Wiedmer: Mocs great Kevin Gray visits UTC again

Wiedmer: Mocs great Kevin Gray visits UTC again

December 13th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

His Spalding University basketball team's workout just completed Monday night inside the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga practice facility, Golden Eagles coach Kevin Gray headed for a brief sentimental walk through Maclellan Gym.

"I just want to put my feet down on that floor one more time," said Gray, a three-year captain for the Mocs who led the team to the 1976 Division II national championship game during an MVP senior season.

"I don't know when I'll have a chance to come back here again."

No matter when he next visits following Spalding's game tonight at 7 against UTC inside McKenzie Arena, the footprint Gray left as both a UTC player and assistant coach is indelible.

Gray's arrival from Louisville, Ky., with his Manual High School coach Ralph Underhill in 1972 was arguably the Mocs program's turning point.

It was Gray -- with much recruiting expertise from Underhill -- who soon helped lure such Derby City prep stars as Wayne Golden, William Gordon, Book McCray and Gary Stich to the Scenic City.

It was also Gray who led the way on the court, averaging 12.4 points a game for his career while hitting more than 50 percent of his shots from the field and over 80 percent of his free throws.

"Oh, yes, the Louisville Lefty," longtime UTC supporter Pat Clarkson said. "They didn't get much better than Kevin Gray."

And Gray kept making things better for the Mocs after his playing career. With the nucleus of the Louisville crew still around the following season, Gray joined head coach Ron Shumate on the bench to help UTC win the Division II national title, completing Shumate's four-year campaign to reach "Rocky Top."

"No matter what Knoxville says, we used that song first," Gray noted. "That was Coach Shumate's theme song. Knoxville had never heard of that till we used it."

When the Mocs parted company with Shumate a couple of years later, Gray was retained by Murray Arnold, who used the future UTC Hall of Famer's recruiting skills to help the program become close to an overnight success at the Division I level.

Taking notice, Alabama's Wimp Sanderson soon lured Gray to Tuscaloosa, where his eight-year stay beside the Man from Plaid produced five Sweet 16 runs and four SEC tournament crowns.

"I still talk to Wimp pretty often," Gray said. "He's come up to Louisville a couple of times to help me do clinics. We're still close."

Had he stayed with Bama, there's no telling where Gray might be coaching now. He almost assuredly would have landed a Division I head coaching gig at some point. He might be an SEC head coach today instead of directing the fortunes of Spalding, which doesn't offer athletic scholarships.

But Gray left Bama in 1992 for Baylor University, where he soon found himself involved in an academic fraud scandal. For years he wouldn't discuss it. Today he says, "Everything happens for a reason. Obviously, I wish it hadn't happened. But if there hadn't been the problems at Baylor, I might not be back in my hometown. I might not have had a chance to coach my son Tim here at Spalding."

Tim is actually on the 56-year-old Gray's staff, though he won't be here tonight because his full-time job rarely allows him to travel.

Said Dad of the end of their one-on-one wars: "We stopped when he was in the eighth grade. He grew to be 6-5. When we were still an NAIA Division I school, Tim was an All-American. He scored 2,900 points in his career. He could really play."

But so could Tim's dad. And regardless of how well the UTC program has performed as a Division I member, Gray's days attempting to reach Rocky Top were arguably the Mocs' zenith.

"I remember heading to Maclellan for games and the crowd would be wrapped around the building waiting to get in," Gray recalled. "There were sellouts almost every night."

There should be a sellout tonight in McKenzie to welcome back Gray, who's run the program at Spalding since 1998.

"People have wanted this game for a long time," UTC coach John Shulman said. "Kevin was a great player here and a coach who continued that Louisville-Chattanooga connection. We get to welcome back a legend."

The legend still eats with fellow ex-UTC guard John Berry once a week in Louisville. He's excited to see his old buddy McCray.

But mostly, he's just glad to return to his alma mater.

"Louisville's my home, but Chattanooga's where I grew up," Gray said. "This is the place where I made some of the best memories of my life."

A lot of longtime Mocs fans will no doubt momentarily grow young again tonight recalling some of the best UTC hoops memories of their lives, thanks to the return of the Louisville Lefty.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 757-6273.