By Tasha Mahurin
Zora G. Clevenger took over as head coach for the University of Tennessee’s football program in 1911 and three years later led the Volunteers to both a 9-0 season and a Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association title on the gridiron. However, until the Robert Neyland era, the University’s football coach also served as head basketball coach. (Clevenger, a triple threat, also coached the University’s baseball program.) World War I had much the same effect on UT sports as WWII would later, nearly all collegiate sports stopped on the Knoxville campus with the exception of basketball, a relatively new sport at the time.
James Naismith, a Canadian P.E. teacher, invented basketball as we know it today in 1891. In 1892 formal rules were introduced. The game was played by dribbling a soccer ball and points were earned if players were able to land the ball in a peach basket. Open-ended nets were not introduced until 1903.
Although UT held its first collegiate basketball game in 1909, it was Zora G. Clevenger who led the Vols to their first truly successful basketball season in 1913-14. That season, the Vols beat local colleges such as Maryville, Carson Newman and Chattanooga, as well as a future SEC football rival Alabama. They finished the season 15-2. The two losses were to Kentucky.
Thus the Vols’ basketball rivalry with Kentucky was born. The Big Orange lost twice to the Big Blue in a six game/six day road trip. The following season, Clevenger once again led the team to a successful 9-2 campaign. Interestingly enough, 4 of the 9 games were against Kentucky. Tennessee held off the Wildcats in the two competitions held in Knoxville but proved less successful in Lexington.
The 1915-16 season proved to be the highlight of the early years of the Vol basketball program. During Clevenger’s final season, UT finished with a perfect 12-0 record- winning by an average of 15 points per game. The record remains as Tennessee’s only basketball season without a loss. The Volunteers defeated Kentucky 28-17.
With Clevenger at the helm, Tennessee produced a 36-4 three season record. The four losses were to Kentucky. He would later go on to Kansas State University where he proved successful as both a football and basketball coach. Incidentally, that same year John R. Bender moved from Kansas State to assume head coaching responsibilities the University of Tennessee. However, those three seasons, put the Tennessee basketball program on the map, and a rivalry began that remains alive and well today.