Marvin West: Tennessee best basketball teams

Marvin Westwestwords

Baseball: Tony Vitello’s over-the-wall bashers own the Tennessee sports spotlight. Their record is 40-4 with 103 home runs.

Football: Tennessee exceeded expectations in the NFL draft. Estimated contract value for five Vols is $24 million.

Basketball: Surprisingly, it lingers. Early exit from the NCAA tournament, no surprise, was six weeks ago but Rick Barnes remains wide awake. The coach is trying to turn over his roster. Six Vols have gone away.


Morning discussions at Hardee’s in Union County are most often about the weather, politics, Highway 33 reconstruction and how the okra is doing. Only increased cost of living threatens the no-profanity agreement.

It was a bit disconcerting to discover encroachment by Tennessee basketball. The focus wasn’t Barnes’ traditional tournament dropsy or the link between NIL money and the transfer portal or even replacement recruiting.

The almost-an-argument was about how good were the recent Volunteers and which team was the best ever in Big Orange Country.

Fortunately, I arrived late, but, being a resident genius, was invited to step in as moderator. Coffee-to-go rescued me.

The question did not go away. Which Tennessee team really was the best?

I and my bicycle still had a newspaper route the year John Mauer’s best team won an SEC title. I also missed Emmett Lowery’s best. Later, as a UT student, I saw a lot at Alumni Memorial Gymnasium. I remain dismayed that Tennessee had a losing record in ’54 with Carl Widseth, Ed Wiener, Herman Thompson, Bill Lovelace and Buddy Cruze.

The “best” question was still there. Research became necessary. That led to the formation of a power panel of expert consultants, old Vol Hank Bertelkamp, not quite as old Vol Kenny Coulter, relatively young former Vol Lloyd Richardson and famous Vol historians Bud Ford and Tom Mattingly. I accepted a self-appointment as chair.

Keep in mind that basketball is older than I am. It goes back to 1891. James Naismith put up the proverbial peach baskets at the International YMCA Training School, now known as Springfield (Mass.) College. Seventeen years later, the game arrived at Tennessee.

Our “best” panel skipped the era of center jumps after each goal. We did not take seriously the period when Jellico YMCA, Knoxville High School and Johnson Bible College provided the opposition. We did take note that football coach Zora G. Clevenger was also the basketball coach for a few seasons. His 1916 team went 12-0.

In more modern times, Bertelkamp averaged 14.3 points per game in 1952-53. Coulter averaged 14 in 1958-59. Richardson played in the early 1970s, in the time of Jimmy England, Don Johnson, Mike Edwards and Len Kosmalski. Lloyd didn’t get to shoot as much.

The panel cut to the chase. It compared the best teams of Ray Mears, Don DeVoe, Jerry Green, Bruce Pearl and Barnes. Panelists voted 1-2-3. Results were validated by Sarah.

The 1976-77 team won. To my surprise, the vote wasn’t close.

Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld respected each other and were totally unselfish. With just one basketball, they produced great numbers. Bernard led the SEC by averaging 25.8 points. Ernie G. scored 22.8, Mike Jackson 15.4, Reggie Johnson 11. Johnny Darden contributed 5.6 and a lot of assists. King led the league in rebounding with 14.2.

The team went 22-6 against a deliberately difficult schedule –Duke, San Francisco and UCLA were 50 per cent of the losses. Mears thought stiff competition would help at tournament time. It didn’t. Syracuse sent the Vols home.

Tennessee did win that SEC championship with 16-2. Ah yes, we remember it well.

The panelists said the 2007-2008 team was second best, 31-5 overall, 14-2 as SEC champions, Sweet Sixteen in the tournament, No. 5 in the final AP poll.

Pearl and I thought key players were Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince. Jordan Howell was a captain.

Tennessee started the year ranked No. 7 but got trashed by Texas. The Vols won 11 in a row, lost at Kentucky, but defeated the next nine foes, including No. 1 Memphis in Memphis. The polls turned orange.

Some said this was the biggest victory in Tennessee basketball history.

The Vols couldn’t handle the celebration and pats on the back. They lost at Vanderbilt, bounced back against Kentucky, won one and lost one in the SEC tournament and won twice in the NCAAs. Louisville inflicted a sizable upset.

My favorite team, 1966-67, was very good but not the best. It was awarded third place. It finished 21-7, 15-3 in the SEC, No. 8 in the final AP poll.

Mears had enjoyed considerable success in four previous years. He improved markedly as a coach when RonWidby became a senior. Ron was a local talent, Fulton High School, multi-talented, refuse-to-lose disposition.

Widby led the SEC with 22.1 points plus eight and a half rebounds a game. Tom Boerwinkle averaged 12 points and 10 rebounds and generally tolerated Stu Aberdeen coaching him with a broom. Bill Justus averaged 11 points and Tom Hendrix 10. Billy Hann was an excellent point guard.

In my mind, this tight-knit collection became the first great team at Tennessee. The unforgettable performance was a three-overtime victory at Mississippi State, third-best UT game I ever saw. That season finale clinched the league crown.

“We were picked fifth or sixth pre-season, but we had confidence,” recalled Widby.  “I told Marvin that he had it wrong, that we were going to win the championship.”

Justus was a witness.

“Ron made the comment that we were going to win the SEC. I remember thinking he’d gone crazy.”

Widby had 35 points and nine rebounds in that dramatic, unbelievably tense game in Starkville. Indeed, he simply refused to lose. He scored 10 in a row in the overtimes. Justus hit the clinching free throws.

Widby oversaw stuffing me, fully clothed, into a cold shower as punishment for my lack of November faith. Newspaper editor Ralph Millett thought that was very funny and replaced my Kmart suit.

FYI: Coming soon, panel picks 25 best players.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *