‘He was a light’: Saying goodbye to Ryan Minor, a larger-than-life Sooner

‘He was a light’: Saying goodbye to Ryan Minor, a larger-than-life Sooner

Ryan Minor became one of Oklahoma’s original and most beloved two-sport stars. Family members, former teammates and coaches describe a life that meant so much more to so many.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Jan 14, 2024, 5:00pm CST

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Jan 14, 2024, 5:00pm CST

MOORE — Cal Ripken will always remain intertwined with Ryan Minor’s legacy. So, naturally, Minor’s was the first name that came up when Skip Johnson and Ryan Gaines encountered Ripken in Oklahoma City four and a half years ago.

The Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer was in town on behalf of his foundation in August of 2019, there to place STEM centers in each of the 33 elementary schools within the Oklahoma City Public Schools system. For the Sooners’ head baseball coach and the program’s director of operations, Ripken’s visit doubled as an opportunity to meet with the Iron Man.

As Gaines recalls, Ripken spoke fondly that day thinking back on Sept. 20, 1998. That’s the night Minor — who rose to two-sport stardom at Oklahoma from 1992-96 — took Ripken’s place in the Orioles lineup and officially ended the longest consecutive games streak in MLB at 2,632 straight starts. A week after his major league debut, Minor held a place in baseball history. 

However, the connection Ripken really wanted to talk about wouldn’t come until 20 years later. 

By then, Minor was coaching in the Orioles farm system and Ripken’s son Ryan was a struggling young prospect. The younger Ripken never reached the big leagues, but the support he received from Minor at the time left a lasting impression on the whole family.  

“Cal just appreciated Ryan’s mentorship and how he stuck with his son,” Gaines said this week.That just kind of goes back to the person Ryan was. It didn’t surprise me to hear that story. But I didn’t know it. It brought things full circle for me.”

Minor passed away last month at the end of a battle with colon cancer, two weeks shy of his 50th birthday. Thirty-one years after Minor first stepped on campus, one of Oklahoma’s original two-sport stars is gone. 

“Ryan was a humble giant,” said former baseball teammate Rick Gutierrez. 

He shined under Billy Tubbs and Kelvin Sampson and became a two-time basketball All-American. On the diamond, he helped power OU to a national title in 1994 and back to the College World Series the next spring. He was drafted in both sports — twice. In the pros, he enjoyed a four-year major league career before launching into 15 seasons in coaching.

During his 49 years, Minor became a larger-than-life Sooners legend. On Saturday, during a celebration of life inside the First Moore Baptist Church, former teammates, coaches and friends joined the Minor family to say goodbye to a man who meant so much more to so many.

“He was a great person,” Richard Megli, Minor’s coach at Hammon High School, said from a podium. “A great son. A great brother. A great husband and father. A great teammate and leader, and a great coach. With Ryan, it was what you see is what you get.”

Small-town backgrounds produced big-time basketball players in the University of Oklahoma's Ryan Minor and Oklahoma State University's Bryant Reeves, photographed February 24, 1995, in Norman.

Minor and Oklahoma State’s Bryant Reeves defined an era of stars from small towns around the Oklahoma college basketball scene in the early 1990s. (Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman)

A ‘wonderful’ ride

OU athletic director Joe Castiglione put it well in a pre-recorded message played during Saturday’s service: The smallest towns in Oklahoma have produced the Sooners’ biggest stars. 

Minor got his start in Hammon. Population in 1990: 611.

Megli did it all in his 40-plus years at Hammon High School. He taught in the classroom. He spent decades leading the baseball and boys basketball programs. He even had a successful tenure as the school’s principal.

And Megli stills remembers the day he stumbled across the Minor brothers.

“I came up to the high school one Saturday morning,” he said. “I walked in the lobby of the high school and the lights in the gym were on and the balls were bouncing around.”

Megli didn’t recognize the two boys in the gym. But he stuck around for a few minutes to watch them play. It didn’t take long for Megli to see the skill and athleticism the boys possessed. He knew Hammon was hiring teachers at the time and he wondered if this talented pair of twins might stick around. 

As it turned out, Dale Minor was at the school interviewing for a job. In the Hammon gym that morning, Megli spotted Ryan and Damon Minor for the first time.

“Come to find out they were only fifth graders at the time,” he said. “But Dale got hired and that was the beginning.”

