By Steve Williams
If you have a question about past TSSAA state basketball tournaments – like final scores of games, who the champions were or how far a team advanced in the bracket – Nelson Smotherman will have the answer.
Starting in 1960 and every season since, he has worked the state tournament in some capacity.
This season made his 60th year working at the state tournament and I had the pleasure of sitting beside him on media row during boys’ quarterfinal action at MTSU. Nelson also is one of the few people still around that I remember from my days covering state tourneys for The Knoxville Journal in the 1970s and ’80s.
Smotherman, 85, told me he went to his first state tournament in 1946 when he was 13 years old and recalled Nashville West being the state champion.
A few years later, in 1955, his brother Bill played for Murfreesboro Central in the state tourney and that was the first season Nelson kept stats at the state for the radio broadcast of the games on WGNS.
He worked in that role for WGNS from 1960-1975, for WMTS from 1976-1980 and with the TSSAA State Tournament Network for years starting in 1974.
Smotherman also was the statistician for the TSSAA boys’ and girls’ state tourneys for years, beginning in 1960.
In 1989, the TSSAA hired him to compile records, which led to the 1991 publishing of the TSSAA State Record Book.
“Nelson is a walking record book,” said Matthew Gillespie, Assistant Executive Director of the TSSAA. “The amount of history he has physically collected and stored and also mentally collected and stored is unprecedented. He knows little tidbits that no one else in the gym will know. The craziest thing you can think of Nelson will know.
“He’s kind of our – whatever you want to call it, official or unofficial – historian.”
I showed Smotherman a copy of The Knoxville Focus column I did recently on the first girl and boy players to make a 3-point shot in TSSAA history (1987 season) and that seemed to be right down his alley in the trivia department.
Since retiring as statistician, Smotherman still comes to the state tourneys in Murfreesboro to collect all stat sheets and keep up with the records, said Gillespie.
“He gives radio and TV broadcasters and other members of the media little tidbits of things that he may know,” added Gillespie. “He’s just a wealth of knowledge.”
Matthew didn’t know I had experienced that earlier in the day during the semifinals when Smotherman looked up and gave me a list of all the Knoxville teams that had won state titles over the years, including Knoxville High’s championships in 1939, 1941 and 1951 in the pre-classification era.
“We are definitely lucky to have him involved in high school sports,” added Gillespie. “There’s a lot of my job that I couldn’t do or wouldn’t have been able to gather the information if it wasn’t for Nelson.”
Smotherman said his father, Nelson Sr., knew the man who owned the radio station in Murfreesboro and that helped open the door for him to eventually keep stats for Hall of Fame broadcasters like Monte Hale and Billy Haney.
“It’s just something I got into back in 1950,” said Nelson. “I’ve stayed in it and done it ever since. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t still be doing it.”
He’s worked state tourneys when A.F. Bridges, Gill Gideon and Ronnie Carter were TSSAA Executive Directors as Bernard Childress is now.
Best team at the boys’ state he’s ever seen?
“My answer to that is the Pearl High team from 1966,” said Nelson. That Nashville team was champion of the first integrated state tourney.
“I can remember a few of them,” he said. “Ed “Too Tall” Jones, he’s one of the pros that played in the state tournament. He played for Jackson Merry in 1969.”
Jones didn’t become known as “Too Tall” until he played football at Tennessee State University. The 6-9 defensive end went on to play 15 seasons for the Dallas Cowboys.
Remember Jim Smiddy, the National High School Hall of Fame girls coach from Bradley Central, who’s name was brought up a time or two after the Bearettes won the Class AAA title this season for the first since Smiddy won his fifth in 1976?
“I knew Jim quite well,” said Smotherman.
What about Bearden’s boys team I asked Nelson after the Bulldogs’ win over Memphis East in the Class AAA finals?
“I thought they looked good,” he answered. Those words mean a lot coming from a man who has seen so many state champions through the years.
What have you enjoyed the most over the years with your affiliation with the TSSAA state tournaments?
“I’ve just enjoyed keeping up with all this information and having it for sportswriters and everyone to use,” said Smotherman, who was inducted into the TSSAA Hall of Fame as a contributor in 1997. “And certainly I have enjoyed the games.”
“Not at least for two years,” answered Nelson, “because two years from now will be the 100th anniversary of the TSSAA boys basketball state tournament and I want to be here for that.”
He’ll have to be. The TSSAA hasn’t had a state tourney since 1960 without him.