Adcock was VU's first scholarship player

Jan. 18, 2012

Nashville sports historian Bill Traughber has recently written another book, Vanderbilt Football: Tales of Commodore Gridiron History. The 160-page paperback book can be ordered on for $19.99.

Commodore History Corner ArchiveBilly Joe Adcock

The modern era of Vanderbilt basketball had to begin somewhere. Billy Joe Adcock (1947-50) can be given that distinction for such an achievement over sixty years ago. Adcock accumulated several "firsts" as a Commodore basketball player including being awarded Vanderbilt's first basketball scholarship. He was born in Evansville, Ind., but the family moved to Jackson, Tenn., and later to Nashville for economic reasons when Adcock was six years old.

"I was about 12 years old when I learned to love the game of basketball," Adcock said recently from his St. Louis home. "I was influenced by several players when I used to slip on the court up at Peabody and watched a lot of basketball players in the summertime. The neighborhood that I lived in had outdoor basketball courts, but my father put in a court with lights in our backyard. Though I liked baseball and football, I played basketball all the time."

Adcock, 83, was playing high school sports at West High School. He played in a high school football All-Star game on Dudley Field in 1945. Adcock would provide an upgrade to the basketball team's quest for championships.

"When I was at West High School, my father was watching me practice one day," said Adcock. "My dad had never met my basketball Coach [Emmett] Strickland. During this practice Coach Strickland was all over my butt all day. He'd stop the practice to show me something. After practice Coach looked up and saw this man in the stands he did not recognize.

"He went over and met my father. My dad said to Coach Strickland, `You were awfully tough on my son. Why are you doing all that?' Coach said, `I see something in him where he could be a great player. And I am going to work on him during his time at West End.' I thought that was great.

"We played in the state championship two years in a row. In my sophomore year, I was on the second team and there were some great players there including George Kelley [future Vanderbilt player]. He was on the starting five. We won the state title that year. Then in my junior year we were playing in the state tournament and got beat by Chattanooga Central in the semifinals.

"The thing that I regret, we were down by one point with a few seconds to play and Coach [Emmett] Strickland drew up a play where I'd get the ball and try to get the winning basket. I got the ball and missed the shot and we didn't make it to the finals that year. Then my senior year we went through every tournament we played and won them all. We won the state championship."

Vanderbilt basketball was not that serious of a sport to the university or fans. Norm Cooper was the Commodores' coach in a part-time role. Vanderbilt never had a full-time basketball coach until Adcock's sophomore season. Before Adcock's arrival on the Vanderbilt campus the Commodores were 7-8 (4-7 SEC) and not respected. With several teams interested in signing Adcock to a scholarship, he chose Vanderbilt.

"Nashville is my home, and that is where I grew up," said Adcock. "We didn't live far from Vanderbilt and I'd go to Vanderbilt football games while keeping up with their sports through the newspapers. I just got enthused about Vanderbilt and always followed them especially in football. In basketball they were not very good, but they had some good football teams in those days. Baseball was not really an entity in those days especially in the SEC. I always wanted to go to Vanderbilt and take engineering. I developed an interest in engineering."

Adcock said that Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky were recruiting him. Kentucky's Adolph Rupp wanted Adcock for his championship caliber teams. A local basketball official, Cab [Fred] Curtis, had played basketball for Rupp and tried to influence Adcock to play in Lexington. Though Kentucky was a power in basketball, Adcock wanted to be part of a building program.

"Vanderbilt didn't have basketball scholarships back in those days'" said Adcock. "The scholarship I was offered was really a football scholarship. If you got an athletic scholarship at Vanderbilt you were expected to play football. There was a guy named Willie Geny [former Vanderbilt athlete] who was very active with the Vanderbilt Alumni. He pushed me to go to Vanderbilt. Through him I got an offer to go to there. When I went over to meet Coach [Red] Sanders [head football coach and athletic director] to sign up, he told me it was not a basketball scholarship.

