Local basketball coach Gary Merrell gets Hall call

December 8, 2021

Local basketball coach Gary Merrell gets Hall call



Longtime area basketball coach Gary Merrell has been elected to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.

“It was kind of a stunning thing,” Merrell recalls finding out of election. “I was actually at a Basketball Hall of Fame meeting, but I didn’t expect it. Then, they passed out the names, and I was there.”

Merrell grew up outside of Kokomo, and graduated from Northwestern High School in 1964. As a senior, he averaged 20.2 points per game–including a school record 42 point night against Lewis Cass—and led the Tigers to a 16-6 record. He was inducted into the Northwestern Athletics Hall of Fame in 2019.

gary merrell northwestern
Gary Merrell's basketball career dates back to his playing days at Northwestern High School in Kokomo (photo: Northwestern Panorama)

Merrell would go on to play college basketball at the University of Findlay, surpassing the 1,000 career points, earned the Mid-Ohio Conference Spaid Award (highest GPA) and the NAIA Liston Award (athletic and academic achievement), and was inducted into the Findlay Athletics Hall of Fame in 1996.

Merrell’s started coaching basketball 53 years ago, when the State of Indiana’s need then for educators led him to an unlicensed (at the time) teaching position in Carroll County.

“Because I played college basketball, they said you need to coach our fifth- and sixth-grade basketball teams,” Merrell the tells Parkview Sports Network. “I began to realize that when I could no longer play competitively, it was my hook to competition and being close to basketball.”

Merrell would eventually become the head coach at Carroll (Flora) and his high school coaching journey would take him to Madison Consolidated, Seymour, DeKalb, Heritage, Blackhawk Christian and Smith Academy For Excellence.

When he arrived in Waterloo in 1990, Merrell inherited a team that had won three straight sectional titles—and won a fourth-consecutive sectional in his first season as coach. Merrell moved to Heritage in 1994, leading the Patriots to their lone sectional title and lone regional title in 1998. Merrell became the Blackhawk Christian head coach in 2001; and in 2004, the Braves were 1A state runners-up.

Heritage 1998
Merrell coached Heritage from 1994-2001, leading the Patriots to sectional and regional titles in the first year of class basketball in Indiana (photo Heritage Lantern)

“Blackhawk has been a really big part of it,” “We were in the days of when we were first winning sectionals then. Just the thrill of knowing you were going to the state finals was such a peak moment at the time.”

In 2014, Merrell was named the first head coach at the brand new Smith Academy For Excellence, an all-boys charter school that operates out of St. John Evangelical School, 725 West Washington Street in Fort Wayne.

>WATCH: 2004 IHSAA 1A Boys Basketball State Championship - Blackhawk Christian vs. Waldron

“We really believe in Smith Academy,” Merrell says. “The whole purpose is to try to make young men out of kids who have some  tough disadvantages in their lives.”

Merrell became athletic director at Smith Academy in 2013, and was instrumental in the Fighting 54th (the school nickname that honors the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all-Black volunteer Civil War regiment) earning full IHSAA membership beginning in 2017. He handed the team over to Chad Ginder, who played for Merrell at DeKalb in the early 1990s, the next year. Merrell still teaches psychology at Blackhawk Christian and serves as an assistant coach at Smith Academy.

Smith Academy currently practices in the gym at St. John’s, and plays a majority of their games on Blackhawk Christian’s campus. School officials purchased the former Village Woods Elementary School in November of 2019. Renovations to the property are underway that will give Smith Academy its own facilities for the first time.

merrell smith
Merrell now serves as athletic director at Smith Academy For Excellence, but remains an assistant coach for his former DeKalb player Chad Ginder

“I really feel like there’s a real purpose here,” Merrell beams “Wins are tough to come by, but there’s just a lot that can accomplished here for the kids of Fort Wayne, and it’s really worthwhile.”

All told, Merrell won 482 games, ten sectional championships, one regional championship and one semi-state championship in 36 seasons in a head coach in Indiana.

The 2022 Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony will be held March 23 in Indianapolis. To read about all the inductees, click here.


written & produced by Eric Dutkiewicz

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