One disastrous basketball game in the 1947 Southeastern Conference tournament can be credited in contributing to the construction of Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium. Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats had eliminated the Commodores from the tournament with an embarrassing 98-29 defeat.
Attending that monumental game was Red Sanders, the Vanderbilt athletics director and head football coach. Rupp’s win had sent a wake-up call to Vanderbilt basketball.
Sanders would soon hire the school’s first full-time basketball coach, Georgia Tech assistant Bob Polk (1948-58, 60-61). Nashville West End High School basketball standout, Billy Joe Adcock, was given the basketball program’s first scholarship in 1947. Now, the final ingredient necessary to be competitive in the SEC was a spacious gym to play its home games.
Vanderbilt had been playing its home games at area high schools, the Navy Classification Center (Thompson Lane) and later at David Lipscomb College (McQuiddy Gym). Practices were held at the Old Gym located on the campus and built in the 1870’s. That facility still exists today.
The university’s board of trust formed a committee to seek the funds necessary to build a new campus gymnasium. It wouldn’t be until 1950 that the actual construction of the project began. The master architect, Edwin Keeble, was commissioned to build a combination gymnasium and concert hall.
The plans called for a seating capacity of 6,583 at a cost of nearly $1.5 million. The gymnasium was ready for the team’s fall practice in 1952. Memorial Gymnasium was named in honor of the 144 Vanderbilt students who lost their lives during World War II. The dedication game was played on Dec. 6, 1952, against the University of Virginia.
Vanderbilt won the game 90-83 with Dan Finch scoring the first points in the gym. The Commodore hit two free throws only 11 seconds into the game. Moments later he made a lay-up for the gym’s first field goal. George Nordhaus scored a team-high 18 points in the game for the Commodores.
“I was our high scorer that night, but I will tell you it didn’t happen all that often,” Nordhaus said in a 2002 interview. “I’m sure proud of that one. Looking back on that, we kidded a lot about who would get the first points in the gym. Dan [Finch] was our best player, no question about that. I just happened to score more that first game than he did.”
Nordhaus was a sophomore in this era when freshmen were eligible for varsity play. He was an All-State basketball player out of Evansville, Ind., where Polk lured him to Nashville with a scholarship.
“When I was being recruited, I knew that Memorial Gym was being built and that helped in recruiting,” said Nordhaus. “Of course, there was a great deal of excitement with the sellout crowd and everything. We were so up and it was such a thrill to be in there for the first game. We were just like little kids. I don’t think that we thought we were going to lose that game in any way, shape or form.”
That 1952-53 Commodore team rolled up a 10-2 record at Memorial, but 10-9 overall (SEC 5-8). All their wins came in their new permanent home.
“We were terrible on the road,” Nordhaus said. “We really didn’t understand if it was home cooking or the excitement of the new place. In those days when we went to Mississippi or Mississippi State, you were playing in a miserable place.
“It was hard to go down there and win in any of those places. It was so rabid, you couldn’t hear yourself think. They were real small places with guys leaning over the top. Eventually they all got big gyms. Except for Kentucky, I don’t remember any good gyms at all.”
That 1952-53 team recorded two Memorial Gym team records that still exist today. After the Virginia game, David Lipscomb College made an appearance in Memorial Gym and lost, 92-66. The Commodores launched 120 shots from the floor against the Bisons. Later, against Yale, Vandy attempted a record 59 free-throws.
Vanderbilt joined the Southeastern Conference in 1932, however Vandy would not win an SEC championship until the 1964-65 season. Polk had been replaced in 1961 by then-assistant Roy Skinner (1961-76). Skinner made Vandy basketball history after he landed Nashville’s David Lipscomb High School great Clyde Lee (1963-66) to the Commodore program.
“We had a group of guys playing together that couldn’t care less who scored the points or who got the publicity. It was all about that we wanted to win,” Lee said about that championship team. “It was probably one of the most unselfish groups of guys that I ever played with. They were totally into the results of the team, nothing for the individual.”
Lee became an All-American and led the SEC in rebounding during his last three years at the university. Today, the former center still holds all the individual school rebounding records. Teammates John Ed Miller and Bob “Snake” Grace would help lead Vandy to 24-4, 15-1 SEC records and a heartbreaking loss to Michigan, 87-85 in the quarterfinals of the 1965 NCAA tournament.
At the end of the 1965 season, Memorial Gym was expanded to accommodate the basketball program’s sudden interest and demand for tickets. Two north side balconies were built and two years later, two south side balconies were added. These balconies were known as “The Balconies That Clyde Built.” The seating capacity was increased to 11,103. Lee went on to a successful ten-year NBA career with four different teams.
“I never felt like it was the balconies that I built, I felt like it was the balconies that we built,” said Lee, one many Commodores who have made it to the NBA. “We had such a great team. It was very rewarding to be able play with those balconies and seeing them all sold out. We had a good team and it was nice the way the city accepted it.”