"He said they didn't have them and I had to play football as well as basketball. I said, `Coach, I really want to concentrate on basketball because that is my best sport, and I want to concentrate on my studies in engineering.' He said, `I'm sorry son, we just don't give basketball scholarships.' That was the end of the conversation and I called Mr. Geny to tell him it looked like I was going to contact Cab Curtis and go to Kentucky. He told me not to make any decisions for about an hour and he'd get back to me.

"I got a telephone call within an hour and Mr. Geny said, `son, we are going to give you the first basketball scholarship Vanderbilt has ever given.' I was very fortunate as a young man. I had a lot of chances and lot of honors given to me. You get those honors because of the people you are playing with teammates, etc. Getting the first basketball scholarship at Vanderbilt was a great honor."

As a freshman in 1946, Adcock would be eligible for varsity play since there was a shortage of players with World War II's recent ending. As head basketball coach, Cooper was also the defensive line coach for Sanders in football. Adcock said that Cooper was a great football coach, but lacking in coaching skills for basketball.

Another problem with Vanderbilt basketball in this era was the lack of a home court and decent practice facilities. For a number of years Vanderbilt had been playing their home games at the Hippodrome, a skating rink near the campus.

During Adcock's tenure, home games were played in a gymnasium in the Navy Classification Center on Thompson Lane, Father Ryan High School, East High School and David Lipscomb's McQuiddy Gym. As a freshman, Adcock played in the game that was considered a "wakeup" call for Vanderbilt basketball. In the 1947 SEC Tournament, the Commodores were humiliated by Kentucky, 98-29.

"During my freshman season there were a lot of returning veterans and I was fortunate to play with them," said Adcock. "Most of them were football players. There were people like Tommy Owen, Joe Kraft, Felix Ray, Mike Craig and Bobby Lawrence. They came back from World War II and played on the team with me. I was the only basketball scholarship player as the rest were on football scholarships.

"When we got into the SEC tournament that year, Kentucky beat us bad in both games during the regular season in Lexington and Nashville. We had the worst SEC record so we played Kentucky in the first game. They were one of the best teams in the country during my freshman year. They had two All-Americans from the previous year that could not make the starting five. They were that deep.

"Rupp made an example of us beating us 98-29. He did that on purpose. He was telling Vanderbilt either put up or shut up. Have more respect for basketball or we are going to continue to run you down. Coach Cooper at halftime said something like `okay guys, we are going to go out there and run with them in the second half.' We froze the ball the last minute and a half to keep them from scoring 100 points. We got booed off the floor."

Adcock scored a team-high seven points in that infamous game. Sanders decided it was time to get serious about basketball on the Vanderbilt campus. In the spring he searched for a full-time coach. Ted Hornback was hired off the staff of Western Kentucky. After a few weeks of drills, Hornback resigned and went back to Bowling Green. Sanders found the right man with the hiring of Bob Polk, a Georgia Tech assistant. Polk (1948-58, 1960-61) is Vanderbilt's third winningest coach (197-106) behind Roy Skinner and Kevin Stallings.

"As far as I am concerned, Polk is the instrument in getting Vanderbilt basketball turned around'" said Adcock. "Polk built the team around me and then he started getting recruits from Indiana, Ohio and other places. Polk was tough on you. He was a great disciplinarian and he always challenged you as a player. He suggested that we learned to shoot more jump shots.

"While we were traveling around the country, we were shooting jump shots while most players were shooting two-handed set shots. There was an All-American at Stanford who was the first one to shoot one-handed jump shots from the outside. It fascinated the New York area so much that when he went to the east coast, players started shooting jump shots. That is how they developed into the great players of the day."

With the inadequate playing facilities for college basketball, the Commodores were forced to practice in the historic Old Gym, which was built in the 1880s.

