For the South, the proper vacation of a university is the winter," announced an 1858 prospectus for the newly founded University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., "...when the cheerful Christmas fire is burning on the hearth, and mothers and sisters and servants can restore that holy domestic feeling which may have decayed amid the scholastic isolation of a college, when the student can engage in the sports which make him a true Southern man, hunting, shooting, riding; when he can mingle freely with the slaves who are in the future to be placed under his management."
The University of the South did indeed have winter vacation instead of summer up to 1908, by which time certain social changes seemed to have somewhat weakened the obvious arguments against summer recess. Fortunately. Had winter vacation continued much longer, untrue Southern men wishing to play basketball would have been severely disadvantaged.
Lord knows, Coach Lon Varnell has problems enough already. "Sewanee," in the Shawnee language, means either "foggy" or "lost." Come fall, the mists close in, seldom departing until springtime. And the university, in Franklin County high on the Cumberland Plateau, 54 winding mountain miles west of Chattanooga, is so far from any women's college that students can scarcely name one. The only time a girl is seen on campus is during one of the three party weekends. This has tended to affect recruiting adversely.
(In September the citadel will fall at last. Sewanee will go coed. Varnell feels fewer misgivings than the alumni: the university athletic fortunes have slipped the last couple of years. "You can't take calico and make silk," he says. "But now maybe I can recruit a few cheerleaders and their boyfriends will tag along.")
February 24, 1969
Luckily, Varnell has some sizable advantages, too. Sewanee represents the best of the South with a spacious graciousness that charms potential recruits. Better yet, he has Coach Varnell himself. Coach Varnell is the sincerest man you or your Methodist minister will ever meet. In fact, Coach Varnell is a Methodist minister.
He is also a coal-mine operator, a car dealer, a political campaign manager, a hardware-store proprietor, an agent for the Fabulous Harlem Magicians and a promoter of scores of entertainers from Lawrence Welk to The Supremes. He has been a Honduras mahogany dealer and is now an owner of beauty parlors, apartment houses and grocery stores from wherever to Texas. He also has sold popcorn at home basketball games.
An archetypal West Tennesseean with a Walter Matthau nose and blue-green eyes he squinches together to emphasize particularly sincere points, Varnell has been coaching basketball for 32 years, 21 at Sewanee. "I b'lieve I've seen the ball bounce more times than anyone else," he drawls. "Lawdy murder, I remember when we had to pump up the bladder, put the stem inside and tie up the laces. I remember when the ball had seams sewn on the outside. Why, I even remember when they put up nets. I was the one who held the ladder when Naismith nailed up the peach baskets."
Two of those 32 years were spent as an assistant to Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, who touted Varnell to U. of the S. inquirers as "next to me, the best coach I know." Varnell is a sound basketball man and, like Rupp, has a liking for fundamentals and an absolute obsession for the game. That obsession, like his 14-to-18-hour workday, is the mark of a tightly wound man, driven, in large measure, by fear of poverty and obscurity.
Getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to fire a furnace, working his way through high school in a drugstore, selling neckties to attend college—those are memories Varnell retains vividly. "The way you grow up determines what you are," he says, not entirely happily. "I had it real hard—worked for 25¢ a day. When your schoolmates have loose-leaf notebooks you can't afford, you never forget it.
"I grew up in Adamsville, Tenn., an amazing little town for the caliber of its people—high-type people with real character and honesty. My family there at one time owned a good part of town. My father—he ran the general store and a gin, brought in the first case of Coke, bought possum and squirrel furs to sell—had a warmth that made him a fine businessman, but he let the juice get to him. Going broke on blue cotton—he bought at 36¢ a pound and sold for 4¢—didn't help either. I swore never to touch whiskey or politics. I still don't drink."
Lon Shelton Varnell was born on a December Friday the 13th in 1913, 13 minutes before noon, and weighed exactly 13 pounds. That was in Ripley's Believe It or Not. You can look it up, Varnell says proudly.
"I thank that every person wants recognition," he says. "The town I grew up in, the people who were recognized were those that had money or those who excelled in athletics or maybe education. Most of them were beyond me. Athletics, maybe it wasn't.
"When I grew up, a coach was considered the outstanding person in the community. Everybody looked up to him. Maybe I grew up just seeing this happen and thought this was what I wanted.
"You may wonder, having the love for the game that I do, why I haven't gone big time. Well, I had three pro offers—two from the NBA and one from the new league—and many from colleges, but the big reason for my staying at Sewanee is giving my family this type of college environment. Like I told Mr. Welk—he's a farm boy from North Dakota himself—it's not where you are but how far you've come."
