By Tom Mattingly
Knoxville Fulton High School’s Ron Widby did it all on the football field and the basketball court during his time at the University of Tennessee, but no two days were more hectic than in mid-December 1965.
It was during the time football and basketball seasons overlapped, and that was definitely the case when the Vols played hoops in Shreveport, La., in the Gulf South Tournament on Friday, Dec. 17, played football in Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl Saturday afternoon and came back to Shreveport for basketball that night.
A year later, he played in the Sugar Bowl basketball tournament in New Orleans on Thursday and Friday nights and punted in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 31.
Widby punted for Doug Dickey and played forward for Ray Mears, with his versatility (as well as his endurance) being put to the test. It was quite an itinerary he had: Knoxville to Houston, Houston to Shreveport, Shreveport to Houston, Houston to Shreveport, and back to Knoxville.
The Vols won all three games, defeating Louisiana Tech 71-51 and Centenary 49-43 and Tulsa 27-6 in a driving rainstorm at Rice Stadium. Widby was named tournament MVP.
“People might think it was tiring, but they did a good job of getting me where I needed to go,” said Widby. “I was young and in good shape. Both teams and the coaches understood the deal. I went to a different city and put on a different uniform.”
Widby was an All-American selection in football in 1966, as the NCAA-authenticated punting champion with a 43.8-yard average on 48 punts. In basketball, he was an All-American selection and SEC player of the year after leading a youthful Vol squad to the SEC title.
Widby averaged 22.1 points and 8.7 rebounds that season, carrying his team through the peaks and valleys of an 18-game conference schedule, playing each school home-and-home. The road was no place for faint hearts in those days.
“It was probably one of the best times I’ve had in sports,” said Widby.
He was the last four-sport letterman at Tennessee, with three varsity letters in football, three in basketball, and one each in baseball and golf.
The 1966-67 season was first in which the Vols played in a new facility called Stokely Athletics Center. Widby was the old hand on the squad, with juniors Tom Hendrix and Tom Boerwinkle being joined as starters by sophomore guards Bill Justus and Bill Hann.
Only Widby had seen significant varsity service. Hendrix and Boerwinkle had come in with Widby in 1963-64 and had redshirted in 1964-65. Other Vols making contributors were Bobby Jack Guinn, Wes Coffman, David Bell, Bill Young and David Bell.
Freshmen were not eligible in those days, so Justus and Hann had not been through the rigors of the SEC. But everything broke right for the Vols and, in the end, the Vols won the conference with a 15-3 record.
The Vols knocked off Kentucky twice that season, in double overtime at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. Hendrix, a native of Elizabethtown, knocked home two free throws in the waning seconds, and the Vols won 76-57 in Knoxville.
“It was always a thrill to beat Kentucky,” said Widby. “The game at Lexington was a tribute to our depth. I got hurt the night before and only scored eight points.” For the record, Widby played on Vol teams that won four out of six games against the Wildcats.
In his home finale, Widby scored a school-record 50 points against LSU. That mark lasted 20 years, before Tony White canned 51 against Auburn in 1987, the last year the Vols played in Stokely Center.
“Scoring 50 that night was very exciting,” said Widby, calling it “a gift I got from my teammates.”
That game gave the Vols no worse than a tie for the SEC title going to Mississippi State the following Monday, and the Vols brought home the brass ring with a dramatic triple-overtime win at the old McCarthy Gym. Widby had 35 points that night as the Vols absolutely refused to lose.
In later years, Widby punted for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowls V and VI and later for the Green Bay Packers. He played one season for the New Orleans Buccaneers in the old American Basketball Association.
One conclusion is inescapable. Widby was quite an athlete during his days on campus, even if getting to the game site would occasionally prove hectic.