Bob Murray’s ownership of the Heart of America Sports Camps was a foregone conclusion in Ken Cochran’s mind.
Murray, who played basketball for Cochran at Kansas Wesleyan in the late 1960s, was one of the first counselors Cochran hired after the youth basketball organization debuted 1982. When Cochran decided it was time to relinquish his ownership in 2001, he landed his replacement with one brief phone call.
“He called and said ‘Bobby, you’re buying the camp,'” Murray said. “I said ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘I’m going to sell it to you.’ He said ‘we’ll meet with the lawyer and financial guy and settle it.’ I said OK and hung up.
“My wife said ‘what was that all about?’ I said ‘I’m buying coach’s camp’ and she said ‘how’d that happen?’ I said ‘he told me I was and I’ve never told him no.'”
Murray managed the nationally renowned camps until 2015, when he sold them to Troy Thrasher, who continues to manage them today.
The HOA celebrated its 50th anniversary July 15 with a ceremony in KWU’s Student Activities Center. The inaugural hall of fame class was announced – Cochran, Murray and Tom Collins, a camp counselor and Cochran’s longtime assistant at Marymount College.
More than 95,000 youngsters, girls and boys ages 8-18, have attended the HOA camps in Salina each June and July since 1982. Instruction during the high-energy, four-day sessions focuses on fundamentals, teamwork and defense – a Cochran staple.
“Back in the day when it was considered one of the most inspirational and motivational camps in America,” said Thrasher, an assistant women’s coach at Cowley College. “It was always high energy, the coaches were into every drill, everything we did was high energy. It was all teaching.”
“All of my talks and all of my little clinics that I would run were about doing it right every time and not letting the little flaws bother you,” Murray said. “When I spoke about something clinically it was about technique and finished with what it means to be a team player.”
Murray made a couple of minor changes after taking ownership from Cochran. He shortened the camp one day and changed enrollment from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on the Sundays before camps started.
Cochran left Wesleyan in 1970 to become basketball coach at Marymount, where his Spartan teams were nationally in 10 of his legendary 11 seasons.
“He was absolutely one of the three major changing forces in my life, there’s no question about it,” said Murray, who along with Cochran are members of the Coyote Athletic Hall of Fame. “I would not be what I am or what I have strived to be without his influence. He was a demander.”
Murray was relegated to spectator status during his final year as owner after fracturing his hip the Sunday before camp started. Thrasher and KWU women’s coach and longtime camp counselor Ryan Showman ran the camp for Murray.
Like Cochran, Murray had a replacement in mind when he decided to step down.
“When Bob went to sell the camp, he basically told me I was taking it over,” said Thrasher, who attended HOA as a boy and was hired by Cochran to be a counselor. “I was in town working at Brown Mackie College (head women’s basketball coach) and did basically everything for him – the mailings, the reaching out to the coaches that worked camp … He hired me to work during the school year and it was a smooth transition.”
Thrasher, with help from Showman and others, has kept the HOA afloat during some trying times of late. Camps were in decline nationwide before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the spring of 2020.
“When AAU and MAYB (Mid America Youth Basketball) started escalating our numbers started going down,” Thrasher said. “Heart of America survives on its tradition and its name. Outside of the COVID year we’re getting really good numbers.”
After dramatically lower attendance in 2020, Thrasher said numbers have rebounded this summer to pre-pandemic levels.
Thrasher, like Murray before him, has strived to keep the same intensity level Cochran demanded.
“With everything he did he attacked it and with that energy that’s why he had that great success,” Thrasher said. “People feed off that whether it’s players or people who work for him. You want to be part of that energy and keep it going.”
Showman, who Cochran hired as a counselor during his sophomore year at KWU 15 years ago, said working the camps is beneficial.
“I work with 18- to 22-year-old women every year and to be able to coach high school aged kids, middle school aged kids is different,” said Showman, who’s in his ninth season as women’s coach at Wesleyan. “It’s kind of a change of pace for me.
“I get better polished skill sets at the college level and get to go back to the basics and really hammer home the skill development. That’s what Heart of America is – skill developers. To be able to focus on that I think is really cool.”
The HOA was initially housed at Marymount’s Smoot Gymnasium, but eventually expanded to KWU’s Muir Gym and other locations around Salina. The advent of KWU’s Mabee Arena was a boon for the HOA, which now operates solely at the university.
“The biggest thing for us was the facility upgrade across the board,” Thrasher said. “Back in the day in Muir on a 105-degree day it was like 130. You just cooked in there. The facility upgrade has been amazing and that’s helped us out.”
Murray was thrilled to see the HOA reach its golden anniversary.
“It’s amazing, I was hoping it would,” he said. “I told Troy it’s hard work and there were nights I wished I didn’t have to do it because I would stay up till midnight. There were nights I wanted to quit, but I knew (Cochran) would kill me. So, I didn’t give it up.”