DeVoe: Building an instant winner

Don DeVoe was often a fiery sideline presence, as evidenced here in a 1985 game at Stokely Athletics Center.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Don DeVoe was often a fiery sideline presence, as evidenced here in a 1985 game at Stokely Athletics Center.

This year celebrates the centennial season of men's basketball at Tennessee. The News Sentinel continues its series looking into the players, teams and events that have molded an exciting history.

In all the 100-year history of Tennessee basketball, few seasons were more significant than the one 30 years ago when a new coach arrived with a bang.

Don DeVoe had an impressive Ohio State pedigree and enough success to qualify as a hot young coach when he arrived in Knoxville for the 1978-79 season.

He found a program in transition. The hysteria Ray Mears had created peaked in 1976-77. Then the bubble burst. Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King were gone and so was Mears, forced to step down due to health problems. The Vols skidded to 11-16 in 1977-78 under interim coach Cliff Wettig.

Enter DeVoe.

“The administration told me it would be a while before we would be able to win,’’ DeVoe recalled in an interview this week, “because they didn’t feel like the players were of the quality they were used to having at Tennessee.

“But I saw tremendous potential when I accepted the job. To me, there was no doom and gloom about the players returning.’’

DeVoe turned out to be right.

His first UT squad finished 21-12 and reversed the SEC record from 6-12 the year before to 12-6, good for second place behind LSU.

DeVoe became an immediate hero to UT fans for restoring the program to its previous status after the one-year hiatus. The ‘79 team’s notable achievements included beating Kentucky three times in one season, winning the SEC tournament and notching the program’s first NCAA tournament victory.

The linchpin was junior center Reggie Johnson, who averaged 21.1 points and 7.7 rebounds. Forward Terry Crosby had an outstanding senior season, scoring 14.1 points a game. Freshman Gary Carter surprised everyone by averaging 10.9 points.

Big Howard Wood complemented Johnson with 8.6 points a game. Chuck Threeths and Kevin Nash came off the bench to help inside. Bert Bertelkamp eventually replaced senior Johnny Darden at point guard, but both had more than 100 assists. Steve Ray was the other freshman and played a supporting role.

The Vols were 6-5 after a tough non-conference schedule. On January 20, they went to Lexington and beat Kentucky 66-55 behind big efforts from Johnson and Carter and boost off the bench from Nash.

Only 6-6 at the halfway point of the SEC race, the Vols caught fire, finishing with a 6-0 run that included a 101-84 win over the Wildcats in Knoxville.

Don DeVoe

Photo by News Sentinel file

Don DeVoe

The SEC had reinstated its tournament after a 27-year hiatus. Regular-season champ LSU and runner-up Tennessee received double byes into the semifinals.

The rested Vols beat Auburn 75-64, one night after Auburn had won a four-overtime game over Georgia in the second round.

In the finals, UT faced a red-hot Kentucky that had upset LSU, its third game in three nights.

Tennessee won in overtime, 75-69, as Carter scored 22 points. Threeths was huge off the bench with 10 points and eight boards.

“We got a little lucky, to say the least, in being able to play two teams in the SEC tournament that had gone the distance,’’ DeVoe said.

Still, no UT team had ever beaten Kentucky three times in a season. DeVoe, who had seen Ohio State have success against the Wildcats over the years in NCAA tournament play, brought a fresh mindset to facing the Big Blue.

“Some people in the SEC always felt like you had to be subservient to Kentucky,’’ DeVoe said. “But I never felt that way.

“And we happened to be fortunate in terms of timing. Kentucky was coming off a national championship season and they had lost a fabulous group of players.’’

The SEC tournament title sent Tennessee to a first-round NCAA tournament date against Eastern Kentucky. Fate (or the tournament selection committee) smiled on UT by placing the Vols in Murfreesboro.

Tennessee won handily, 97-81, a postseason breakthrough after three previous failures.

“To me, it was just incredible to think Tennessee could have had so many fine basketball years and yet they had never been able to win a single game in the NCAA tournament,’’ DeVoe said.

In the second round, Tennessee fell to Notre Dame, 73-67.

“Those were tremendous crowds we had in Murfreesboro,’’ DeVoe recalled. “I had never really felt the impact of Tennessee fans until we went to Murfreesboro and had the turnout we did for those two games.’’

One face in that turnout was a high-school senior from Marietta, Ga., named Dale Ellis. DeVoe is convinced that experience sold Ellis on signing with the Vols and becoming a foundation of four more NCAA tourney teams.

