Winning in Starkville was and continues to be special

By Steve Williams

Tennessee basketball notched what was probably its second biggest win ever at Mississippi State last week.

That’s not meant to be a knock on the Vols’ impressive victory in Starkville, which put them in position to capture a Southeastern Conference championship this past weekend.

There was just a win over the Maroon and White Bulldogs that was a tad more significant 51 years ago.

On March 6, 1967, UT beat State 78-76 in triple overtime at McCarthy Gym that gave the Vols their first-ever NCAA tournament berth. Back then you had to win the league to make the 23-team field.

I can still remember, as a 14-year-old, lying on the floor in our living room in Clinton and listening to John Ward call the play by play.

That game left a lifelong impression on me, and as I thought back on that team last week, I could still remember its starters – Ron Widby, Billy Justus, Tom Boerwinkle, Tom “Spook” Hendrix and Bill Haun.

I must admit I had to go on line and call up the roster to get the names of the reserves – Wes Coffman, Bobby Jack Guinn, David Bell, Bill Young and Mac Petty.

Ray Mears, of course, was the head coach and Stu Aberdeen his top assistant.

Tennessee lost a close game to the Dayton Flyers in the Mideast Region semifinals and I can still recall the disappointment of that 53-52 defeat. In those days, the NCAA had consolation games for third place in its regions, and UT lost that game too – a 51-44 defeat at the hands of Indiana.

Despite the quick exit, this was a special season in Tennessee basketball. A 21-7 overall record, 15-3 mark in the SEC and a No. 8 ranking in the final poll.

I googled up some interesting info I had forgotten about the 1967 tourney. While Tennessee had a bye in the Mideast quarterfinals at Evanston, Ill., Dayton edged Western Kentucky 69-67 before going against the Vols.

Dayton also made it to the national title game before bowing to UCLA 79-64, which makes one wonder how far the Vols could have advanced had they gotten past Dayton.

UCLA was led by Lew Alcindor (later named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and he was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

That ’67 national title also would be the first of seven straight for Coach John Wooden and his Bruins – a record streak I seriously doubt will ever be threatened, much less broken.

Justus, a Fulton High grad along with Widby, was the color analyst for last week’s game at Mississippi State, so that heightened my interest in the Vols’ recent trip to Starkville.

I also got the opportunity to chat with Justus on the phone the night after last Tuesday’s game and we spent a good 25 minutes going down Memory Lane.

Justus said last week’s return to Starkville was his first in over 30 years.

“When I used to work for Converse, part of my territory was Mississippi and I passed through Starkville many times,” he said. “It’s still pretty much a small college town.”

Justus recalled one thing about the 1967 win at Mississippi State I never knew or had long forgotten.

“Eastman Kodak in Kingsport gave UT a plane that the basketball team used to travel on,” he said. “It was named The General, maybe in honor of Coach Neyland, I’m not sure.

“Anyway, the night we won the championship the weather was so bad we couldn’t fly out of there and had to stay overnight.

“We heard they had one of the greatest celebrations ever on Cumberland Avenue after we won that night.

“The next day when we returned,” continued Justus, “there was a good crowd at McGhee Tyson Airport to greet us. And at the bottom of the steps coming off the plane was the UT football team with Dewey Warren, the quarterback, out in front.”

Some things we just never forget.

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