When I asked Bennie Purcell to speak to my Sports in America class, I knew the students would never forget the experience. After all, his sports career as a collegiate basketball All-OVC and All-American basketball player, as a basketball coach and then as a collegiate tennis coach, makes him a living legend for my students to hear and see. At 83 years old, Purcell has a wealth of experience and a lifetime of stories from all over the world that only he can tell. And, wow, can Bennie Purcell tell a story!
First, though, let me tell you the facts. Bennie Purcell was born in Mount Vernon, Ill. Adolph Rupp and Bo McMillan — the star of the Centre College football team that beat Harvard 6-0 — were two of the speakers at his high school sports banquet. He came to Murray State after being recruited by Henry Iba at Oklahoma A & M (now Oklahoma State), a team having just won two national championships. Purcell had to turn down Coach Iba because he joined the military in the last years of World War II. So, after the war with the contact of a friend and with Harlan Hodges — a former Illinois high school coach who Purcell had played against — now Murray State’s coach, Purcell made his way to Murray.
A member of the new Ohio Valley Conference, Purcell made the All-Conference teams in the 1950-1951 and 1951-1952 seasons and led Murray State to its first OVC crown in 1951. “In 1952, he was named the most valuable player in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Basketball Tournament and an All-America player by the Converse, United Press International and Associate Press.” He has been named to the MSU Athletics Hall of Fame (from which I just quoted), the OVC Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Tennis Hall of Fame, and the Intercollegiate Tennis Hall of Fame.
After graduating from Murray State in 1952, Purcell was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets, but was the last player cut from the Bullets roster. He decided to sign a contract to travel with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing primarily with the Washington Generals. They traveled in 46 countries all over the world, and in most of the United States. For six months, Purcell roomed with Bill Spivey, the 7-foot Kentucky Wildcat star center.
After playing for the Globetrotters organization, Purcell coached high school basketball in Hickman County, Anna-Jonesboro, and back in Mount Vernon, before becoming Cal Luther’s assistant at Murray State. Then, for 28 years he coached Tennis at Murray State, winning 12 OVC championships and 8 OVC coach-of-the-year awards. When he retired, his 59 straight conference wins was an NCAA record.
Purcell found obvious joy in his life calling. His excitement is contagious. Whether he is relating how he traveled through Europe with the Globetrotters, how the actor Robert Mitchum befriended him and other players in Trinidad, or how he had lunch one day with the late George Beverly Shea, it is obvious that Purcell’s athletic career provided unique life experiences.
He contrasted for my students playing before a staid British crowd in London with excited Latin American audiences in South America. In one game, a teammate hit a full length-of-the-court shot in London and the crowd was so proper, not a single clap was heard; not a single cheer! They thought it happened every game, all part of the routine.
Sports took Bennie Purcell all over the world. Now, Bennie Purcell is, perhaps, Murray State University’s greatest ambassador. Everywhere he goes—and everyone knows Bennie Purcell—he preaches Murray State as if he were an evangelist. Bennie Purcell is proud of Murray State University. And Murray State University is very proud of Bennie Purcell.
Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.