There was a novel, thumping beat in Music City last Saturday night, but this particular Nashville Sound was neither nasal country & Western nor raucous strobe-light rock. The cacophony was strictly of college basketball—Vanderbilt going against Alabama, a game played at a whirling rpm on the turntable of the Memorial Gymnasium.
By a critic's standards, the performance had everything: a surfeit of Southeastern Conference drama, big plays, rallies and enough action to tie slip knots in the tongue of the glibbest disc jockey. Vandy made more comebacks than Sinatra. Often the Commodores were moribund; their breath would not have fogged a mirror. But at each seeming demise they rallied, just as they had predicted they would. Somehow, some way, Vanderbilt won 73-72, with sophomore Butch Feher the chief resuscitator. He shoveled in the winning basket with 13 seconds remaining, a wild, charmed shot decidedly short on form but more than adequate on results. Afterward, Alabama looked as if it had stopped to sniff a boutonniere and had been squirted in the face with water.
The standing-room-only and partisan crowd was euphoric, and no wonder. The Commodores stole the ball four times in the final 2½ minutes, twice in the last 25 seconds, while Alabama handled the thing as if it were ticking. Even so the Crimson Tide had two prime chances to pound the final nail into the Vanderbilt coffin, but each time they hit their thumbs instead. Ray Odums blew a clear layup' with less than a minute remaining and Charles Cleveland, the team's best shooter, broke wide open but missed a piddling jump shot with two seconds left. Vandy Coach Roy Skinner has now won five games by four points or fewer, and when it was all over he looked like a rag hung up to dry. "The only way I can make it through this season is if they keep winning," he wheezed.
Vanderbilt's chances to remain undefeated could hardly have looked worse. The team was down by 11 points late in the first half and falling apart like a newspaper left out in the rain, but struggled back to a 37-37 tie at halftime, enticing Alabama embarrassingly into seven offensive fouls. "It's kind of a rinky-dink play," said Vandy Captain Jan Van Breda Kolff, "but if that's what it takes to win, you have to do it."
Running out of tricks, Vandy trailed Alabama 69-62 with 2:40 left on the clock. "Instead of quitting then, we just pulled together," said Van Breda Kolff. "This team has character. We always seem to win the close ones."
There were 26 seconds left and Vanderbilt was still down by one when Feher missed the second of two free throws. Alabama's Charles Russell, a first-team junior college All-America last year and his team's leading scorer and rebounder in the game, grabbed the ball. Only for a second, though. Vandy's ubiquitous Terry Compton tipped it away. Leon Douglas blocked Van Breda Kolff's shot but Compton again stole the ball, nudging it to Feher, whom Skinner calls "a good garbage player." Seconds later Feher was scavenging for the victory. "That's a terrible way to lose a game," moaned Alabama Coach C. M. Newton.
Russell all but shut out Compton, Vandy's top launching pad, during the first half, but then Compton loosened up and scored 16 points in the second. The Vanderbilt senior grew up on a farm outside Horse Cave, Ky., a town that boasts 2,100 citizens and a cave on Main Street. As a stripling he practiced his basketball on a goal nailed to a tobacco barn. "During the winter we moved it inside," he explained. "There weren't many chores to do except milking the cows, so we played seven or eight hours a day."
The teams had entered the game with burgeoning reputations. Alabama was 6-1 and ranked seventh in the nation, while Vanderbilt was unbeaten in eight games and ranked 10th. This was the SEC opener for both, and past performances were as meaningless as chaff in the wind. Apprehension settled in the respective camps early in the week.
"We realize now that Skinner is a better coach than we thought he was," commented Van Breda Kolff. His father, Butch, is the coach of the Memphis Tarns, so Jan is well schooled in the rudiments of the game. Although he is 6'8", he played guard his first two years at Vandy and is the best passer on the team. "The first couple of years here, I wondered at times. We used to blame a loss on the coaching staff. Now if we lose, we're going to blame it on ourselves. We're more together this year."
"On paper, Alabama does look better," agreed Compton one day last week after practice, "but I think we're a smarter team. The game is going to boil down to whoever wants it the most, to who gets those loose balls."
It was a jaunty prediction destined to become hard fact. True, Vanderbilt made nine more free throws than Alabama, but that could be a mark of its savvy as much as its home-court advantage. The team made 14 more than Memphis State, and that game was in Memphis. Two of its players are enrolled in pre-med, a few others are in engineering or sociology; there are no physical education or teachers colleges at Vandy, no Canoeing I or Badminton IT to sugar the athlete's academic load, and Skinner has been able to squeeze only one JC transfer into school in his 14 years there.
For most of this season everything has been dandy at Vandy. The only discordant note was struck over the Christmas holidays when a thief broke into Skinner's house and stole his television set—and too bad Compton was not around to filch it right back. The coach is a small, thin man with ruddy skin. His voice, like most everyone's in Music City, sounds like Gomer Pyle's. This season he has alternated four seniors and three sophomores in the lineup. They are called "the splendid seven," but lately that sobriquet is outdated.
Bob Chess, a 6'9" junior, has been giving Van Breda Kolff some help at center, and against Alabama he came off the bench to slow down Douglas, the Tide's sophomore center who is one of the best young big men in the country. "I just thought he was big, but he can get up and reject some shots," said Compton about Douglas. "I wouldn't doubt that he's probably the most valuable player in the league."
In a short time, Newton has changed the description of Alabama basketball from futile to fantastic. His first team won only four games in 1969; the last two have combined for 40 victories. His first seven players were raised in the state and each of the starting five was the most valuable player in his respective high school tournament. Everyone of consequence, except senior Ray Odums, returns next season.
This is hardly to say that the future is not now at Alabama. Newton is stirring three newcomers into the nucleus of Douglas, Cleveland and Odums and by the end of the year, perhaps when the NCAA Mideast regional is held at Alabama, the team will show it. Russell is improving game by game and so are freshmen T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt) Dunn, a starter at forward, and 6'8" Rickey Brown, a spindly youngster who can play either center or forward. Both the freshmen were frustrated by Vanderbilt's aggressive defense. "They took away our inside game," acknowledged Newton, "although we did outrebound them by a comfortable margin. And the charging fouls hurt us. Guys got awful cautious. Overall, we ought to be good enough to win even with all of that."
But the doctors of Vanderbilt attacked the game as if it were a calculus problem. Every time the thing looked beyond solution, they got together and worked out a new formula, finally mystifying the opposition. "It looked bad for a while, didn't it?" Compton said later. "I guess you'd call it luck, to come from behind like that against a team as good as Alabama."
That's Vanderbilt, awfully lucky this year. Just like all the other undefeated teams, the ones that can be counted on one hand.