Happy 96th birthday, Gus, coming soon, July 8.
Gus Manning extended a helping hand to so many people during his long life at the University of Tennessee that he may not recall what he did for me.
Once upon a time, a young guy with a burr haircut was sports editor of the campus newspaper, then the Orange and White. Gus thought it appropriate that a student journalist with such lofty rank and obvious potential should experience an occasional Tennessee football game on the road.
He found a Friday afternoon seat for my first plane ride, with the team to North Carolina in late October 1953. On the following morning, long before kickoff, Gus appointed me as driver of Robert R. Neyland’s courtesy car in Chapel Hill.
The General wanted to go to the stadium very early. We were first in the parking lot. Because of Gus Manning, I got the rare opportunity of two hours with Neyland. I mostly listened. When there were occasional lulls in his marvelous recollections, I asked simple questions. None was particularly dumb.
Gus was the key man in my baseball umpiring career. Based on his recommendation, I got opportunities at Carson-Newman and Maryville College games and in semi-pro clashes. Soon enough, I was a Southeastern Conference official, anointed to Tennessee games. I did OK.
Gus never said much about good days and nothing about my worst, the one where I declared Kentucky’s leadoff batter out after two strikes.
Think about that: first man up, what a way to start the day.
Harry Lancaster, coach of the Wildcats, did not overreact. There was no stampede from the bench to home plate (his prosthetic leg might have been a factor). Upon arrival, he asked if I was feeling well. He said we all have to guard against heat strokes.
Harry negotiated calmly, eventually convinced me of my blunder and persuaded me to allow his hitter another strike.
“Even at Tennessee, we expect to get three,” said Lancaster.
Gus could have terminated my contract. He probably thought the laughter I endured was punishment enough.
Nobody seemed shocked when Tennessee put the Manning name on Gate 16 at Neyland Stadium. The most famous quarterback in Tennessee history wore that number. What’s more, Peyton Manning had already given millions to the university. It would have been appropriate to put his name in lights.
It was surprising to find that Gate 16 was to be named in honor of Gus Manning, not Peyton. Surprise 2 was that it was Peyton’s idea.
Peyton Manning is a good talker. He said Gus defines what being a Tennessee Volunteer is about. Gus had the spirit. He had the capability and willingness to do many jobs. Peyton said he could do what it now takes 50 people to do.
That either says a lot about Gus or not so much about the many specialists who have combined to replace him.
Rumor has it Gus never entered the stadium through “his” gate. He said it was for paying customers. He had a free pass to the press box.
Gus was a genius as Tennessee ticket manager. Big games were almost always snug sellouts, but a few tickets were stashed in Manning’s shirt pocket on Friday nights – just in case the governor decided at the last minute that he just had to see and be seen. Yes, of course there would be room for his entourage.
Gus was ready if a crucial hearing ended early and a senator suddenly found he was available.
Gus was in a comfort zone. He had a disposal plan. The best seats in the stadium did not end up empty. A local merchant with correct connections paid for the tickets when Gus finally turned them loose. Within 15 minutes, the tickets were sold again. It was supply and demand at a bargain price, 50-yard-line for face value. A few fans in the know checked at the appointed time to see what was available.
If my memory is near enough to correct, Gus arrived at Tennessee in 1946, before helmets had nose guards. That didn’t alarm the tough young man. He had attended Rule High School and had been in the Marines.
Gus didn’t make it as a football Volunteer, but he never went away. Neyland recognized value and made him responsible for almost everything. Assignments penciled onto the end of his first job description took up three pages on a yellow legal pad.
Through the many years, Gus knew everybody – the whole string of head coaches and even Lindsey Nelson. He knew Johnny Butler before his famous run against Alabama. When Gus was a high school freshman, Butler helped him sneak into UT games.
Gus knew George Cafego and Hank Lauricella and Doug Atkins and Reggie White and Steve Kiner and Bob Johnson and Chip Kell.
He knew all the assistant coaches and all their helpers. He knew the little guys, too, and pretty much treated them and the greats all the same – with a fair degree of respect but with an occasional tease to keep egos in line.
If you want to send an old-fashioned greeting card, address it to Gus at Little Creek, 1811 Little Creek Lane, Knoxville, TN 37922.
Happy birthday, Gus. Thanks for the memories.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org.