Kobe react: Remembering Bill Gibbs

Marvin Westwestwords

One of the disadvantages of old age is that disasters are sometimes revisited.

The death of Kobe Bryant in the Sunday helicopter crash created an immediate flashback.

Bill Gibbs

I was in Gainesville, Fla., on the morning of Feb. 3, 1964, when Tennessee assistant basketball coach Bill Gibbs died in a commuter plane crash moments after takeoff.

In the hours before, Gibbs presented a scouting report on the Florida Gators to coach Ray Mears and the Volunteers. We were at the same table for dinner. His next assignment was to check on the Auburn Tigers.

When the shocking news of the crash reached the team hotel, my immediate reaction was a newspaper story. I rushed to the airport. I crashed into a stone wall.

Logic exclaimed that Bill was aboard flight 510, a 10-passenger twin-engine Beechcraft aimed for Jacksonville. It was the only way out of Gainesville to meet his next deadline. Alas, there was no way to prove the obvious.

Airport officials were in shock. The South Central Airline manifest? The person who had worked the gate gave me a blank stare. Police had more important things to do.

One of the two people who would talk, a maintenance employee, understood my plight and wanted to help but didn’t really know what I needed to confirm.

He said the plane got up maybe 200 feet and made a whining sound.

“It hit the ground and exploded.”

Jo Ann somebody, a secretary, thought the plane didn’t sound right as it lifted off. She went outside the terminal. She saw the crash and the fire. She said she and others rushed a long way out the runway and got close.

“It was too hot.”

I don’t remember what I finally wrote but it probably wasn’t very good. I did know some Gibbs background.

I don’t think I made the connection between that air death and a really famous sports figure who died in a plane crash. Knute Rockne, Notre Dame’s legendary football coach, was killed in March 1931 when his small plane went down in a Kansas cornfield.

I’ve made a lot of connections since:

Rocky Marciano, former heavyweight boxing champ, 49-0, died when his Cessna crashed into a tree near the Des Moines airport. That was in September 1969.

Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirate, was 38 when he died in a crash off Puerto Rico on New Year’s Eve 1972. He was on a mission of mercy, flying to Nicaragua with relief supplies for earthquake victims.

Thurman Munson, New York Yankee catcher and captain, died on a day off in 1979. He crashed at the Akron-Canton Airport practicing takeoffs and landings.

I am again reminded of the 1970 charter flight crash that cost the lives of 37 Marshall University football players.

There have been others – Ken Hubbs, Cory Lidle, Payne Stewart, Davey Allison …

Bill Gibbs’ death hit close to home. When Mears moved from Wittenberg to Tennessee, he hired the high school coach from Fairborn, Ohio, as his assistant. When Mears fell ill in his first season with the Vols, Gibbs took the steering wheel.

He was the coach of record when Tennessee overcame a 15-point deficit and upset Kentucky in Lexington. Gibbs and the Vols did it to the Wildcats again in Knoxville.

In Mears’ second season, ex-Vol Tommy Bartlett became the No. 1 assistant and Gibbs hit the road as a scout and recruiter.

His death was a traumatic experience. Trying to firm up the story was the worst day of my newspaper life. When the university tore down Gibbs Hall, it got a little bit of me.

Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com


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