By the time Ryan Minor reached high school, his power on the mound and in the batter’s box was unmistakable. He was a force in the batting cage and a feared hitter opposing teams often chose to intentionally walk. During Minor’s time at Hammon, the baseball program carried a record of 139-25.

“There’s a house about 100 feet past the left field fence (at the baseball field),” Megli recalled. “I would not have wanted to be the insurance company on that because their roof — Ryan wore it out for four years.”

On the basketball court, Minor dominated with a combination of agility, scoring range and electrifying dunks that frequently drew opposition admiration. In the 125 games during Minor’s high school career, the Warriors lost only seven times. 

“If Ryan wanted to take the game over, he’d take the game over,” Megli said.

“When he was about to dunk I’d look down at the other bench and they would stand up and cheer like he was on their team. I’m sure their coaches didn’t appreciate that much.”

Hammon is where Minor’s athletic career took off. As he rose to college stardom and success at the professional level, he stayed connected to home. Connections with figures like Megli never faded. 

In 2004, Megli traveled with a colleague, Jeff Morton, to a conference in Washington D.C. to accept a physical education grant for the Hammon School district. By then, Minor’s MLB career was done and he had settled in Salisbury, Maryland, located 115 miles southeast of the U.S. Capitol. 

Minor drove to meet Megli and Morton for dinner, then proceeded to spend the night on the floor of their hotel room before serving as a personal tour guide the next day. They saw the monuments and the museums, visited Camden Yards and made it to Babe Ruth’s birthplace.

“I just really enjoyed that and appreciated him taking the time to do that,” Megli said.

In November, as Minor approached his final days, Megli drove to visit Ryan at Damon’s home in Oklahoma. Together, they watched college basketball and Megli got to sit with the brothers he first spotted in that gymnasium 40 years ago one more time.

“I want to thank (the Minor family) for allowing me to be a part of the ride that we had through high school and all the way,” Megli said Saturday. “It’s just been wonderful.”

OU first baseman Ryan Minor warms up before practice in Norman on June 1, 1994.

Ryan Minor is considered the forerunner for the modern era of two-sport athletes at OU. (Steve Sisney/The Oklahoman)

‘Every single small town Oklahoma boy’s dream’

The story of how the Minor brothers landed in Norman has been well told in recent weeks.

As Ryan and Damon were deciding where to go to college, the brothers took a dual visit to Oklahoma State. Two-national champion coach Bill Self, then a Cowboys assistant, showed the Minors around the basketball facility, but the baseball assistant scheduled to meet with them did not show.

That left the door open for Larry Cochell and the Sooners to swoop in. When Damon committed to play baseball at OU, Ryan followed him to the campus two hours from home.

Kelvin Sampson took over the men’s basketball program at OU in 1994 ahead of Minor’s junior season. Today, he calls the 6-foot-7 forward “the best thing that ever happened to me at Oklahoma.”

Sampson’s Houston Cougars were playing at TCU on Saturday. He told his favorite Ryan Minor story through a pre-recorded video.

Upon Sampson’s arrival, Tubbs told his successor that Minor’s best basketball was still in front of him. Sometime early in his tenure, Sampson gathered his players in front of a whiteboard and asked each to offer their respective strengths and weaknesses. One by one — from Calvin Curry to John Ontjes to Dion Barnes — the players blurted attributes and Sampson wrote them down. 

“After they had finished I erased the entire board and I wrote down Ryan Minor,” Sampson said.  “That’s the strength of our team. Some of you may not know it. Some of you may not like it. But we’re going to play through our best player. Ryan Minor — he taught me how to play through a best player.”

Minor averaged 23.6 points and 8.4 rebounds in Sampson’s first season, leading OU to a 23-9 record and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Associated Press named him the Big Eight Conference Player of the Year and Minor opted to return for his senior season despite projections that landed him as a potential NBA Draft lottery pick.

In the 1995-96 season, he averaged  21.3 points per game and landed his second All-America honor as the Sooners returned to the NCAA Tournament.

“He was the most versatile player I’ve ever been around in my life,” said Mike Anderson, a former Tubbs-era assistant. 

When basketball season closed, Minor would link back up with the Sooners’ baseball program, typically without having picked up a bat or a baseball in months. His ability to transition smoothly back into the infield and onto the mound made Minor a contributor on the OU team that stormed to the College World Series title in the spring of 1994. He hit .311 in his senior season the following spring. 

