Vanderbilt basketball is an escape from all the laws of probability. It goes like this. First there is the dog, a long, brown basset hound, who precedes the cheerleaders, the teams, the color guard and everybody else out onto the floor. The dog has a dislocated hip and cannot go to his left well, but he sets the stage.
Next comes the Commodore, who is dressed just like old Cornelius must have been before he cornered the market in ships and trains in New York. The Commodore is a very big man on campus, but he is not too big with the starting team of visitors, whose hands he shakes out there at midcourt. The Commodore says that, by his greeting, he is "placating" the feelings of the opposition in order to offset the boos, jeers, catcalls and ice cubes that are occasionally hurled at them by the inhabitants of Memorial Gymnasium. But he is not fooling anyone. Just by his welcome, the Commodore manages to make a visiting starter look like a real jackass.
Following this, a large trapeze descends from the rafters, only to rise right back up after the ROTC boys have fixed the Stars and Stripes to it, just so. Then the announcer, Mr. Herman Grizzard, says, "Hello, referees, how are you?" over the public-address system, and he wishes them a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And finally, in Nashville, Tenn., "the Heart of Banana Land," "the Athens of the South," "Music City, USA"—a veritable paradise if you want to pick a guitar or tamper with a jury—Vanderbilt University is ready for basketball.
Right there the gimmickery stops, momentarily at least. When the home team hits the floor, there are no more tricks or pranks or fancy frills. No one-man shows or slow-death offenses are to be seen. The Commodores are small and slight, but they win on quickness and well-trained skills, and last week, after home-court victories over three bigger and much stronger opponents, Vanderbilt stood alone as college basketball's newest, boldest and most wonderful prodigy.
Perhaps the present Commodore style was presaged by one of Vandy's own alumni when he wrote about the Great Scorer coming "to write against your name." Grantland Rice (Vanderbilt '01) said it was "not that you won or lost, but how you played the game." And though most realists would agree with Adolph Rupp ("If that's the point, why keep score?"), it is true, nevertheless, that the Vanderbilt team of today plays the game the way it was meant to be played. The Commodores prosper on diligent execution of basic patterns and marvelous insouciance under pressure, and then—back to the gimmick board—they come on to beat you by completely implausible means.
Chuck Daly, the Duke assistant coach, delineated part of the Commodores' picture. "They are well coached, well drilled and poised," he said. "They shock you with fantastic scrap and hustle, and they get loose balls and come off the floor at you like animals." Daly's team was the one that got the Vanderbilt treatment in Nashville most recently. The treatment prescribes that the Commodores must be sick and lame and hopelessly behind, only to cast off their slings and crutches and roar back to catch you at the gun. Saturday night, against a Duke team that is better than even Head Coach Vic Bubas believed it to be. Bo Wyenandt, pale after a three-day sickbed siege of the flu, scored on an 18-foot jump shot with four seconds left to win for Vanderbilt 76-75.
Circumstances before this shot, however, hardly foretold the end. Besides Wyenandt, starters Kenny Campbell and Bob Warren also lay in bed with flu for three days prior to the game. The Commodores' star shooter, Tom Hagan, picked up four fouls before the half. Vanderbilt was behind most of the game, and at one point trailed by 11. Furthermore, Campbell did not even play, Wyenandt and Warren were in together for only a few minutes at a time and Hagan fouled out with more than two minutes left. So not only did Vanderbilt win on the court, but Coach Roy Skinner proved he is going to be hard to beat as a psychologist also.
After the Vandy students showered the floor with boos and those ice cubes following Hagan's disqualifying foul, smooth Roy stepped to the microphone. He did not say please be kind to the visitors, for they are our friends. He said, "We can still win this game. But if you keep up this stuff, we may get a technical foul and lose the whole thing. Please help us." That is the Vanderbilt treatment in Nashville.
Previously the Commodores had beaten North Carolina and Davidson, achievements which, combined with the Duke win, made a hat trick that wiped out the entire state of North Carolina in eight days and gave Vanderbilt undisputed, if temporary, possession of the South. Carolina may have a better team than the one that went to the NCAA final round of four in Louisville last year. Since its loss to Vanderbilt, it has defeated Kentucky and Princeton. But in Nashville, the Commodores neutralized 6'11" Rusty Clark and the other big Tar Heels on the boards, held Larry Miller in check until late in the game and shot 64% in the second half to win going away 89-76. Vandy's victory over Davidson was more difficult, since the Commodores had to come from 13 points behind on a night when their shooting was cold and four starters were burdened with four personals much of the second half.
Davidson has veteran Center Rod Knowles and two large sophomores up front, and is even stronger inside than North Carolina. But despite this disadvantage, Vanderbilt showed its versatility on defense. Forced out of their press and fallback zone early in the opening period, the Commodores went into a man-for-man and began overplaying Davidson's big men on the strong side and sagging their guards back to double-team inside. They stopped the Wildcats' penetration underneath and surged back to win when Hagan, after missing a shot at the end of regulation time, scored from 25 feet at the gun of an overtime.
Not one of the Commodores is a true All-America, unless his scoring continues to keep Hagan up among the national leaders. Tommy-gun, from Louisville, is a 6'3" guard who, with the left-handed Campbell, sets up the offense. Hagan's father, Red, was a star player at Kentucky before getting kicked off the squad for his habit of storing away game balls in his locker. But Tommy thought he would have a better chance to play at Vanderbilt. He has a great shock of dusty blond hair that flops all over his forehead when he runs down the court, and he looks like a kid out of a Walt Disney cornfield, sucking a blade of straw, herding the moo-cows at sunset. But Tommy-gun's shooting from way out there keeps Vandy alive.
