Wiedmer: Vols have what it takes to reprise 1979

Wiedmer: Vols have what it takes to reprise 1979

March 13th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Weeds Rewind

The date was March 4, 1980. As many college kids did in those days, my friend Ben phoned his parents in Naples, Fla., that Sunday to converse while the rates were low.

His father asked him how his weekend had gone. Ben said it had been nothing special, that he'd just hung around Centre College's Danville, Ky., campus catching up on some schoolwork.

A long silence kidnapped the other end of the line, followed by the following question: "So that wasn't you I saw at the SEC tournament last night? Because it sure looked a lot like you."

Busted. But what fun. Having been mere fans at the renewal of the SEC tourney inside that same Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center in 1979, my college buddies and I turned it up a notch that following spring.

Using my art skills for something worthwhile for a change, I forged press passes for the 1980 event. We all wore coats and ties to each session to look somewhat official. As the week went on, we even began to boldly hit the media hospitality room after the final game each night for food and refreshments, some of which we weren't technically old enough to consume. And because my parents lived in Birmingham at the time, we had free lodging and gourmet breakfasts if we could roust ourselves before 10 a.m.

It was pretty much the perfect crime until Ben's parents caught their 6-foot-6 redhead sitting behind the basket in the corner of their television screen. Yet it was merely the second of the 33 SEC tourneys I will have watched or covered when I reach the Georgia Dome today to begin reporting on the 2014 tourney, which actually began Wednesday night for Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.

Every sports writer has a favorite event. Mine has long been the SEC tourney, perhaps because I watched it from the time the league brought it back after a 25-year absence. Or perhaps because so few people outside of Kentucky's Big Blue Nation seem to care about it. Or because for all the times King Kong Kentucky has won it since '79 (15), it's also been won by every other school of the original 10-team league at least once.

By comparison's sake, of the eight old Atlantic Coast Conference schools that once made up the greatest of all conference tourneys, Virginia and Clemson have never hoisted the trophy in that time span.

The SEC tourney also has provided a treasure chest of colorful memories, from the time LSU forward Howard Carter "borrowed" a van to go visit a girl in Tuscaloosa the day before a Bayou Bengals game in Birmingham, to when former Ole Miss coach Bob Weltich broke into tears in Lexington because he thought he'd been robbed by the refs in a semifinal loss to UK (he probably had been), to last season, when eventual tourney MVP Marshall Henderson of Ole Miss was banned from the interview podium following a semifinal win over Vanderbilt because of his outrageous behavior at the same podium after a quarterfinal victory over Missouri.

In fact, you could fill a whole chapter on the SEC tourney with Dale Brown stories alone. The 1987 tournament in Atlanta when the former LSU coach refused to sleep until his Tigers lost; they made it all the way to the final. There was 1991 in Nashville, when he wore his lucky hat from his Sioux Indian friend, Ambrose Antelope. There were the years he quoted Kirkegaard and called the whole tourney "a joke."

And then there was 1988 inside his school's own Pete Maravich Center, when one of his most beloved former players, Don Redden, died of heart failure less than two years after leading the 11th-seeded Tigers to the Final Four.

Discovering that Redden -- whose brother Bart later played for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga -- was wearing an LSU T-shirt when he died, Brown asked the Redden family if he could cut it into pieces and have the players wear it on their jerseys for the tourney, which began two days after the player's passing.

Duly inspired, the Tigers beat Vanderbilt in their tourney opener. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.

There are 1,001 other memories, of course. The Tornado Tournament of 2008 that began in the Georgia Dome and ended at Georgia Tech. That first tourney back in '79, when UK's Jay Shidler was so hot from outside that he dropped a celery stick from the Sheraton's balcony one night and had it swish perfectly into a cocktail glass 20 feet below. That '88 tourney in Baton Rouge, when then-commissioner Harvey Schiller sold sponsorships for everything, including "the official catfish of the SEC."

And then there was the final of the 1980 tourney in B'ham, when snow caused one traffic cop five miles from the the Civic Center to proclaim, "I'm sure they've called it off."

Aside from the Tornado Tourney, the 8,400 to ignore such speculation remain the smallest title game crowd of the last 34 years.

But something else about that first Birmingham tourney in '79 keeps returning this week. That was the last time Tennessee won the title. Much as that UT team had Terry Cosby from the outside, this one has Jordan McRae. Much as that one had Reggie Johnson inside, this one has Jarnell Stokes. Much as that one had Bert Bertelkamp to provide intangibles, this one has Josh Richardson. Much as that team had the defense-minded coach Don DeVoe, this team has the defense-minded Cuonzo Martin.

And much as the Vols knocked off Kentucky in overtime to win that championship, these Vols have the Big Blue on the opposite side of the bracket. Thirty-five years later, history repeats. Make it UT over UK without the need for OT.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com