"The Old Gym was a tiny place that had the track around the top," said Adcock. "There was probably three feet distance from where the basketball court ended and the gym wall. It was a tiny place, just big enough to practice, but not large enough to play a basketball game. We had a locker room in the basement that we shared with wrestlers and other Vanderbilt athletes. We would dress at the Old Gym and bus over to our home games. It was not a first-rate operation."

Billy Joe AdcockAdcock was told as a sophomore that a new gymnasium was going to be built in the coming years. Memorial Gymnasium did not open until 1952. In Polk's first season (1947-48) the Commodores were 8-14 (4-11). Adcock would lead the SEC in scoring (17.1 ppg) and ranked 13th in the nation in scoring.

"It couldn't have been any worse than my freshman year," Adcock said. "That was a year you really didn't want to go through as a player. We still had to practice in the Old Gym and go over to Father Ryan and play. My sophomore year was my best in college. I had some great players that came along like Haworth Parks.

"We had some players that developed. We didn't really have any great players. I was fortunate enough to be the focus of the offense therefore I had a very good scoring average. I made All-SEC that year and I was All-SEC with four Kentucky players. It was [Wallace] Jones, [Alex] Groza, [Ralph] Beard and [Dale] Barnstable with me on the first five.

"Coach Polk and I were encouraged by what we could see happening at Vanderbilt. I always was a good shooter--fast and quick. I was able to maneuver around people well. What made it special was the improvement in the team itself. Polk was out trying to get good young players to compete with Kentucky. I always wanted to beat Kentucky, but never did. UK was the biggest game and the one we wanted to win the most. I always wanted to beat Adolph Rupp."

During Adcock's junior season, the Commodores were a much-improved 14-8, (9-5). Polk expanded the schedule and the distances the team would travel for quality games that placed Vanderbilt basketball in the national sporting news.

"We had a very good year in my junior season and we did it without many new players. We did have Dave Kardokus, Bob Dudley [Smith] and [Gene] Southwood who were able to play my senior year. I had an entire new group of players in my senior year. George Kelley [transferred from Tennessee] joined us for my junior and senior years. Kelley was a helluva forward for us. We had a gutsy center named Pete Robinson who was 6-foot-5, the tallest man we had. I played forward until my senior year where they moved me to guard, not a point guard. We didn't have point guards in those days. I was 6-foot-3.

"We played in Vanderbilt's first Christmas tournament in Des Moines [Corn Bowl Tournament], but lost to Drake and Dartmouth. That was the first time I'd seen a 7-foot center. He was a guy named Jim McIntyre who played for the University of Minnesota. There was a great guard named [Whitey] Skoog that played at Minnesota and both went into the NBA.

"We traveled anyway we could get to a game. When I was a freshman we drove everywhere. We'd drive to Birmingham, Lexington, Auburn and Knoxville. We drove automobiles. [Coach] Cooper, the trainer and one of the older players would drive in three or four cars. Then my sophomore year we began traveling by train throughout that year and most of my junior year. When we went to Oklahoma or in the East my senior year, we'd go by airplane. But we'd take the bus to Knoxville and Lexington."

There were a couple of memorable games for Adcock and his teammates during that junior season. One was an upset in Nashville against No. 6 nationally ranked Tulane and a scoring-record game for Adcock.

"We played Tulane right to the wire," Adcock said. "They had a lot of gunners and all of them were from Indiana. Their coach was from Indiana. We won in the last minute 56-54 in Nashville. A few games earlier I set the SEC single-game scoring record with 36 points against Mississippi State and that was done at East High. I broke Alex Groza's record, which was 34 points.

"Coach Rupp set up Groza to regain the record within a week. Rupp kept him in the game against some team and scored 38 points. Rupp didn't want me or anybody from Vanderbilt to have that record. We were improved that year due to Coach Polk's coaching and more talent with basketball scholarship players."

The confident Commodores were 17-8 (11-3) in 1949-50, good enough for second place in the conference. This was Adcock's final season as a Vanderbilt basketball player. The additional scholarship players led to more success.

"Coach Polk got three from Indiana in Jack Heldman, Kardokus, and Southwood," said Adcock. "He also got [George] McChesney from Ohio. My senior year was the best team we ever had. We made a great deal of progress when Polk came there. Going from where we did and traveling all over the country like New York and Philadelphia made us improve."

In New York, Vanderbilt surprised heavily favored New York University in overtime, 65-59 in Madison Square Garden. The Commodores then lost to Temple in Philadelphia for their next game, 55-35.

"The only problem I had was with the floor'" Adcock said about playing in the multi-purpose Garden. "They put the floor over ice, which caused slick spots. You'd be dribbling on the court and the ball wouldn't come back up. A big country boy from Tennessee going to the "Big Apple" was something else with all those tall buildings. I'd just walk down the street and look up at those high buildings and all the people. That was one of the most exciting experiences for me going to New York City."

In his four years at Vanderbilt, Adcock wore three jersey numbers--No. 27 (freshman), No. 33 (sophomore and junior) and No. 9 during his senior season. Adcock graduated from Vanderbilt in 1950 with a degree in engineering.

Not only was Adcock Vanderbilt's first basketball scholarship recipient, but also named All-SEC for three seasons (First Team--1948 and 1950, Second Team--1949). Adcock was Vanderbilt's first All-American (1950), SEC All-Tournament Second Team (1948-50) and became Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer and first member of the 1000-point club with 1,190 points. He entered the 2011-12 season ranked 30th all-time scoring. Adcock gives credit for his success on the hardwood.

"I had a desire to win with hard work, practicing a lot and was dedicated," said Adcock. "There were two people that inspired me in my basketball career. There was Emmett Strickland at West High School. He was my first great coach that taught me about being a good person. Then Bob Polk came along and taught me more basketball skills and to be a man. They both taught me how to be a teammate. My father was a great man and taught me to persevere and be the best I can with TLC."

In the summer after graduation, Adcock played in a college East-West All-Star game in Madison Square Garden. He was one of 10 players on the East squad with future NBA Hall of Famer Bob Cousy as a teammate. Adcock also had a chance to play in the NBA for the Minneapolis Lakers (now the Los Angeles Lakers).

"I never seriously considered playing professional basketball," said Adcock. "I was married at the time. My wife and her father really wanted me to work. Her father went to Vanderbilt and was an engineer, which influenced me to begin a career. They weren't paying very much. They told me if I made the squad I was going to make $7,500 a year. Minneapolis had five great players and they won the NBA title that year with George Mikan and others. I probably would not have made the first five and probably not even the second five. I just don't know."

Other recognitions that Adcock has achieved are memberships in the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, Tennessee High School Sports Hall of Fame, and he was the second Vanderbilt basketball player named as their "Legend of the SEC."

Adcock lives in St. Louis and is retired from Monsanto Chemical Company where he was the national account manager. Previously he lived and worked in Cleveland and Chicago.

Adcock has fond memories from his playing days in a Commodore basketball uniform.

"In my senior year at Vanderbilt, we came very close to beating Kentucky in Nashville," said Adcock. "After that game, Coach Rupp came over to introduce himself to my father and said, `Mr. Adcock, I'd swap my whole team for your son.' That humbled my father.

"I was always extremely proud to represent Vanderbilt. I am still proud to have had the opportunity. My mom and dad could not afford for me to attend Vanderbilt. Fortunately, the basketball scholarship provided me with four great years. I was fortunate to have had wonderful people around me on and off the court. I was very lucky to have played for two great basketball coaches."

Traughber's Tidbit: One of the applicants Red Sanders considered before hiring Ted Hornback and Bob Polk was John Wooden of UCLA fame. "The Wizard of Westwood" was coaching at Indiana State (1946-48) before moving to Los Angeles to coach the Bruins (1948-75). Wooden won 10 national championships in 12 years including seven in a row at UCLA.

If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email



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