Varnell's oldest son, Larry, who was valedictorian and captain of the basketball team at Sewanee, and a Fulbright scholar, is now getting a doctorate in nuclear physics at Cal Tech. Gilbert, a basketball player at Texas Tech, has a doctorate in physics. Jimmy, who "tore the basket up" at Sewanee, has a master's in English and is now in law school at the University of Washington. Daughter Lynda will graduate from SMU in June.
"I'm just a country boy and all, I don't come on very strong," Varnell says apologetically. "I just work real hard. I believe in repaying tenfold for anything I've ever gotten. People may think that with so many hats I may be shirking something, but I work real diligently to give people value for their dollar."
Work he does. "Lon is a most unusual person," SEC Publicist Elmore (Scoop) Hudgins says. "He beats SEC schools once in a while, and he always scares 'em to death. If he's got one player, he can play you. Vandy would have terrific contests with Sewanee when Sewanee didn't have a single player who could make Vanderbilt's squad."
Four years ago the University of the South beat a good Mississippi team twice in one year. Ole Miss has stopped playing Sewanee—"even though they like to play us because we're white meat." Varnell's 32-year record is approximately 500-200, exactly 254-181 at U. of the S.
See Varnell at a game and you know why. Passion practically comes through the pores. Puddles and pools of it. "Lon has the strangest voice when he gets excited," a friend says. "Kind of a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice. And you know how other coaches scream and yell at officials? Lon kinda petitions 'em. It gets to where the referees feel sorry for him."
Varnell has written often about basketball. One of his articles, Developing a Hardwood Giant, led to an invitation to take his team on a 1951 tour of Europe and North Africa, and that led to a letter from J. Kwei Fynn of Accra, Ghana. "I have," wrote J. Kwei Fynn, "at last a moment to myself and making the most of it by writing to you this my humble missive. I am in good condition of health and hope you are also the same. Please, I am learning to play Basketball.... One day I came across your pointres.... As God Almighty have given you to me, I hope also that you will help me from this time and forever. Sir, I needed some of the Basketball materials—such as canvas sizes eight, socks, pant and jerseys or you could give. I know that you will give a kind consideration to this my humble words and grant unto me that I have stated above, and give me a book that covers basketball from A to Z.... [I am] also asking for a vacancy in your school. I am a lad of 16 years and attending James Town Academy, my height is 5'1" and weight 112 lbs."
Along with what he asked for, Varnell sent young Fynn a letter saying he could go far in basketball. That is the sort of faith he applies to his own players. "We have no cuts," he says. "Boys cut themselves, through pride, if they can't compete. At first meeting, we get 20 to 30. Some come out just to write their girls they are playing. After three weeks of our training, you separate the big wood from the brush.
"I tell the boys we can have the greatest condition in the world, we can have the greatest spirit and we can have the greatest defense, because you don't have to be born with that. Therefore, we can be 75% as good as the best subsidized teams."
Although Varnell admits "basketball has changed, and now all the best players are playing on instinct," he believes that by repeating exactly the right move over and over and over in practice, habit can simulate instinct.
Accordingly, he uses a fairly simple patterned single-post offense, suited to the level of talent. "It really breaks down into a guard offense," he says, "because we want to get to the basket with a minimum number of passes.
"We know you can't be mechanical, yet a certain position of ball and players calls for one certain definite pattern. We know offense or defense is strictly position—maneuvering inside. Once I'm inside, the man with the ball ought to be able to hit me. If he can't, we'll get someone who can.
"And one thing we're real positive about is that we dribble with our head up and always know exactly where all four other men are."
U. of the S. men take notebooks home to draw and redraw permutations of eight or nine plays to be checked next day. If that makes Varnell sound like a man who would fly to Stillwater, Okla. just to ask Henry Iba how he is reacting to the new five-second rule, it is accurate. If it sounds like rather deliberate basketball, it is, down to fractions. "We like to have almost as good a chance to get the rebound as the defense does," Varnell says. "We always strive to have 3½ men on the boards, 1½ defense-minded. And our rebounders have the advantage of knowing when the rabbit is in the brier patch. The brier patch—that's home, where your man wants to be when he shoots."
Varnell employs multiple defenses, hoping to confuse offenses just momentarily. He uses man-to-man, switching man-to-man, match-up zones and "our bread and butter," a 2-3 zone. Often these are played in prearranged series. "I like to start with a man-to-man to size up each opponent," he adds. "Does he put the ball on the floor a lot? What is his shooting range? Is he quicker than my boy or faster?"