“You got a guy who was a basketball player, who was a baseball player that was a pitcher and made his major league debut as a shortstop,” Gaines said. “That doesn’t come out of the state of Oklahoma very often.”

Jimbo Elrod, who won national titles in football and wrestling at OU in the 1970s, was one of the earliest two-sport stars in Norman. But Minor is considered the fore-runner for the modern era of two-sport OU athletes that flowed from Brandon Jones to Cody Thomas to Kyler Murray. 

A pair of Brent Venables’ latest football signees — Taylor Tatum and James Nesta — will be the next two in line; each plans to play baseball for Johnson in Norman.

“Ryan Minor lived every single small town Oklahoma boy’s dream,” Gaines said.

While Minor lived out a dream at OU, he left an indelible mark on the people around him.

Former athletic trainer Alex Brown remembers the “humble hero” who showed up to his daughter’s birthday parties. Anderson told a story Saturday of the night Minor completed a successful babysitting job, save for the backwards diaper Anderson’s son had on when the parents returned home. 

“He was a light,” Anderson said. “Ryan Minor was the light and the model for all of us.”

Gaines’ mind returns to the spring of 1995. Minor was the reigning Big Eight Player of the Year and a member of the defending national champion on the diamond. There was no bigger star on the Sooners’ baseball roster when OU met OSU at Tulsa’s Driller Stadium.

Gaines, then working as a student trainer, remembers stepping out of the locker room into a horde of fans waiting for one particular player to emerge. 

“I thought to myself at that time: How in the world are we going to get this guy out of here?” Gaines recalled.

“In true Ryan minor fashion, he walked out of that locker room, he signed every single autograph, he took every picture and he did it with the same ease and grace that we saw him display on the field that night,” he continued. “For me, that was a moment I’ll never forget. 

“We will miss Ryan dearly. But the memories of what he did, and most importantly the type of person that he was will last forever.”

The Delmarva Shorebirds retired the No. 44 jersey of Ryan Minor, former player and manager, on Aug. 4 in Salisbury, Maryland.

The Delmarva Shorebirds, the minor league organization Minor had multiple stints with during his coaching career, retired his No. 44 jersey on Aug. 4, 2023. (Lauren Roberts/Salisbury Daily Times)

‘He made me who I am today’

The Delmarva Shorebirds, the minor league organization Minor multiple stints with during his coaching career, retired his No. 44 jersey on Aug. 4, 2023. (Lauren Roberts/Salisbury Daily Times)

Teammates counted on it every spring. Damon would slump in the early weeks of the baseball season. Then, when Ryan rejoined the team after basketball, Damon’s batting average spiked.

All told, Damon never hit lower than .298 and had 10 or more home runs in the final three seasons of his college career. 

Still, jokes around the phenomenon have persisted among former teammates for nearly 30 years now. Damon explains it by pointing towards the fact that Cochell typically relegated him to designated hitter when Ryan returned to the clubhouse, and also to something much deeper.

“My twin brother was back with me,” he said. “I got to have my brother back. And it did make me better because I always wanted to be who he was.”

Damon and Ryan shared the kind of closeness lots of twins experience. For the first 22 years of their lives, from Hammon to Norman, the Minor twins were attached at the hip. Then they landed in professional baseball on opposite coasts — one in Baltimore and the other in San Francisco. 

Ryan eventually settled in Maryland with his wife Allyson and daughters Reagan and Finley. 

“We were always together and then we started growing apart,” Damon said. “And as twins that’s really hard.”

The bond between brothers hardly faded. But it certainly grew tighter again in the final year and a half of Ryan’s life. The struggle of Ryan’s cancer treatment served Damon as a reminder of how strong the brother he always looked up to could be. 

“We were always competing against each other,” he said. “He made me who I am today.”

Those final months together gave the brothers time for deeper conversations; discussions about what matters in life and where we go when it ends. There is another place after this, they agreed, and “it is heaven”, Damon says.

In that certainty, there was solace as Damon said goodbye to his brother Saturday.

“That half is gone right now,” Damon said. “But I know I’ll get to see him again.”

Ryan Minor is survived by his mother, Nancy Minor; his wife, Allyson Minor; his two daughters Reagan and Finley; his brother Damon Minor and others.

The Minor family has established an endowment in Ryan’s memory at the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore. Donations can be sent to the Ryan Minor Memorial Fund at 1324 Belmont Ave Suite 401, Salisbury, Maryland, 21804. You can also donate online at CFES.org/donate.

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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