‘One of the stormiest chapters in SEC basketball lore’

By Tom Mattingly

A game at Vanderbilt helped define the 1968-69 basketball season and the ever-growing legend of University of Tennessee head coach Ray Mears.

The 1968-69 Vols finished 21-7 overall and 13-5 (SEC), with an appearance in the NIT. It featured yeoman-like work from Bill Justus, Billy Hann, Bobby Croft, Jimmy England, and Don Johnson.

Longtime fans will remember that freshmen were not eligible for varsity play until the 1972-73 season, so there were games played earlier in the evening between each school’s rookies, just to whet the appetites of the early arrivals. Over the years, there was some pretty good basketball played in these “preliminary games.”

The games between the Vols and Commodores were always fiercely contested, and the rivalry, especially in Nashville, carried over into the freshman game.

Late in the early game, Mears walked in front of the Vanderbilt partisans to the team bench area. To say it caused a stir would be an understatement.

Knoxville Journal sportswriter Ben Byrd wrote that Mears’ stroll down the Memorial Gym sideline that season caused “one of the stormiest chapters in SEC basketball lore.”

Historically, it’s called the “Long Walk,” and, for Mears, it was a stroke of genius, one of many in his heralded career. Ray always delighted in the little gimmicks, once going as far as wearing a brown suit at Kentucky, just to get under Adolph Rupp’s skin.

Byrd wrote that Mears, resplendent in his orange blazer, was greeted by a “cacophony of boos, jeers, catcalls, and other derisive noises,” in an attempt to intimidate the Vols on the floor… and those in the dressing room. It was a product of the tumultuous 1960s.

However, Mears told Byrd, with a straight face, that his walk at Nashville was not “premeditated.”

It was merely a matter of geography.

“Our dressing room at Vandy then was at the opposite end of the floor from where the team bench was,” Ray said. “During the freshman game, I went up in the last half to watch the final 10 minutes or so. I waited for a timeout to walk the length of the floor to our bench.”

The reaction was surprising, even to Mears, who really didn’t seem to expect to create such uproar. “I knew they’d boo me — they had been doing that for years — but I didn’t expect anything as violent as I got.”

What happened was one of those stories where Tennessee’s freshman and varsity teams each pulled together and met the moment head-on. The ruckus also helped the Vol varsity, who came out a 70-60 winner, in a game many Vol fans had mentally chalked up as a loss.

“The crowd got our freshmen so stirred up they went ahead and won the game,” Mears added.

The outburst that night led to more than one occasion when the Vols were pelted with oranges, before (and even during) their games at Vanderbilt. John Ward once said there wasn’t an orange to be had in Davidson County on the day of a Tennessee-Vanderbilt basketball game.

In 1971, Tennessee point guard Dickie Johnson, all 5-8 of him, was hit with an orange, threw the basketball at one of his assailants, and was assessed a technical foul for his actions. The Vols won that night, too.

There are other sidebars to all this tomfoolery.

Mears made his 1970 stroll at Vanderbilt with Vol track star Bill Skinner, all 6-7 and 250 pounds of him at his side, likewise in an orange blazer, perhaps a 50 XL. Marvin West called that move “part of the psychological warfare, the flag before the bull.”

Tennessee warmed up with an orange and white basketball in those days, and there was a time when Vandy students grabbed the spheroid and wouldn’t let go. Mears tried the normal routine, sending a manager into the crowd, but all that did was embolden the masses.

Mears then dispatched Skinner, who went into the mass of humanity and requested the ball. Whoever had it, let go… very quickly.

There was also a piece of intriguing irony in one of the last Tennessee-Vanderbilt games at Stokely Center. In the midst of a close finish, an orange came sailing onto the court. As the perpetrator was apprehended, leaving with a police escort, the noise level in the old arena swelled when fans got a glimpse of his black and gold jacket.

In his Tennessee career, Mears fashioned his own brand of “Memorial Magic.” Mears’ teams were 20-10 against the Commodores, 9-6 in Memorial Gym, along with an 11-4 mark in Knoxville.

As things normally happen, the SEC powers that be swooped in and put a halt to the “Long Walk,” citing safety concerns and all that. For a while, Tennessee’s dressing room was moved closer to its bench area. If it were possible, life became more peaceful in Memorial Gym.

However, Mears had made a statement.

“The art of one-upsmanship is a long way from being dead,” Byrd wrote.