‘He doesn’t like to lose’
By Tom Mattingly
Many times, during University of Tennessee basketball games at Stokely Center, there were often-heated confabs at the scorer’s table featuring the game officials, opposing coaches, official scorer Russ Bebb, and clock operator Sid Hankins. To say things were hectic would be an understatement.
If you were watching closely, you might also have seen Knoxville News Sentinel sportswriter Marvin West a few inches behind the proceedings as an interested observer.
You see, Bebb’s day job was a sportswriter for the Knoxville Journal.
In his career, Bebb had risen through the ranks at the Journal and ended his career as executive sports editor and columnist. He was responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Journal sports department.
During football season, “Russ’s Ratings,” his analysis of the game the previous Saturday, provided an insightful position-by-position look at the Vols’ performance.
An accomplished writer, he authored two books on Tennessee football. “The Big Orange,” a year-by-year history of Tennessee football, came out in 1973 and was updated in 1979. “Vols,” a 30-year history of the Tennessee football program from 1964 to 1993, came out in 1994.
Bebb, who died Dec. 1, 2004, had served as the official scorer at Tennessee basketball games for more than 30 years, at the Armory-Fieldhouse, Stokely Athletics Center, and Thompson-Boling Arena. He also scored SEC Tournament games after the event was renewed in 1979. He was 74, born Feb. 22, 1930.
He kept a precise basketball scorebook, with a system of circled dots telling him who was in the game, Xs for field goals and circled 3s for three-point goals. He had learned that from his predecessor, Sam Venable, Sr., and rarely was there a controversy with the scorebook.
Bob Kesling said, “Russ didn’t need a fancy computer, just a legal pad and pencil to chart the game.” He could calculate the distance on a punt an instant after the receiver caught it, and, in nearly the same motion, come up with the return yardage.
With Russ, the goal was nothing short of perfection. More often than not, he got there.
“At the end of the game, Russ would hand you a handwritten stat sheet that was to the yard what the official stat sheet read,” said Kesling. “If there was a difference, Russ would claim the official stats were wrong. He was that good.”
Whatever the discussion at the scorer’s table, some type of controversy that tried men’s souls, there was Marvin, notebook in hand, making sure Russ didn’t get an edge for his newspaper.
These sportswriters were pretty darn competitive. You couldn’t slip anything past them. It was harder than sneaking the sun past a rooster.
West once received a bonus for running from his assigned seat down the press row to the scorer’s table. Watching the game from across the court were News-Sentinel editor Ralph Millett and sports editor Tom Siler.
“What is he doing?” Millett asked when Marvin appeared on the scene.
“His job,” said Siler.
Siler explained that, if anything of significance was going on between the referees and the official scorer or timer, West was at a competitive disadvantage where he was seated.
“He has to hurry to keep up with what is happening. He is very competitive. He doesn’t like to lose.”
Millett was impressed: “How about that.”
The next day, at the News-Sentinel, West was called into the editor’s office.
“You have received a $5 raise. On the books, I’m calling it a hustle award.”
Back then, West had a light, bright quip he often used as a response to compliments:
“If you don’t have ability, you fill the void with effort.”
He did not say that to Millett. He just said, “Thank you, sir. Mr. Siler expects that.”
Russ also had some memorable lines and moments.
SEC referee Robert “Poochie” Hartsfield blew his whistle long and loud and ruled that Vol guard Mike Edwards, the “Greenfield Gunner,” befitting his Greenfield, Ind., roots, was not shooting when fouled late in the 1972 Kentucky game. That decision caused a real stir.
Bebb asked, “How could he not be shooting? He’s always shooting.”
Poochie smiled but awarded Mike one free throw instead of two. Kentucky was leading, 67-66. Mike missed. Kentucky won.
What does all this prove?
Life at the scorer’s table has never been dull, not at all.