Almost certainly he is taller. "The big man hurts us bad," Varnell says. "But we're always able to come up with a big boy who isn't very good—not good enough to get a scholarship, at least. We put him on ropes, jumping broomsticks, and soon he's in pretty good shape. We get the immature player, the hully gully kid who never does the same thing twice, and work hard with him."
Right now Varnell's best player is Frank Stainback, a good outside-shooting guard who played so unimpressively for so small a high school that the subsidized talent sharks never even nibbled at him. Last year Varnell had Tim Miller, grandson of baseball Hall of Famer Bill Terry, but Miller had never made a high school team—which, considering his 6'8" height, should tell you something. Rupp occasionally sends down some overflow from Kentucky. Last year's high scorer was Guard Barney Hudson, whose high school coach was Herkie Rupp, the Baron's son; unfortunately, Hudson's grade-point average dropped somewhere below one-seventh of his scoring average. Varnell still gets most of his raw talent by digging through application files in the admissions office, letters and lone visits. (Recruiting, like coaching, is strictly a one-man operation at Sewanee.)
If the odds get big enough, of course, even a Davy Crockett can lose his coontail—or a Lon Varnell his optimism. "A losing season digs pretty deep," he admits, and there is pain in his voice. "Sometimes the bucket might get too heavy. Sometime you might have to set it down."
More than ever Varnell has to build his hardwood giants from the hardwood up. It leaves him with barely enough time to present the South with Peter, Paul and Mary, Liberace, Broadway road shows, Andy Williams, Henry Mancini, NBA exhibitions, Kate Smith, Bob Hope and the Beatles. Sometimes it even makes him a bit nostalgic for his days promoting the Harlem Globetrotters. Now there was a team for which he didn't have to improvise brown-paper glasses to keep guards from looking at the ball while dribbling.
"Goose Tatum claimed he was only ever stopped once," Varnell remembers, "and that was at a small town in Arkansas where the gym consisted of two Quonset huts, a basket in each, joined by a narrow hallway. Tatum hauled down this one rebound and headed for the hall. There, standing in the corridor, was a mountain of a man at least 6'6" and 250 pounds. 'Best defense I ever faced,' Tatum said."
Sewanee does come up with nifty scorers, like 6'6" Rhodes scholar Tommy Ward, class of '67, but somehow there always seem to be a lot more like Mad Dog. "Mad Dog would do things like knock down the coach and then run over him," teammates recall. "Or fall down three times on one trip downcourt, knock the wind out of one defender and break another's toe."
Varnell does get some indirect help. More than once he has asked a walk-on at first meeting, "Son, I believe your face looks familiar. Did I coach your brother?" "No, sir," the boy will say. "That was my daddy." Sewanee is that sort of place to which men send their sons and grandsons. It is Southern as a catfish fry and as Episcopal as its favorite cheer:
Leave 'em in the lurch.
Down with the heathen
And up with the Church.
The University of the South was founded to correct the state of affairs deplored by co-founder Bishop James Otey in 1858: "The youth in the Southwest for the most part seek the advantages of education by a resort to the Northern colleges. This they do confessedly...at the hazard of such changes in the constitution from difference of climate as to render their return dangerous, and at the risk of weakening those domestic ties connected with the parental domicile, which are seldom severed but at the expense of virtue."
Or, in phrases of today: "Sewanee cherishes gentility as well as learning"—Vice Chancellor and President Dr. Edward McCrady.
"Sewanee has, on the whole, succeeded in cherishing the past without idolatry and in facing the future without dizziness"—Dr. Charles Harrison, chairman of the English department.
" 'You can't make a good pickle just by squirting vinegar on a cucumber; it has to soak for a while' "—Robert Lancaster, dean of the college.
Sewanee is, above all, Southern. Dr. Reynold Kirby-Smith, son of the last Confederate general to surrender and the last to die, was a strong partisan of Sewanee athletics before his death in 1962. Hardee Field, for football, honors another Rebel general. And then there is English Professor Abbott (Abbo) Cotten Martin, a legendary hater of Yankees—and Germans. "A German," says Professor Martin, "is nothing but a Yankee carried to its logical conclusion."
Franklin County seceded from Tennessee when it thought the state was too slow leaving the Union. The only President ever to visit Sewanee, William Howard Taft, was greeted by shades drawn and windows shuttered so that the occupants would not have to look on a Republican President. The student union was named for donor Jacob Thompson, who was in charge of all Confederate espionage and who planned the dramatic raid on St. Albans, Vt.
