It was January of ‘65 and the undefeated Gibbs Eagles were in Middle Tennessee for a matchup with undefeated Murfreesboro. Principal Max Clendenen tried to open the door for the Gibbs group to enter the gym. A man stuck his head out and said, “Sorry, there is no more room. It is a sellout.” He shut the door.
Coach Dagley remembers that night. “It was cold! I knew Mr. Clendenen well enough to know that when his face got taut, he turned pale, and set his jaw, it was not the time to cross him,” Dagley said. Those words reminded me of the same look I had seen on our father’s face countless times.
Mr. Clendenen was a stabilizing force at Gibbs for decades. Many of us were fortunate to have him as our principal for grades one through twelve. I remember seeing him in the hallways many times—always pleasant and always smiling. He had watched some of the basketball players go from first grade to this moment of being an undefeated team in the state. This beloved principal must have been so proud of them. The often quiet, but fearless, leader would not be outdone with his Eagles standing in the cold ready to play. The players were fortunate to have him there that night.
Again, Mr. Clendenen pulled the door open. Again, the man stuck his head out and said, “Sorry, there is no more room.”
This time, Mr. Clendenen stepped in front of him and emphatically said, “Then there will be no second game tonight.” The man looked out and saw the entire Gibbs team, in matching navy blazers and gray pants, standing in the bitter cold. He humbly apologized and let the ball team enter the gym.
The team got their first taste of a hostile crowd when they started to the dressing room. Dagley said the first time they played there in December, the gym was full. He was told it seated 4,500. This time it had to have many more because the teams sat on the ends of the court and folding chairs had been placed right behind the Gibbs bench. Dagley told someone that they must have “hand-picked” the ones who sat behind the Gibbs team. Perhaps, a kind gesture from the Superintendent of Knox County Schools, Dr. Mildred E. Doyle, helped to warm their spirits somewhat in that hostile territory. Before the game, a telegram from Dr. Doyle wishing the team luck was delivered to their dressing room. The coach kept it. I was not surprised to hear of Dr. Doyle’s kind gesture, because I learned first-hand that she took a great interest in students. It was during my senior year that the yearbook sponsor, Edgar J. House, suggested I take a copy of the Gibbs yearbook to Dr. Doyle. I did—though I was sure she had more important items on her agenda than to see me. Instead of asking me to leave the yearbook with her secretary, however, Dr. Doyle invited me into her office at the Fort Hill Building for a short visit.
Just as in the first Murfreesboro game, former WBIR sportscaster Jim Holliday was the link to the long-distance game for fans back home. Murphy’s Law continued in the game. “It certainly was not a pretty game for our fans to watch,” Dagley said. “We made mistakes that I had not seen all year. Their plan was to slow the game down and not give us the chance to fast break—and they did it. They were the better team that night and beat us by 11 points. That stopped our win streak at 22 straight wins.”
The Coach knew how heartbreaking the loss would be for his young team. He had been in a similar situation as a player. Dagley had played on the ‘52-’53 Karns team that lost only three games and remembered how upset he got over that first loss. Now, Dagley—the Coach—was wondering how this first loss would affect his ‘64-’65 Gibbs team. It didn’t take him long to find out how one player felt. On the way home, the team stopped at Rockwood to get something to eat. One player got off the bus wearing his navy blazer with half of his shirttail tucked in and the other half out. “I told him to tuck his shirt in,” Dagley said. He did.
Then he told his coach, “It doesn’t make any difference now. I’ve lost my pride.”
“I’m sure it affected the rest of the team in some way,” Dagley added. He would soon find out if the loss at Murfreesboro had devastated the team or if they would channel the emotions of that terrible loss and rebound to their winning ways.
(This is the fourth in a series of columns over the next several weeks about the ‘64-’65 Eagles’ amazing year with their Head Coach, Bob Dagley. The series continues April 1, after my Easter columns, when the team returns from Murfreesboro.)