‘One of the best times I’ve had in sports’

By Tom Mattingly

When the Tennessee Volunteers basketball team won the SEC championship on March 6, 1967, in Starkville, Miss., Knoxville Journal sportswriter Ben Byrd gave the team a nickname, the “Fearless Five.”

“Tennessee’s fearless five fought its way through the bedlam of three overtime periods tonight to beat Mississippi State, 78-76, and win the Southeastern Conference basketball championship lock, stock, and barrel,” Ben wrote for the next morning’s Journal. Tennessee head coach Ray Mears took the nickname and ran with it.

Byrd was a legendary figure on the sports scene in Knoxville. His event coverage as well as his “Byrd’s Eye View” and “Free Thought Association” columns were anxiously awaited as each edition rolled off the presses.

“He wasn’t interested in being a rabble-rouser or stirring things up,” said son, Rick, the former men’s basketball coach at Belmont University. “He wanted to report the games and the people involved. It was a different world back then.”

This team greatly exceeded expectations, but, in late December 1966 and early January 1967, the Vols had looked anything but fearless. In fact, they looked remarkably mortal. There were losses to Bradley and Boston College in the Sugar Bowl tournament and a loss at Vanderbilt. There were also wins over Furman and Alabama. Skittish and skeptical Vol fans openly wondered what might lie ahead.

Tennessee had a legitimate superstar in 1965-66 All-SEC forward Ron Widby and a steady performer as the other forward in Tom Hendrix, a starter as a sophomore that season. There were question marks at the other three positions, with junior center Tom Boerwinkle having seen little playing time, the dreaded term “project” hanging over his head. Sophomore guards Bill Justus and Bill Hann, stars on the previous year’s freshman team, had not yet experienced the rigors of SEC play, particularly on the road.

“It was very clear,” said Ray, “that this was our best five, and from the first day of practice we decided to go with them. They turned out to be a happy, compatible group, with a great desire to learn and win. I think a great deal of credit for that must go to Ron Widby. In his two previous seasons, he had been an outstanding basketball player. As a senior, he became a great player and leader as well.”

Capacity crowds showed up at an expanded arena called Stokely Athletics Center. Vol fans “took” to an overachieving team that had all the elements of success fall its way as if ordained from on high.

A major key to the season, John Ward said, was a double overtime win at Kentucky. Hendrix, a native of Elizabethtown, Ky., canned two pressure-packed free throws to seal the deal.

The Vols ran the table at home, winning nine SEC contests decisively. They also won in some of the SEC’s toughest venues, in Auburn’s Quonset Hut, Florida’s “Alligator Alley,” and Georgia’s Woodruff Hall. There were close losses at Ole Miss and Alabama, but this group was undeterred.

It all came down to the season finale at Mississippi State, in one of the classic victories in Vol hoops history. As fans listened nervously on the Vol Network to Ward and Lowell Blanchard, Widby threw in 35 points, making shot after shot in a fierce battle with State’s David Williams.

After missing an opportunity to give the Vols a lead in the second overtime, Justus made two free throws that proved to be the game-winners, giving the Vols their first SEC championship in 24 years and their first-ever NCAA bid. Two losses in the big tourney, one to eventual national runner-up Dayton and another to Indiana, did not detract in the least from the season’s accomplishments.

Widby averaged 22.1 points and 8.7 rebounds and carried his team through the peaks and valleys of the 18-game round-robin conference schedule. Ron was SEC “Player of the Year” and an All-American selection, adding hoops to his All-American selection as a football punter in 1966, being named the NCAA statistical champ with a 43.8-yard average.

“It was probably one of the best times I’ve had in sports,” said Widby. “We were picked fifth or sixth pre-season, but we had confidence in ourselves. I had told Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Marvin West before the season we were going to win it.”

What was the result? A youthful squad came through and played better than even the most optimistic Vol fan could have hoped. When the SEC title came home to Knoxville, no one wanted to debate Ben’s describing the Vol squad as “fearless.”

All this goes to show that games in late December and early January are sometimes accurate barometers of the overall record at season’s end… and sometimes they’re not.