By Tom Mattingly
There was a time in college basketball even the biggest games weren’t on television.
That stands in stark contrast to today, when nearly every game is on somebody’s network, oftentimes at all hours of the day or night.
That was not the case, however, in the mid-1970s.
The greatest game ever played at the old Armory-Fieldhouse and Stokely Athletics Center on campus was not seen on live television. The game was only seen in Knoxville on the 11:30 p.m. WTVK, Channel 26, delayed telecast. Stokely is gone, the victim of the wrecker’s ball, but the memories linger, thanks to the magic of film, later videotape.
It was Tennessee versus Kentucky, Feb. 15, 1975. John Ward and Cawood Ledford broadcast the game from high above the arena floor.
Those among the 12,718 fans at the game somehow survived to tell the tale at church the next morning or the following Monday at the office.
Had there been Twitter, there would have been Tweets all over the Volunteer State and the Commonwealth, and well beyond. The message boards would have been jammed.
The Vols, coached by Ray Mears, were coming off three consecutive SEC losses but summoned a Herculean effort to win 103-98 over Joe B. Hall’s No. 4-ranked Kentucky squad. The game started at fever pitch and never diminished until the final horn sounded.
Tennessee trailed only once at 2-0, led 56-44 at the half, and beat back repeated Kentucky rallies to prevail, the first time the Vols had reached the century mark against the Wildcats.
This all happened in the days before ESPN came on the scene, before the Internet, before the daily barrage of “talk radio,” before the emergence of all the other technological marvels we take for granted. Had the game been played and televised today, it would have been instantaneously billed an “ESPN Classic,” to be rebroadcast at all hours, day or night.
In this season, Kentucky would reach the Final Four, only to lose in John Wooden’s last game as head coach at UCLA. The whole setup was reminiscent of 1966, when the Wildcats came to Knoxville No. 1, lost the season finale to the Vols 69-62, and then lost to Texas Western in the finals.
The Vols shot 56.8% from the floor, Kentucky 54%. A look at the names from the box score will indicate the game’s competitive nature.
For Tennessee, sophomore Ernie Grunfeld had 29 points and five rebounds and canned four pressure-packed free throws down the stretch, 11 of 12 overall, to help the Vols hold the lead. Grunfeld was a load for anybody when he came off the wing or the high post, ball in hand.
Bernard King, a freshman who averaged a league-leading 26.4 points per game, had 24 points and 20 rebounds. Mike Jackson, another sophomore, had 24 points. Doug Ashworth had 12 points and nine rebounds, a performance that surprised nearly everybody. Rodney Woods, a Kentuckian playing the point at Tennessee, had 14 points and 10 assists. Austin Clark played briefly, but no one else left the Vol bench.
There were heroes in blue and white. Senior Kevin Grevey had 24 points, with freshman Jack “Goose” Givens, the hero of the Big Blue’s national championship run three years later, adding 20 points and seven rebounds. Senior guards Jimmy Dan Conner and Mike Flynn had 10 each, with nine assists between them. Freshman Rick Robey muscled in 18 points.
The Vols were all over the Wildcats in the first half, knocking in shots from all across the north end of Stokely Center, the end where former U. T. president Andy Holt sat, resplendent in an orange blazer.
Tennessee led by 10 early in the second stanza, but Givens led a charge that closed the margin to 74-70 and the chase was on. It was intense, the game in the balance possession by possession.
Jackson and King had eight points each down the stretch run to hold off Givens, Grevey, Robey, and the others. The Vols outrebounded Kentucky 42-34 and shot 23 free throws to Kentucky’s four.
The Vol victory started a five-game win streak for the Vols against the Wildcats. It wasn’t easy doing so, but the Vols made it happen, winning their final two contests at Memorial Coliseum and their first at a new venue known as Rupp Arena.
The passage of time has not dimmed the memories of a “golden era” of Vol hoops, of “Bernie and Ernie,” Jackson, Woods, Ashworth, and a coach named Ray Mears.
The passage of time is inexorable. Hall and Mears are deceased, but when the games are replayed in the mind’s eye, these magic moments live with us forever.