The late Mack Peyton, long-time coach and athletic director at Chadron State College, will be inducted into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame on August 30, some 70 years after he graduated from the institution.
Peyton was both a basketball and a baseball standout for the Cowboys in the late 1940s after he had served 36 months in World War II. After launching his teaching and coaching career in 1949 at Rock Springs High School, where he spent nine years, and serving two years as a coach at New Mexico Military Institute, Peyton spent the last 20 years of his life at Chadron State.
His untimely death occurred in 1980 at age 57. He was among the charter inductees into the Chadron State Athletic Hall of Fame in 1983.
He was a native of Richmond, Indiana, and was on the Indiana Hoosiers’ basketball team his freshman year in 1942-43 before joining the Army. A portion of his military career was spent in Casper, where Ev Shelton, the UW basketball and baseball coach, learned about Peyton’s athletic abilities and when the war ended convinced him to join the Cowboys instead of returning to Indiana.
Peyton was a three-year starter and a two-year captain of both the Wyoming basketball and baseball teams. He also was named to “Who’s Who Among American College and University Students.”
During most of his college basketball career, he played what is now referred to as point guard, and was known for his court sense and ball-handling and passing skills. The Cowboys had a cumulative record of 65-25 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament all three years. As a senior in 1948-49, he was named to the Skyline Six All-Conference team, and the Pokes won the conference championship.
Near the end of his collegiate career, the Casper Star-Tribune reported: “Peyton has always been a leader on the cage court. Imaginative, quick to seize on the opposition’s momentary lapses. In addition, his repertoire has always included lengthy long shot accuracy, either with both hands or one as the occasion demands.”
Peyton also excelled in baseball. As a sophomore in 1947, he reportedly played every position except pitcher and catcher and led the Cowboys with a .391 average. From then on he primarily played centerfield and also was the team’s leading hitter again in ’48.
All three Wyoming baseball teams he played on had winning records and were described as the best the Cowboys ever had.
During his senior season, Peyton signed a minor league contract with the Santa Barbara Dodgers, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and went to Brooklyn for a workout. He played for Santa Barbara in the summer of 1949.
However, by then he was 26 years old, he and his wife Mary Dee had one child and another was on its way. So he accepted the teaching and coaching position at Rock Springs. He was the school’s head basketball coach nine years, his teams qualified for the state tournament each year, won one state championship and reached the tourney finals three more years.
Peyton had a 202-56 record when left Rock Springs to become the basketball coach at New Mexico Military Academy in 1958. His second year there was the Broncos’ first winning season.
Peyton came to Chadron State in 1960. He coached the baseball team for 10 years and the men’s basketball team 14 years. His basketball teams had a cumulative 190-159 record, making him the winningest coach of that sport in Chadron State history. His most successful team was in 1966-67, when the Eagles went 22-6, were undefeated in the Nebraska College Conference, swept two games from the University of Omaha to win the district crown and represented the state at the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, where they split two games.
He was named both the District 11 Basketball Coach of the Year and the Omaha World-Herald’s Coach of the Year for all sports in 1967.
Peyton also coached the CSC women’s basketball team in 1978-79, leading the Lady Eagles, who had been 4-22 the previous season, to a 12-12 record.
One of Peyton’s proteges, Larry Riley, also from Richmond, Ind., and later the general manager of the Golden State Warriors, said when he attended CSC in the early 1960s, the coach often played one-on-one against his basketball players and “was hard to beat,” even though Peyton was beginning to have problems with arthritic hips that plagued him the rest of his life.
Riley also noted that when the Armstrong Building, which had a swimming pool, opened in 1964, Peyton taught a swimming class and “could swim faster than just about anyone in the class.”
In 1970, when Ross Armstrong reached the college’s mandatory retirement age for an administrative position, Peyton was appointed the college’s athletic director. Soon afterwards he also was elected to succeed Armstrong as chairman of NAIA District 11, comprised of about a dozen small colleges in Nebraska.
He was filling both positions when he died on June 25, 1980.
Peyton was an improviser and a worker who never sought much help from others. He could get the jobs done himself, but was very generous in lending assistance.
Soon after his arrival on campus, he founded the Chadron State Holiday Basketball Tournament which became the nation’s largest during the holidays. It utilized Chadron’s three gymnasiums (Armstrong Building, Middle School Gym and Assumption Arena). At its peak after girls began playing basketball, it featured 16 college and 32 high school teams and a total of 72 games over a three-day span. The tournament operated 16 years and he was its director 15 of them.
He also founded the college’s outdoor education program that was a part of the Physical Education Department’s curriculum. It included two- or three-day sixth grade camps at Camp Norwesca that were attended annually by more than 1,200 students from area schools. The youths were instructed and supervised by college students who were enrolled in Peyton’s classes.
During the summers in this era, Peyton led college students who rode horseback for a 10-day into the Wind River Mountains of western Wyoming. The curriculum focused on appreciation of the environment and how to “live off the land.”
In addition, he coached the Chadron American Legion baseball team to third place in the Class A State Tournament in 1964, founded the Colter Run during Chadron’s Fur Trade Days, planted numerous trees when Ridgeview Country Club was being developed and was a strong supporter of the Museum of the Fur Trade east of town. He served on the board of directors of both the golf course and museum.
Peyton’s widow, Mary Dee, is now in her 90s and lives in Gothenburg. The Peytons’ three children--Judy, Becky and Mark--and their families live in central Nebraska.
Although he had some help from Chadron State personnel, most of the credit for getting Peyton into the Wyoming Hall of Fame belongs to Henry Wilks, now of Bigfork, Montana. He began the push to get Peyton inducted several years ago and proved that persistence pays.
Wilks was 8 years old when his family moved to Rock Springs in 1949, the same year the Peytons arrived. One of Peyton’s early initiatives there was founding a church league youth basketball program that required both the players and the coaches to attend church at least three Sundays each month.
“He brought me to both Christ and basketball,” Wilks said during an interview with the Rock Springs Rocket-Miner two years ago. “Several of my teachers in Rock Springs were University of Wyoming graduates and they and others I got to know often spoke about what a great athlete Mack Peyton had been there. They said he was among the best of that era on highly successful teams in two sports and also was a captain of both teams.”
Through the years, Wilks became a staunch Cowboys’ fan, even helped form the Cowboy Joe booster club and began attending the Hall of Fame induction dinners.
“It soon dawned on me that Mack Peyton was not in the Hall of Fame,” Wilks recalls. “I started researching his athletic career more, found out that everything I’d heard about him was true and tried to make it happen.”
After submitting nominations a couple of times, Wilks discovered that most of the members of the Selection Committee were too young to know much about his hero’s athletic accomplishments. They needed more information.
About a year ago, Wilks went all out to present the case again. He spent countless hours in libraries and newspaper offices doing more research, hired a helper who searched the files and microfilms of newspapers as far away as Las Vegas and Salt Lake City to obtain addition material. Together, they prepared binders containing nearly 150 pages that were sent to all 12 members of the Selection Committee.
“It was with great relief and satisfaction when I was notified a couple of weeks ago that Mack Peyton was finally going into the Hall of Fame,” Wilks said. “I’ve seldom spent this much time, energy and money on a project, but it was worth it. It is something that needed to happen.”