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.
“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.
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.’’