Vanderbilt is different

Marvin Westwestwords

Let’s take a walk, a little visit to Vanderbilt. Tennessee will play basketball there on Wednesday. All tickets are sold, even for obstructed views. The game should be exciting.


If you have never been to Memorial Gym, you can get a brief briefing. If you know all you want to know about the place, maybe the recollections will be fun.

Vanderbilt has the oldest arena in the Southeastern Conference. It was built in 1952. Acoustics are awful but it looks better now than it did then. Millions and more millions have been poured into enlargements and cosmetic improvements. There isn’t enough money to solve the fundamental flaw.

Famous architect Edwin Augustus Keeble was asked to design a multipurpose building. He was thinking sports court (basketball, volleyball, badminton, maybe even tennis with restrictions) and a stage for concerts and theatrics.

He did it – with the much-too-wide floor up in the air above the foundation. It had a strange look. But there was no criticism. His father was dean of Vanderbilt Law School.

Best I can tell, most other basketball courts in the world are designed so most fans look down at games. At Vanderbilt, there is the option of looking up.

Elsewhere, team benches are at the side of the floor. At Vanderbilt, benches are at opposite ends. Coaches, being creatures of habit, used to grumble about the configuration. The late Adolph Rupp, more famous than the others, had the audacity to actually complain.

Vanderbilt tried benches on the sideline. That blocked any chance of seeing the action from what might have been premium seats.

Upon minimum inspection, the obvious reaction is why. If you ask a properly trained Commodore, you will get the spin line about character and charm. Be sure there is nothing wrong with Memorial Gym. It is just different.

The basketball relationship between Tennessee and Vanderbilt is different from football. Through the years, the Vols have lost 13 more in Nashville than they have won. They once lost by 40.

Back in the days of Tony White and Dyron Nix, the Vols were up by eight in the final minute and managed to lose. In 2015, when Donnie Tyndall was coach, Tennessee was trailing by five with 15 seconds remaining. By the grace of God and Robert Hubbs, the Vols got even before the buzzer and won in overtime.

Once upon a time, before game clocks were out in the open for all to see, the official timer sat at an official sideline table with the official wind-up watch, tick-tock, tick-tock. On a memorable afternoon, the Volunteers seemed safely ahead when advised that 10 minutes remained. As the game dragged on and on, Vanderbilt closed the gap. Surprisingly, the Commodores hit a long shot and forged ahead, 41-40.

Bingo, game over. No more time. Sorry about that.

That was bad but what really hurt was when the Volunteers heard that a campus fraternity had awarded the timekeeper a plaque for winning the big game of the year.

One of my favorite trips to Vanderbilt was 1964. Danny Schultz, shooting star in Tennessee’s 64-62 victory, was called to courtside by a TV announcer for a post-game interview.

Danny had scored 33 and had many vivid details to share. He got his hands on the microphone and wouldn’t give it back. He talked about bounce passes and screens and jump shots and clutch free throws and how much fun it was to clip the cursed Commodores at their house.

What is a neatly coiffed and properly attired sportscaster to do? It would be politically incorrect to strangle the star. Schultz talked the station past its allotted time and was still going strong when a courageous engineer finally pulled the plug.

Ray Mears never did like Vanderbilt, and the Commodores had no special love for the colorful Tennessee coach. Nashville fans would arrive early to heckle Mears and he contributed by leading the Vols on a long, out-of-the-way walk from a remote entrance to the dressing room door. Some overly exuberants rushed to the edge of the court to better taunt the coach.

Mears countered with a bodyguard: Bill Skinner, a giant of a man who earned his keep as Tennessee’s javelin thrower. Like coaches and players, Skinner wore a bright orange blazer – only larger. This was part of the psychological warfare, flag waving before the bull. Vandy fans could not stand it. They became more vocal but didn’t dare get too close to Mears. Skinner, a Navy heavyweight boxer and steelworker before college, had an intimidating scowl.

A Vandy student once captured Tennessee’s fancy orange-and-white ball used during warm-ups. A manager tried to recover it. Mears nodded to Skinner. The big man marched right into the noisy kindergarten section and the culprit meekly forfeited his trophy.

There is a shortage of Bill Skinners, but Rick Barnes won’t need a bodyguard. He does not wear an orange blazer.

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

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