By Tasha Mahurin
Bill Wright coached the University of Tennessee’s baseball team from 1963 until 1981. The program’s longest tenured coach, he is a member of six different halls of fame. Although long before he led the Vols baseball team, he was a star athlete on the basketball court.
A 1941 graduate of old Knoxville High School, Wright helped lead the team to state championships in both ‘39 and ‘41. In ‘41, he actually outscored the opposing team all by himself. Wright initially turned down a professional baseball offer to play basketball for the University of Tennessee and was a starting guard for the 1943 SEC championship team.
As is true for many of the University’s faculty, students, and athletes during the early 40s, Wright’s education and athletic career was interrupted by a three year service in the Marines. While stationed in Durham, NC, Wright played both basketball and baseball at Duke University where he served as cocaptain of the All-Southern Conference basketball team and compiled a .400 batting average.
Wright then returned to UT in ‘46 and ‘47 and played two more years of basketball.
Upon graduation in ‘47, he signed a baseball contract with the St. Louis Browns. He led the Northern League with 99 RBIs, and was on the road to a promising baseball career when he was forced to give up the sport due to a battle with tuberculosis.
“He played both sports and played them well,” his son, Bill Wright III, told The Focus, “but baseball was his first love.”
Wright returned to the University of Tennessee and earned his Master’s degree in education in 1951. He took a job at the then new West High School, where he coached both basketball and baseball. In 1960, he was tapped by Bowden Wyatt to serve as the first ever full-time academic advisor to UT student-athletes.
“Although very serious about sports, he was equally passionate about education,” Wright III added.
While busy scheduling tutoring sessions and monitoring academic progress for the University’s athletes, Wright also served as assistant baseball coach and was eventually promoted to head coach in 1963. During his 19 years as head coach of the Vols, he compiled a record of 408-308-2 (.570), a record which remains within the top 20 on the SEC’s overall victory list. He also won the SEC Eastern Division title in ‘66, ‘70, and ‘76. Additionally, Wright finished in the top three 15 of his 19 seasons. In ‘66, he led the Vols to their first 20-win season.
He also had an undeniable knack for producing pro-ball players. 19 different players signed professional baseball contracts after they left his baseball program at Tennessee.
According to his family, one of his greatest coaching honors at the University was coaching his own son, Barry Wright, who played on UT’s baseball team the four years prior to Wright’s retirement.
After retirement as head baseball coach, Wright served as head coach one last time when he led the 1982 gold medal winning USA team in the World’s Fair International Baseball tournament in Knoxville. America defeated Japan in the final game.
He passed away in April of 2011 at the age of 87, but his legacy lives on in the record book and in the thousands of student-athletes he both mentored and coached.