The coach is out of the hospital, the star player is out of jail and last week Tennessee came out of the Southeastern Conference shadows to upset second-ranked Kentucky 71-67 in overtime. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fans, stay tuned, stay tuned. There may yet be a happy ending to the basketball psychodrama that is unfolding in Big Orange Country.
Until the troubles of Job descended on him last fall, Vol Coach Ray Mears was anticipating his best of 21 collegiate seasons. So much so, that before fall drills began he ordered practice jerseys with the insignia of the Omni on their backs. Atlanta's Omni happens to be the site of the NCAA championship tournament this year, and Mears says he wanted the jerseys to motivate "the best material I've ever had."
Sackcloth and ashes might have been more appropriate. Between Sept. 11 and Oct. 23, Forward Bernard King, half of the fabled "Bernie and Ernie Show" and twice SEC Player of the Year, was arrested for possession of marijuana, reckless driving and drunken driving. Each incident was like a poison dart to Mears, whose system has always been based on discipline and regimentation, both on and off the court. Obliged to punish his star, Mears imposed an indefinite suspension. Thirteen days later, Mears was admitted to a hospital, suffering from "nervous exhaustion."
Even though Mears had a similar disability in 1963, his first year at Tennessee, many believe that King's misadventures put the coach in the hospital this time. King sees no connection. "Coach works too hard," he said last week. "He brings it on himself." Mears readily admits that King has been a handful, but he does not blame him for his emotional problems. The shock treatment Mears underwent, he says vaguely, was to "clear my mind of things that had gone on in the last few months."
January 24, 1977
During Mears' absence. Associate Coach Stu Aberdeen ran the team and King practiced with the reserves. Nevertheless, Tennessee won its first three games, but when King finally returned to the lineup the Volunteers immediately lost two of three—81-78 to Duke at home and 86-77 to San Francisco in the Utah Classic.
"Bernard and I work together as well as any two players in the country," says Grunfeld, the Ernie half of Tennessee's star act. "But after practicing and playing in his position—with my back to the basket—I couldn't just snap my fingers and return to my old wing position. It was a tough adjustment for everyone." And King admits, "I wasn't ready to come back when I did."
Mears was discharged from the hospital in mid-December and he sat quietly at the press table during the Volunteer Classic the following two nights. It was not until the start of the conference season in early January that Mears reassumed control of the team. "That was the deal I made with my doctors," he says, "but my staff knew how I wanted things done."
With a 6-2 record after winning the Classic and all hands aboard, the situation had pretty much returned to normal. In other words, King and Grunfeld were each scoring around 25 points a game, and the other three starters were grabbing whatever scraps were left. This is about all it takes to win at Tennessee, because Mears goes to the bench about as often as most people go to St. Moritz.
"Yes, we have a star system," he says. "You have to go with your strength, and I tell the other players to be patient and let Grunfeld and King win or lose it for us. We tell the others that their time will come later."
And it works. Two freshmen, Center Reggie Johnson and reserve Chuck Threeths, are already looking forward to a "Reggie and Chuck Show." And veteran Guards Mike Jackson and Johnny Darden willingly comply with whatever Mears orders.
"There must be a hundred teams in this country that I could lead in scoring," says Jackson, who is averaging 17.5 points a game. "I might even be an All-America. But I don't think much about it because I like what I'm doing and I know my role."
So it was one big healthy, happy and harmonious family that went to Lexington to play Kentucky last Wednesday. The Volunteers were 9-2 overall, 3-0 in the SEC and much more confident than you would ever expect an unranked 11-point underdog to be.
The same was not true of the Wildcats, who had struggled to win their two conference games, defeating Georgia in overtime and Vanderbilt on a basket in the last nine seconds. Clearly this was not the same team that had humiliated Notre Dame two weeks before, 102-78. "We've been celebrating ever since," said Coach Joe B. Hall before the game. "We're not playing or practicing well. We're in some kind of emotional slump."
A shooting slump was more like it against Tennessee. Kentucky shot only 27% in the first half and fell behind 32-28. The Wildcats are very good when their beefy big men can pound your head and their little men can run, but put Mike Phillips and Rick Robey, both 6'10", in foul trouble and slow the tempo and the Wildcats are in trouble.
Just how much trouble was apparent in the last four minutes when Kentucky, which had finally gone ahead, tried to protect a five-point lead. Tennessee zone-trapped the Wildcat ball handlers into mistakes, and it was the home team that needed a late basket to tie the game at 61 and send it into overtime.
King took charge in the extra period. He scored one basket while falling on his back, set up two more with nifty passes and controlled the backboards and the Volunteers had a very big win.
With some justification Kentucky blamed its 33% field-goal shooting for the loss, but Tennessee, which has now beaten the Wildcats four straight times, would hear none of it. "They didn't show me nothing," said Johnson, who out-scored King 18 to 16 and had 13 rebounds to Grunfeld's three. "It was the same as last year, when we came from 16 points down to win," said King. "We remembered it and they did, too."
Grunfeld figures that "if we can beat Kentucky, we can beat anybody," and his teammates readily agree. King says there is no doubt Tennessee would win a rematch with San Francisco. Says Johnson, "We should take everything. Can't no team stop us."