Bill Justus was one of my all-time favorite Volunteers.
He was tough enough to have played professional football and athletic enough to be an outstanding basketball guard. He was a warrior, 6-1 and a lean 175, no fear, never back down. No challenge, not even Pete Maravich, could make him flinch.
Bill Justus, Tennessee legend in the time of Ray Mears, died last night in Nashville. He was 76. Dr. Wes Coffman, another old Vol, teammate, very close friend, was there. He said Bill had battled dementia. Pneumonia was the killer.
If one claim to fame is enough, Justus made the clutch free throws that defeated Mississippi State in the third overtime in Starkville on March 6, 1967 – in one of the all-time great basketball games.
That victory clinched the Southeastern Conference championship and triggered the memorable radio line from John Ward: ”Wrap it up, tie it in orange and white, and send it to Bill Justus, care of Gibbs Hall, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
Justus, for decades, owned the Tennessee free-throw record, 23 in one game, 18 consecutive. Grant Williams broke it. Justus applauded.
Justus grew up at Fulton High School. He was a prep all-American in basketball and honorable mention in football. He had a combination scholarship to Tennessee. He played freshman football. Mears may have helped him decide his future was at Stokely Center instead of Neyland Stadium.
Justus was a starter as a sophomore, 11.2 points per game, ever better on defense. The lineup included Ron Widby, Tom Boerwinkle, Tom Hendrix and Bill Hann. Coffman was the sixth man.
That team went 21-7, beat Kentucky twice and earned Tennessee’s first trip to the NCAA tournament. It lost two close games.
Justus scored more as a junior (18.0) and senior (16.3). He was captain in 1968-69 and an all-American. He led the NCAA with 90.3 percent free-throw accuracy. He was three times all-SEC. He made the NCAA Academic all-America team.
In validation of his athletic ability, the Philadelphia 76ers picked him in the NBA draft and Dallas wanted him for the NFL. The famous Gil Brandt was convinced Bill could be a cornerback for the Cowboys.
Thanks, but no thanks. Hall-of-famer Joe Dean, of basketball TV fame, offered Justus a career with Converse. He became a regional sales manager and a prominent resource at coaching clinics. Coaches took notes when Bill talked about how to shoot free throws.
Bill’s interest in the Volunteers was forever. He was the analyst on several telecasts and joined Bob Kesling for Vol Network broadcasts when Bert Bertelkamp was elsewhere.
“We were thrilled to have Bill fill in,” Kesling said. “He was Tennessee through and through. I don’t know anybody who loved Tennessee basketball more. He had a passion for it.
“The last time I saw him, at a Tennessee-Kentucky game, he was wearing his orange letterman’s sweater.”
Coffman said he and Justus met when they were 17 or 18.
“We were forever close friends. Our children called him ‘Uncle Billy’ as if he was my other brother.
“We sometimes guarded each other in practice. He was so very competitive. He wouldn’t give one easy step.”
Coffman said “Bill Justus was a great athlete, a great teammate and a great friend.”
Lou Weiss, former tennis pro at Westside Athletic Club, saw much the same Bill Justus in different settings. He was obviously a great athlete, fiercely competitive, very smart, articulate, a private person but easy to know if he liked you.
Weiss taught Justus to play tennis. They were partners for some interesting wins. They were also fishing friends.
“He was competitive in fishing, too. We fished Old Hickory in the Nashville area and Douglas Lake and the French Broad River. I want to be careful how I say this. There were days we caught (and put back) 100 or more smallmouth bass.
“Bill was very serious about fishing.”
Golf? Not so much.
“I remember the day he hit three in a row into the woods. He emptied all the balls from his bag and deliberately, one after the other, hit them in the same direction.
“The golf gods took three. They can have them all.”
(Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is email@example.com).