At center is 6'5" Perry Wallace, a remarkable jumper and good defender whose task it is to go head to head against all those larger pivotmen. Wallace is a mediocre shooter and has a lot to learn, but he is there in the clutch. With the Davidson game tied and 90 seconds left in the overtime, he dominated the 6'9" Knowles on a crucial jump ball, enabling Vanderbilt to gain control for the last shot.
Wallace was graduated from Nashville's Pearl High School to become the first Negro to play in the SEC. There are, of course, a lot of "first" Negroes these days (North Carolina, Davidson and Duke have theirs, also). Perry, an intensely proud, intelligent and articulate electrical engineering student, is distinguished among them because his role is certain to be the most difficult. In the second half of the season Vanderbilt plays in the deep, deep South, at Starkville and Oxford, Miss., Baton Rouge, La., Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Athens, Ga.
Steadying Wallace and the backcourt are the senior forwards, co-captains Warren and Wyenandt. Conceding Hagan his 26-point average, the double-W boys are the heart of Vanderbilt's cool, calm precision play. Wyenandt is from Cincinnati and has been a starter for three years, while Warren, another Kentucky boy, has improved so rapidly in a year and five games that he has probably superseded his co-captain as the team's most complete player. Over the past season and through Saturday, while the two have been regulars with Hagan, Vanderbilt has won six of six overtime games, five of them on the road. Warren cools it, Wyenandt and Hagan shoot the winning baskets.
The team's poise and assurance is so habitual that a ridiculous faux pas late in the Davidson game—with Vanderbilt behind and in possession, Wyenandt dribbled in bounds instead of passing in, and the ball was given to Davidson—was thought by some Vandy fans to be merely a reversed decision by the official. The Commodores do not make many errors like that. Skinner is the man responsible. After a few years of medium success, he brought a Nashville boy, Clyde Lee, to school in 1962 and has been winning games and the hearts of the city's citizens ever since.
In the last three years, as the basketball Commodores have gone 67-13, Vanderbilt has had to add 4,000 balcony seats to its gym to accommodate the crowds. The place is sold out long before the season begins. "It would cost too much to add any more seats," says Skinner. "But we could fill them. We could fill them forever."
Skinner recruits heavily in Tennessee, Kentucky and the metropolitan areas of Cincinnati, St. Louis and Evansville, Ind. He has six children of his own, and he certainly must be murder in a prospect's living room, for he is plain, simple, "just folks," with a polite manner and sonorous southern bass voice that sounds suspiciously like Tex Ritter coaxing a dogie to come in off the range. Mothers love Roy Skinner, and any father would buy a used car—or a college education—from him.
At Vanderbilt a boy will get the education. For academic excellence the school comes close to being the finest in the South. It has 3,800 undergraduates on a small campus of considerable charm, and a basketball player can walk from his residence in Carmichael Towers to practice at the gym and to meals at Rand Hall in less than 11 minutes.
This daily ritual does not include study periods, which can hardly be disregarded by the Vandys, who are student-athletes in the truest sense. Warren, like Wallace, is in the challenging electrical engineering program. One substitute, Gene Lockyear, is a cinch for Phi Beta Kappa, and Campbell, a first-year law student (he was held out a year), made one of the highest entrance scores ever recorded at the Vanderbilt Law School.
On weekends campus social life revolves around parties at fraternity and sorority houses or trips downtown. There, just two miles away, is the heart of Nashville, where Hank Locklin and Norma Jean and Roy Acuff and Skeeter Davis and, shucks, just about everybody else, picks it up and taps it at the Grand Ole Opry. "Coach Skinner takes all the guys there when he recruits," says Warren, "but I doubt if any of us have been back."
With dashing, gambling defenses that sometimes result in Commodores diving all over the floor, and several quick-draw patterns off the double post on offense, Skinner's team is an exciting one to watch. The coach, however, remains calm and collected. At 5'10" and 150 pounds he is an extraordinarily fragile-looking man. He sits with his cup of ice water exactly in the center of the Vanderbilt bench at all times—six men on the left, six on the right—and seldom stirs. "I sit in the middle so I can see everybody down both sides," he says. "I don't want to forget them. And I learned a long time ago that if I get excited and upset, I'll miss out on making some adjustments on the floor."
Vanderbilt's poise under fire seems a direct reflection of the personality of its leader, but anything more stoic than his present state would make Skinner nearly a dead man. Though he remains impassive, he suffers inside. The white chalkiness of Gelusil remains on his lips after most games. Following close contests—even winning ones—Skinner appears to have just fallen apart and, unlike Humpty Dumpty, been put back together again.
It is mandatory for Vanderbilt to play somewhat above its present peak in order to prevent the coach from collapsing completely. In their first five victories, the Commodores outscored only SMU from the floor. On the other hand, they have shot brilliantly from the foul line (exactly 80%) and have outrebounded their much taller opposition 221-217. Since Skinner has recruited a freshman team that is loaded with height and has beaten the much-publicized Western Kentucky frosh twice, Vanderbilt will stay near the top for years to come. But Skinner's concern is this season. Against Duke his bench was revealed as inadequate for the rough road ahead—two tournaments and the SEC race. Lockyear gave him two good performances, against North Carolina and Duke, and 6'9" Bob Bundy played well in the Davidson game. But beyond them, Skinner is weak in reserves. Still, his men play so intelligently that they may be able to get through the season without having to depend on the bench. Against Davidson, Hagan and Wyenandt both had four fouls after two minutes of the second half. They sat out only four minutes and were around at the end of the overtime—Wyenandt to set the screen, Hagan to score the winner.
Skinner got so excited over that one he almost spilled his ice water.