current school, partially because they do not want to lose Thomas Gymnasium. When construction talks turned to moving forward with building at other locations, the idea was always stopped because of the gym.

Unique underground "Bowl" design
While walking around the "bowl" concourse, you will notice another unique feature of the gym. White reserved chair seats line the top of the bowl, as well as, the first two rows near the playing surface. Brad House, a Pinckneyville High School alumni and friend, shared the following story with me about the rarity of having a season ticket with a chair seat. He said that in 2007, his mother received a phone call from the school, informing her that there was finally a chair seat open for her husband if he still wanted it. Brad’s father had passed away in a coal-mining accident in 1984. Brad mentioned that apparently his father had been on the waiting list since 1975.

White Chair Seats surround the floor and the concourse above
As the community and visitors enter Thomas Gymnasium, one of the first features to catch your eye is the Navy and Columbia Blue official school colors that ring loudly throughout the gym. The colors are displayed proudly on the court, walls, basket supports/post, seats, and in many other areas throughout the facility. Columbia Blue is so unique, that it is used as one of the two or three color symbols for only 3 high schools in Illinois, including Pinckneyville, Centennial High School (Champaign) and Prospect High School (Mt. Prospect). In fact, only 102 high schools, colleges, and universities nationwide have Columbia Blue as part of their official school colors.

Another feature of the gym that stood out to us was the display of past accolades. In the gym's corners, around the upper concourse, large pictures of each of the state championship teams hang to commemorate the program's three state championships. Also at the entrance of the gym, numerous trophy cases line the walls, encasing the hardware once won at state and various tournaments, letter jackets, team photos, and even a large "State Tournament History" plaque, which showcases the Panthers' tournament success.

"It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition." - Henry James

1948 State Championship photo hanging in the gym's corner

Trophy cases at gym's entrance

IHSA State Championship Trophies
I even asked legendary coach Dick Corn what his fondest memories were of Thomas Gymnasium. He replied "game nights - the excitement and energy in the building. On big game nights (championships such as conference, state playoffs, etc) there was no finer venue to experience high school basketball.”

The electric atmosphere that Thomas Gymnasium creates on game nights is memorable but the hidden "gem" that takes place everyday at the gym fascinated us most. Our key to why Thomas Gymnasium is special is the fact that you do not need a key to enter Thomas Gymnasium and play basketball. Most outside the Pinckneyville community are not aware of this benefit that is unique compared to most schools.

Available to the community to play basketball
When conversing with the Pinckneyville coaches off to the side of the court, it was mentioned that Thomas Gymnasium is left open to the community to walk in and play basketball at their leisure. When the special bond issue was put to vote in the community in the late 1940s/early 1950s to build the new gym, this specific clause was added.

I asked coach Dick Corn about the policy and he replied, “the gym is open to the public during the school year when school is in session. It opens when the janitor arrives in the a.m. and closes when they leave in the evening around 9 pm. School activities get preference. I opened it on the weekends and the janitor closed usually at 6 pm when he would check the buildings. Summer hours were usually 6 am to 3 pm. There have almost never had any vandalism as well as the people and the community really police it themselves.”

Coach Corn mentioned that in the few cases when something was broke, it was quickly reported by the individual(s) who were liable. He also said “ the Insurance carrier warned the board that if they ever closed the gym and then wished to restart the old policy it couldn't do so. Presently, the school was not liable because of an established community expectation.”

While most who take advantage of the open gym policy are those who’ve graduated, you have to wonder how much this policy plays into keeping the Pinckneyville Panther basketball tradition thriving. Your surroundings play a huge part in your upbringing and to stay motivated in what you enjoy in life, such as basketball, the environment around you must provide inspiration. So imagine as a young kid having the daily convenience and access to stop by the gym to refine your skills in the presence of all the tradition that surrounds you. It is a priceless benefit for the community and the inspiring ball player.

"Basketball-ville, U.S.A."
We finally came to the conclusion that there is no one reason why Pinckneyville's gym is special. Ask any Pinckneyville community member or any basketball fan throughout the state, and you will hear various reasons why they either love or hate the gym. Love it, because of its uniqueness, electrifying atmosphere, and what it represents. Or hate it, because their own visiting team's challenge to leave there victorious.

The one common agreement would be that the gym is one of the finest basketball facilities in the state, but if you want to take a look and decide for yourself, you're welcome to do so...the doors are open. 


  1. Great story - this is a truly gem of a website.

  2. Thanks Coach! I have many more stories to share but finding time to write them is challenging. I am glad you enjoy the blog.

  3. Thanks for a wonderful blog. My father refereed during the 1954 state finals (and 55 & 56), I'm sure he had a Pinckneyville game in the 54 tourney. Dad was the first person elected to the IBCA Hall of Fame for two different reasons: Official and Journalist. He had many nice things to say about Duster Thomas (and a few other coaches).