As Varnell says, "There's a story about every whoop and holler." Shake Rag Hollow and Thumpin' Dick Hollow, just down off the escarpment, were places where you waved a handkerchief or thumped a hollow log, respectively, to summon the local moonshiner.
Bishop Leonidas Polk, the principal founder, a West Point man and the man who helped select Sewanee's location, "by merit of...railway contiguity...[and] mountain air and pure water...beyond the reach of epidemics," accepted a Confederate commission partly because Union sympathizers burned Sewanee buildings after Lincoln's election. Ironically, Yankee troops later occupied Sewanee, burning more buildings and breaking the original cornerstone to bits.
It is said that fragments of the cornerstone can still be found scattered among the acorns and red-oak leaves. But even if they are not, the looking, under the tall oaks and maples, is worth the while, as is almost any walk between Sewanee's Tennessee-sandstone buildings or around its 10,000-acre domain. From a score or more of cliffs, bluffs and steeps, there open out broad vistas of dozens of rich coves and valleys worthy of Dan'l Boone's first vision of Kaintuck.
That huge domain atop a mountain is what keeps Sewanee unique. Yet acceptance of it in a wilderness grant was not universally approved. Kentucky Bishop Benjamin Smith admonished, "Sewanee [is] totally impractical...manners and dress of professors and their families will become careless, rude, provincial: and those of the students boorish...."
At boorish Sewanee in 1969, all professors wear academic gowns in class and students are not allowed to walk the campus without coat and tie. The Episcopalians—who deliberately admit just over 50% heathen—hold firm control. A democratic and libertarian conservatism flourishes in the Jeffersonian tradition. The football team's popular and talented fullback is a Negro, and Bishop Otey's founding dictum—"University of the South is a name of convenient description; it is no party war cry, no sectional password"—is obeyed to the extent that even an Easterner is safe on the streets.
Sometimes the spirit of tolerance gets absolutely out of hand. At a game two years ago the Tiger cheerleaders despairingly pleaded, "C'mon, will y'all stand up and yell? Please?" "No," the crowd yelled. "Not a chance?" asked the cheerleader. "No," the crowd said. "We're gonna make you stand up," the megaphone man threatened. "We're gonna play the national anthem." The band played Dixie. Nobody moved. The cheerleader was vexed: "What are y'all, a bunch of Yankees!" Everybody stood up and cheered.
Further illustrating their ferocity and fervor as fans, the Arcadian Tigers bring books along to read at basketball games. Fortunately, the fellows who play the game are fiercer. In fact, they work right hard, running continuously throughout Varnell's two-hour practices. About the only time they stop is when Varnell yells, "Hold it! Hold it. Right thayuh!" and imparts some pearls of wisdom. "We've discussed this," he says. "Don't shoot with a hand in your face. You'll never make 50%," or, "You made a YMCA pass and lost the ball," or, "You haven't been going back to your rooms and thinking about the 3-on-2 situation."
The University of the South's record is not what it was. But Sewanee's hard-worked collection of rejects still visibly improve week by week. This year's Tigers, four of whom never played high school basketball, work intensely at forcing breaks, at rolling back to receive passes, at remembering to key an outside play with a bounce pass to a forward. Varnell is impressed. "These boys," he says in a hushed voice, winding up for some oratory, "are willing to pay the price. Pay the price. That's the philosophy I've lived by."
The voice rises slowly, dramatically. "The only real free enterprise left is athletics. Everything else is turning to politics and apple-polishing. But when a basketball player steps out on the floor, it's just him and the Great White Father. And you could take Bear Bryant a bushel of apples every morning and it wouldn't do any good. You can't help recognizing sport is a gift of Almighty God when Babe Ruth comes out of a Baltimore orphanage and they build a stadium for him.
"Pay the price to win" Varnell crescendoes, raising his chin and thrusting his face forward. Then he drops down to pianissimo again. "Grantland Rice wrote some of the finest literature there ever was—you can't beat Four Horsemen 'against a blue-gray October sky'—but I can't go along with that about the One Great Scorer. Just playing the game is losing."
It all reminds Varnell of his favorite quotation, which he freely applies to basketball, on and off the banquet circuit. "Winston Churchill said it first," he drawls tremulously. "In the darkest days of World War II he was asked, 'What is your aim?' 'Victory, ultimate victory,' Churchill says. 'Without victory, there is no tomorra!' "