Cheers for the champions

Marvin Westwestwords


Now there is a word that says something. And it sure sounds good.

Being the champion of Southeastern Conference basketball is particularly meaningful. We have learned the hard way that titles are very difficult to achieve. Kentucky is almost always in the way. This time, Georgia was a giant obstacle. The Bulldogs almost spoiled the party.

The success of this Tennessee season really was fun for fans because it was unexpected. Official know-it-alls projected these Vols as next to worst in the league. Ho, ho, ho. The team became greater than the components. There was depth and unity. Credit the coach.

OK, better set the record straight. Tennessee is actually co-champion. Auburn shares the distinction. In fact, Auburn is the No. 1 seed for the tournament. It defeated Tennessee in Knoxville. Maybe the Tigers were really better earlier in the season. The Vols finished stronger. If they meet in the tournament, we’ll see who is what.

In these times at Tennessee, championships of any kind are relatively rare. Softball might win. Old faithful women’s basketball has retreated. Football would have to buy tickets to see a title game. Track has died on the vine. Several sports have new coaches.

In the colorful 85-year history of SEC baskets, this is the 10th title for the Volunteers. The league says the regular season is the official one. It also says Tennessee has only nine. I do believe the league is wrong.

I was only 2 in 1936 but I heard about the first championship. Tennessee had hired a real coach, Blair Gullion. He discovered he had three outstanding athletes, Harry Anderson, Biggy Marshall and Gene Johnson.

Basketball back then had the centers jump for possession after each field goal. Anderson, 6-3, won a lot of toss-ups.

Former Kentucky coach John Mauer directed a title team for Tennessee in 1941. It featured Gilbert Huffman, Frank Thomas and Bernie Mehan. A younger Mehan, Dick, led the 1943 Vols to a title. Amazing that Mauer was a football assistant for Robert R. Neyland and also baseball coach.

Twenty-four years later, early in the Ray Mears era, 1967, the year Stokely Center opened, Tennessee took the title with a 15-3 SEC record. The clincher came at Mississippi State, three overtimes, terrific game by Ron Widby, Tom Hendrix, Tom Boerwinkle, Bill Justus and Billy Hann.

Justus, excellent free-throw shooter, missed one that would have made us all very happy sooner. Later, he hit two to make it happen.

The previous November, Widby told me Tennessee would win the championship. I didn’t believe him and said so. The Vols were picked sixth.

Indeed, they did win. After the preliminary celebration in Starkville, Widby and three teammates waited patiently behind the press table for me to finish writing two stories. One Vol gathered my typewriter, notebook, briefcase and other stuff. The others captured and carried me, twisting and squirming, to the dressing room and shoved me into the showers. They almost ruined my best Kmart suit.

They laughed and they laughed but eventually showed some compassion. I was awarded a towel. They loaned me Tennessee warmup togs and game shoes for the flight home with the team. Widby, each time he thought of it, reminded me that “I told you so.”

Through the years, he has repeated himself on occasions. He still thinks it is funny. It never occurred to him that I could have caught a cold.

Tennessee shared the title with Kentucky in 1972. Mike Edwards, Len Kosmalski and Larry Robinson made it happen. Edwards missed a free throw that would have won that championship outright. The team was so disappointed, it skipped the consolation prize, the NIT.

The Ernie and Bernie Show plus Mike Jackson earned only a share of the 1977 crown with a remarkable 16-2 record. Alas and alas, that was the end of the Mears years. If you are keeping score, his teams won 278 and lost 112.

Dale Ellis and Michael Brooks led Don DeVoe’s 1982 team to another co-championship. Jerry Green coached the 2000 Vols to a four-way title tie and the NCAA Sweet 16. Vincent Yarbrough, Tony Harris, Ron Slay and Isiah Victor did the heavy lifting.

Bruce Pearl’s 2008 Vols went 14-2 against league foes and won the SEC outright for the first time since 1967. Good season, No. 1 for a few minutes. Let us remember Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Tyler Smith and C.J. Watson.

Come to think of it, these simple westwords say we never forget “champs” when we are so blessed. What a joy they are. Admiral Schofield’s intensity has a place in the scrapbook. Admiral’s smile is a special treat.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments. His address is

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