“He decided right then and there he wanted to play for Tennessee,’’ DeVoe said.

“That tournament and season really allowed us to move forward and have other good years.’’

Get Copyright Permissions © 2009, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
Want to use this article? Click here for options!

© 2009 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Comments » 15

BillVol writes:

The Don DeVoe era at UT was very overrated IMO.

jesseejames57 writes:

Don Devoe was the best coach Tennessee has had since Ray Mears up until the arrival of Coach Bruce Pearl. He was hard to coach against. He alway's had a tenatious defense and talented scorers.

Orangeblood13 writes:

fine penmanship Mr Strange, good read

JPZiller writes:

And then Doug Dickey decided to turn the men's basketball program into big business. He built the T-B Arena in order to outdo Kentucky and then instituted all those endearing money making asides that left the common fans parking two miles away and sitting one mile high. And, of course, he then fired Don Devoe.

AugVol writes:

in response to jesseejames57:

Don Devoe was the best coach Tennessee has had since Ray Mears up until the arrival of Coach Bruce Pearl. He was hard to coach against. He alway's had a tenatious defense and talented scorers.

My sentiments exactly. That period in the late 70s was a dark time. I remember that turnaround as magical after a depressing season before (losing record, Mears retirement) and into a bad football season. That year is still my all time favorite NCAA Tournament. DeVoe is a UT legend IMHO.

billwall writes:

Don Devoe was an excellent coach and he could win with inferior talent with his coaching and control of the tempo of the game. Back then, there was not a shot clock and he worked the basketball meticulously for a high-percentage shot and they shot free throws well. His downfall came when the shot clock was instituted, which favored the more talented teams getting more possessions and thus more shots.

johnlg00 writes:

One thing you always knew about DeVoe's teams was that they would play hard. He may not have been the best recruiter, but his players always gave it everything they had. That was what I missed the most about UT basketball in the years between the departure of DeVoe and the arrival of CBP. O'Neill's teams played hard, but you surely never got the feeling that they enjoyed playing. CBP's teams could benefit from some of the sound fundamentals all of DeVoe's teams had, but you can seldom question their effort and enthusiasm.

volaboard writes:

in response to BillVol:

The Don DeVoe era at UT was very overrated IMO.

Bill I disagree. DeVoe was DeBest floor coach UT had between Mears and Pearl. Certainly among the best ever at UT in terms of making changes during the flow of a game.

jsbrown writes:

DeVoe was good and his firing was poor judgment. Yes, he was not a people person, he was a pure coach. Very technical. Very logical mind. When he went on to Navy he did a superior job and was one of the all-time greats at Navy in the very competitive Patriot League. If Dickey would have been wiling to ride with DeVoe for the bad as well as the good, he would have been here for many years with many championships. He gave his all to the job and even if he was not the best recruiter due to personality, he still traveled thousands of miles during the season to watch high school players and to attempt to get them. Also, unmentioned in the article, DeVoe was a classy guy with plenty of self-discipline and a high level of energy and achievement. Tennessee is the poorer for his departure.

volintexas writes:

in response to jsbrown:

DeVoe was good and his firing was poor judgment. Yes, he was not a people person, he was a pure coach. Very technical. Very logical mind. When he went on to Navy he did a superior job and was one of the all-time greats at Navy in the very competitive Patriot League. If Dickey would have been wiling to ride with DeVoe for the bad as well as the good, he would have been here for many years with many championships. He gave his all to the job and even if he was not the best recruiter due to personality, he still traveled thousands of miles during the season to watch high school players and to attempt to get them. Also, unmentioned in the article, DeVoe was a classy guy with plenty of self-discipline and a high level of energy and achievement. Tennessee is the poorer for his departure.

Well put. Anyone who fails to recognize DeVoe's rightful place near the top of Vol hoops history, is misguided and ill informed. Don DeVoe brought the program back from the edge of the abyss. When Coach Mears had to retire, that was a dark time for the program. I still remember Al McGuire, Enberg and Billy Packer calling the NCAA tournament game vs. Notre Dame in DeVoe's first year, and McGuire raving about Gary Carter and the Vols turnaround. Mr. Gator Doug Dickey pushed us into the abyss when he fired DeVoe and created the malaise that was the Wade Houston/O'Neil/Green/Petersensaga. It has been nice to see CBP reach out some to DeVoe. I would like to see him do this more. DeVoe, to his credit, has shown no hard feelings towards UT in recent years despite being thrown under the bus by Dickey, who destroyed hoops at UT for almost 15 years.

rabidvol1998 writes:

Devoe is a good man and a good coach. He had two problems at UT;

First, he was boring. We went from running through the paper T, to walking in unison from the endline.

