As Yogi or some other famous thinker once asked, how did it get so late so soon?
Eight or 10 years after high time, the University of Tennessee will induct Chuck Rohe into the athletics department hall of fame – Friday evening, the night before the Orange and White football game, private party, invitations only. I don’t know why.
Chuck Rohe is legendary. Some legends are plastic. Some are pumped-up products of public relations machines. Some are hand-me-down fairy tales. Chuck Rohe is real.
The long-ago track and field coach and football recruiter is an original, truly one of a kind. He is 92. He doesn’t hear well but he’ll get the message when other not-quite-as-old Volunteers salute his accomplishments.
And accomplished he is. Starting at zero, Rohe teams won 21 consecutive Southeastern Conference championships in outdoor track, indoor track and cross-country. He caused rivals to build tracks and hire the best coaches they could afford. He brought the first Black athletes to Tennessee. He built the link between track and football and recruited such dual-sport stars as Richmond Flowers and Chip Kell. Karl Kremser just showed up.
Back when schools competed in campus track meets, Rohe’s Tennessee went 87-10. Chuck was national coach of the year in 1967.
Rohe developed some superstars. Bill Skinner (javelin) and Willie Thomas (880) were NCAA champions and, of course all-Americans.
Flowers, Bill High, Pat Pomphrey, Roger Neiswender, hurdles; Hardee McAlhaney, Darwin Bond, 440; Larry Kelly, 880; Doug Brown, steeplechase; Rocky Soderberg, mile; Kremser, high jump; David Story, Brown, 6-mile run
Carroll Thrift, Chick McGeehan, Gary Wagner and Flowers, 440 relay; Gary Womble, Kelly, Audry Hardy and McAlhaney; Trevor James, Hardy, James Craig and Bond, mile relay; Robert Sprung, pole vault.
If he hasn’t ditched them as past tense, Rohe has a room full of plaques and trophies. Years ago, at a more appropriate time, he was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. In 2009 he was welcomed into the Knoxville Track Club Hall of Fame. He is also in the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame and I don’t know how many more.
He served as NCAA representative on the United States Olympic Committee from 1968-76. In 1980, Rohe received the President’s Award from USA Track & Field, national governing body, for leadership in athletics.
After Tennessee, he had another life, a business career, 20 years as executive director of the Florida Citrus Sports Association, which conducts the Citrus Bowl. He was national director of Nike Coach of the Year Clinics, which annually attracted more than 10,000 football coaches to 20 clinics across the country. John Majors was a star attraction.
At Tennessee, Rohe was famous for hurrying. He always had many other things to do. One of his secrets was a super-positive outlook on life. Freezing weather was irrelevant. Neither cold rain nor sleet nor snow could dampen his enthusiasm. Even if a storm was blowing in, he would meet distance runners for cross-country training at 6 a.m. with his trademark greeting: “What a day!”
Rohe’s runners were smart. They ran – if only to keep from standing in the cold with a madman.
Rohe didn’t sleep much. He had a second job, coordinator of football recruiting. He was outstanding at evaluating talent. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he found several players who could subsidize his track program without using meager track funds for scholarships.
He found an intriguing formula for sorting out football prospects. Gil Brandt, vice president of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys, invented it when Tom Landry was coach.
Players at each position had to meet certain measurements to be considered for the NFL draft = weight, height, strength, time in the 40, quickness, other evaluations and all sorts of opinions about intelligence, toughness and determination.
Brandt thought Rohe was some kind of genius. He shared his Cowboys standards with him. Rohe adjusted them for college age and ran them past Doug Dickey. The football coach said yes! with an exclamation point.
Dickey teams had the nation’s best seven-year record and appeared in seven consecutive bowl games.
There are dozens of Rohe tales, some certified as true. Let us start with the Tennessee track team in Modesto for the California Relays in 1969.
“We were in a large sporting goods store just killing time,” recalled Skinner. “Richmond, Larry Kelly, Hardee and a couple of others started hitting golf balls into a complicated, supposedly foolproof net which reported distances and accuracy.
“After everyone had taken their swings and after a lot of bragging and maybe a little wagering, it was finally Coach’s turn. Somehow the golf ball got out of the tunnel netting and careened around the store, knocking over water skis and other items. Customers were ducking and running for the door. Rohe just stood there.
“The rest of us acted like we didn’t know who he was.”
There is a psyche-out story from 1965.
At the SEC cross-country championships in Birmingham, Volunteers swept the first six places. Exhausted runners from other schools were clustered near the finish line. Some were stretched out in the grass, some were gagging and throwing up. Some probably thought they were dying.
Along came Coach Rohe, right through the middle of a hundred worn-out runners. In his big voice, he had a little message for the Vols: “Okay, guys, let’s get in five miles now, so we don’t have as much work to do when we get home this afternoon.”
Without a word of protest, the Vols jogged back onto the golf course for a post-race run.
Oh, for old photos of the priceless expressions of rivals, well, would-be rivals.
One more for the road: Trip home from the Winter Relays at VMI, old route 11 in Virginia, 2 in the morning, snowing like crazy.
Driver noticed the bus fuel gauge was blinking. He had forgotten to fill the tank. He stopped a state trooper by blinking his lights. Good news – all-night gas station a couple of miles ahead. Drive slowly, save gas.
The bus ran out 100 yards or so short of the pumps.
Rohe to the rescue: “Wake up guys. We’re going to push the bus!”
And they did.
Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]