Wiedmer: Conley a college basketball treasure

Members of "Rupp's Runts" basketball team, from left to right, Larry Conley, Thad Jaracz and Tommy Kron are honored during half time of Kentucky's 80-78 victory over South Carolina at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006. (AP Photo/James Crisp)

"Absolutely."

That was legendary basketball analyst Larry Conley's reply when asked Monday if the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's basketball road wins at Georgia, Illinois and Dayton - especially that 61-59 victory at Dayton on Saturday night that snapped the Flyers' 26-game home winning streak - might help the Mocs get an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament.

That berth, of course, would be needed only if UTC again falls short of claiming the Southern Conference's automatic bid by failing to win the league tournament. For those with short memories, the Mocs haven't won the SoCon tourney since 2009.

"It would be one thing if they'd won those games at home," continued Conley, who entertained the Quarterback Club for more than an hour at Finley Stadium during its final noon meeting of 2015. "But they won those games on the road. When you win at Dayton against a Flyers team that just won at Vanderbilt, you've accomplished something."

Few men have accomplished as much in college basketball as the 71-year-old Conley, who decided to retire this year from his broadcast duties after working more than 1,800 basketball games and 500 college baseball contests.

"After 42 years, it's time to move on," he said, though he's agreed to do a game here or there on an emergency basis, if needed.

But whether he ever works again, his family's resume may be one of the grandest in the history of the sport, beginning with his father, George, a longtime official who once ended a 1970 Atlantic Coast Conference game between Maryland and South Carolina more than two minutes early because there had been so many fights and ejections that the elder Conley had seen enough.

"Back then the game ended when the two officials signed the scorecard," Conley said. "My dad told Maryland's Lefty Driesell to take his team to the locker room and get out of there. He told (South Carolina coach Frank McGuire) the game was over."

But after helping lead the most beloved Kentucky team ever - 1966's Rupp's Runts (no starter was taller than 6-5) - to the NCAA title game, Larry Conley's broadcasting career was just starting to take off.

"I was an assistant basketball and baseball coach at George Washington University and I'd just gotten married," Conley said. "That's when I got a call to come work for Converse, the shoe company. So I moved to Atlanta, where I've lived the last 46 years. One day I guy called me asking me to work a couple of basketball games for public television. I asked, 'How much is the pay?' he said, 'Nothing.' But I did them anyway and found I really liked it."

By 1973 he was being paid to work games for TBS. Then came a call in 1979 that changed his life, or at least his legacy.

"ESPN called," he said. "They told me they wanted to hire me to do all the college basketball games I could handle. I didn't even know what ESPN was. I actually asked if I could call them back so I could make sure this wasn't a prank. But back then, in the fall of 1979, they only televised two sports: college basketball and Australian rules football."

Want to wow your friends with trivia? Ask them the first two announcers hired by ESPN. The answer is Conley - and Dick Vitale.

"They offered me 18 games in December alone," Conley recalled. "I took six or seven and Dick took most of the rest. They hired a couple of other guys to fill in where needed."

More than 36 years later, Conley says of the 76-year-old Vitale: "Most people over the age of 50 don't like him for what he is on the air. But kids 25 and younger love him. They mob him everywhere he goes. And in a lot of ways, Dick remains an overgrown kid."

Like many older followers of college athletics, Conley is concerned that it's overgrown its business model. He points to the fact that 64 percent of FBS college football teams will go to bowls this season, including Nebraska, Minnesota and San Jose, who have 5-7 records.

He's more concerned with the financial state of the Power Five Conferences. Each of the Pac-12 Conference's 12 athletic departments lost money last year. Three SEC schools did: Auburn, Ole Miss and South Carolina.

"Auburn installed a $14 million video board in their football stadium a year after they finished $17 million in the red," Conley said. "The only reason more SEC schools didn't lose money was the SEC Network revenue, which was a big reason every school in the league got a $32 million check last spring. ESPN has lost seven million subscribers over the last three years. It's a disaster."

Yet to hear him talk about the game he helped promote for so long is to understand what made Conley one of the best in the business.

Regarding the curmudgeonly Adolph Rupp: "I never knew anyone who was as unintentionally funny as Coach Rupp, not that you ever laughed in his presence."

On the late, great Pete Maravich, whose career college scoring average at LSU was 44.2 points per game: "He wouldn't guard you or me, but he did things that took my breath away every time I saw him."

On Jerry West, whose profile is the NBA logo: "One of the smartest, most controlled players I've ever been around."

On former UCLA and professional great Bill Walton: "Best college player I ever saw. Never saw a player who could do so much for his size."

Best player he personally played against: "Probably Clyde Lee at Vanderbilt. Billy Cunningham, who was later so great in the NBA, was really good at North Carolina, too."

And the best coaches he's covered? "Rick Pitino (Louisville) is the best I've seen at attention to detail and correcting mistakes immediately," he said. "Bill Self at Kansas is right behind him, and Cal (Kentucky's John Calipari) does it pretty well, too."

Almost as well as Conley analyzed the game for the rest of us for more than four decades.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.