Second, his end of game coaching skills were nuetralized when the 30 second clock was instituted. His wins dropped of the cliff after that.

Glad he's part of the community.

rabidvol1998 writes:

The shot clock started in 85, notice a change in results?

Don DeVoe (204-137, .598)
1978-79 21 12 12 6 2nd
1979-80 18 11 12 6 T-3rd
1980-81 21 8 12 6 3rd
1981-82 20 10 13 5 T-1st
1982-83 20 12 9 9 T-4th
1983-84 21 14 9 9 6th
1984-85 22 15 8 10 T-7th

45 sec shot clock starts

1985-86 12 16 5 13 8th
1986-87 14 15 7 11 T-8th
1987-88 16 13 9 9 6th
1988-89 19 11 11 7 T-4th

theoldbear writes:

I was living in Mississippi during the Ernie and Bernie era, and the DeVoe era.

I would go to Oxford and Starkville to see the Vols play. Sometimes in Starkville, there would only be two or three Vol fans in the stands. John Ward commented once that there were more Vol fans in the broadcast booth than in Humphries Colesium.

I remember Don DeVoe as a master tactician, who knew which players to put on the floor to win games. He used his bench better than any Vol coach I can remember, and my memory goes back to 1951!

I was in Florida when they hired DeVoe as interim coach, and it was a terrible mis-match. He was a strict disciplinarian, and FLorida wasn't used to that.

I believe Navy was the perfect match for him, and he enjoyed success there.

He's now on the NCAA Selection Committee.

Classy guy!

OrangeRush writes:

DeVoe was a master of the pre-shot-clock game and left me with many great game memories from that era of Tennessee basketball.

robe5832#393917 writes:

Ten points about Don Devoe's tenure at UT:

1) In his 11 years, he finished above .500 only 5 times in conference play. Pearl has yet to finish lower than 2nd in his 3 years, and Mears finished lower than third maybe once in his 15 years.

2) In 1987 he had the SEC's leading scorer (Tony White) and leading Rebounder (Tony White) and finished 7-11 in conference;

3) Devoe's record started falling off after 1983. Part of this was due to no Reggie Johnson or Dale Ellis. Also, he went through a divorce in the mid-80's and wasn't the same coach thereafter. Pearl's divorce made me cringe because I remember how Devoe seemed to lose his edge as a coach after that.

4) As a student at UT, we often chanted "Devoe must go" because of his boring style of play. We would rather lose 110-90 than 50-48.

5) Devoe, however, was one of the best coaches in his first 5 years. Granted, having Reggie J. and Ellis helped, but then again Devoe made them better.

6) Devoe never seemed to care about recruiting quality players. He never changed his style of play and personality to attract the superstar players, and could only get the players no one else wanted. Remember, only Georgia Tech was interested in Ellis, and Reggie J. was a Mears recruit. He never even thought to go overseas and recruity players; that would have been fertile ground as no one over there knew how boring his style of play was.

7) Devoe didn't exactly embrace the 3 point shot and shot clock. His coaching was stuck in pre-1986 rules.

8) A popular bumper sticker on campus in the late '80's: "Go Johnny go and take Devoe"

9) At a Seattle-Chicago NBA exhibition in Fall 1988 at Thompson Bowling, Dale Ellis was given a plaque by Devoe. Ellis was cheered loudly, but when Devoe was introduced it was silent with a smattering of boos.

10) And finally, Devoe convinced us that if we built Thompson Boling Arena, we could recruity with Kentucky and win a National Championship. Instead, Stokely would have been more intimidating to the opposing teams at least until Pearl and sometimes Jerry Green was able to fill up the arena.

And, as for his tenure at Florida during 1989-90:

1) he took a team that won it's first SEC Championship and they finished last;

2) he picked a fight with Dewayne Schnitzus about cutting his hair mid season; didn't have the nerve to do so in pre-season;

3) virtually ran Livingston Chatman, one of the best players in the SEC, off the team;

4) didn't have a clue how to handle a talented group of athletes that were better than anything he could recruit at UT.

5) Proved that the Naval Academy, West Point, or the Air Force Academy were the only schools he could coach at. He didn't have to recruit worth a lick, and he could treat players like phooey and they couldn't do anything about it if they were upper classmen except quit and become enlisted men.

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Features