By Tom Mattingly
The 1968-69 University of Tennessee basketball season 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.
A game at Vanderbilt helped define the season and the ever-growing legend of head coach Ray Mears.
Freshmen were not eligible for varsity play until the 1972-73 season, so there were games earlier each evening between each school’s rookies, to whet the appetites of the early arrivals. Over the years, there was some excellent basketball played in these “preliminary games.”
The games between the Vols and Commodores have always been fiercely contested, and the rivalry often carried over into the freshman game.
Historically, the moment in question is called the “Long Walk.” 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. Mears also held the upper hand on Vanderbilt coach Roy Skinner, doing everything in his power to get Roy’s attention off the game.
Knoxville Journal sportswriter Ben Byrd wrote that Mears’ stroll down the Memorial Gym sideline in the waning moments of the freshman game caused “one of the stormiest chapters in SEC basketball lore.”
Apparently with a straight face, Mears told Byrd that his walk in 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.”
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.
“The crowd got our freshmen so stirred up they went ahead and won the game,” Mears said.
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 outburst that night led to more than one occasion when the Vols were pelted with oranges, before (and even during) their games at Vanderbilt.
Vol broadcaster John Ward once said there wasn’t an orange to be had in Davidson County the day of a Tennessee-Vanderbilt basketball game in Nashville.
In 1971, Tennessee point guard Dickie Johnson, who measured all of 5-8, 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, who stood 6-7 and weighed 250 pounds, at his side. Like Mears, he was clad in an orange blazer, perhaps a size 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 Vandy students got a hold of 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 in the mass of humanity and requested the ball. Whoever had it… let go… very quickly.
In one of the last Tennessee-Vanderbilt games at Stokely Center, an orange came sailing onto the court from the Tennessee student section. As the perpetrator was apprehended, leaving with 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.
Apparently skittish SEC powers-that-be stepped in and put a halt to the “Long Walk,” citing safety concerns. Tennessee’s dressing room was also moved closer to its bench area in response.
But Mears had made a statement.
“The art of one-upsmanship is a long way from being dead,” Byrd wrote.