In 1967, the color barrier was broken in the SEC when Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace became the first black basketball player. Wallace became a Memorial Gym favorite while enduring threats and taunting on the road. Today, Wallace is a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C.
Memorial Gym was once again the subject of an expansion project in 1969 when another 4,000-plus seats were added. The installation of the east and west seats raised the seating capacity to 15,646.
The second Skinner-led SEC championship season came during the 1973-74 season with senior and SEC MVP Jan van Breda Kolff. The “F-Troop” (pictured to the right) with Jeff Fosnes, Joe Ford and Butch Feher helped guide the Commodores to 23-5 overall record, and 15-3 in the SEC.
Memorial Gym would see more exciting times during the C.M. Newton (1982-89) coaching era. The former successful Alabama coach was persuaded to end his retirement in 1982 and join the Vanderbilt basketball tradition. Newton would coach such notables as Phil Cox (Vandy’s all-time leading scorer at the end of his career), Jeff Turner, Will Perdue (SEC MVP and All-American), Barry Goheen, Barry Booker and Frank Kornet.
Sharpshooter Scott Draud would join Booker and Goheen and this trio became “The Bomb Squad.” Launching three-pointers was their specialty. Since the advent of the three-point shot, Vanderbilt is one of three NCAA teams that have made at least one three-point goal in every game through the 2011 home victory over St. Mary’s. UNLV and Princeton are the other two.
“Highly enjoyable,” Goheen said when asked if the three-point game was fun. “I think it made it more exciting for the players and the fans. Coach Newton was one of the first coaches to recognize the value of the three-point shot. He encouraged us to take three-point shots as a way of extending the defense.
“Of course it helped that we had a great center in Will Perdue. Anytime a team tried to put two or three guys on Will, he’d just throw it back out and we’d have three-point opportunities. I think some coaches were slow to embrace the three-pointer, but Coach Newton was completely the opposite. We won so many games because we were able to get three points instead of two.”
Goheen is best remembered for making long-range shots and last second game-winning performances from 1986-89. The guard hit two three-pointers in five seconds to send a 1988 NCAA game with Pittsburgh into overtime, which Vandy eventually won. The victory propelled the Commodores into the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament where they lost to eventual national champion Kansas. His performance against Pittsburgh was one of six last-second heroics the clutch player recorded in his career.
“Certainly, the fact that we made the Sweet Sixteen made that season special,” said Goheen who is an attorney in Atlanta. “If we had not made the Sweet Sixteen, that was still a great season for a lot of reasons. Earlier in the season we beat the No. 1 team in the country, North Carolina [at Memorial Gym]. We also won seven straight SEC games in the middle of the season. The games were, for the most part, blowouts.
“We beat Florida by 27 points and they we ranked sixth or seventh in the country. We beat Kentucky by 17 points; they were ranked No. 3 in the country. We were beating Georgia by 30 points at the half and we beat Tennessee by 28 points. We were blowing people out at Memorial Gym and it was an incredible atmosphere. The Sweet Sixteen was the icing on the cake, but it wasn’t the whole season.”
Not all times in Memorial Gym were pleasant. One infamous game on Jan. 25, 1989 against Florida involved a technical foul against the fans. With Vandy leading the game by two points and the clock running out, a loose ball rolled out of bounds with one second left. A few tennis balls were hurled on the court and SEC official John Clougherty called a technical foul.
Florida center Dwayne Schintzius hit the pair of technicals to send the game into overtime, where Vandy eventually lost 81-78. The Commodores would go on to finish second in the SEC, one game behind the Gators.
“In that game at Memorial, we were almost never in that game,” Goheen said. “Coach Newton had resigned three days before that. That was the first game after he resigned and said he was going to Kentucky at the end of the season. And we played like zombies most of the game. But we actually rallied late in the game and had the two-point lead when the tennis ball was thrown.
“I still remember what I was feeling when the tennis ball went out there, ‘That’s terrible, but this guy is never going to make two free throws in front of 15,000 fans.’ And he did.
“Every time I have seen a game in Memorial Gym, since I left there and he (Clougherty) has been one of the referees, he has been booed every single time. I hope he gets booed until the day he retires.” (Clougherty has since retired from officiating).
Eddie Fogler (1990-93) would replace Newton and guide the Commodores to the NIT championship in his inaugural season. This would be the first-ever national championship for the school except for the 2006-07 women’s bowling team.
After transfer players Chris Lawson and future All-American Billy McCaffrey joined the team, the Commodores won their third SEC championship in 1992-93 with a 28-6 (14-2 SEC) record. With the determined play of senior captains Kevin Anglin and Bruce Elder leading the way, that team made it to the Sweet Sixteen losing to Temple, 67-59.
No coach has won more games in Memorial Gym than Roy Skinner. The four-time SEC Coach of the Year’s record in Memorial Gym was an astonishing 181-41 (81.5 pct.) in 16 seasons. His 278-135 (67.3 pct.) overall record also ranks him first in wins at Vanderbilt.
“They didn’t like it because they were usually lost there,” Skinner said in 2002 when asked about what opposing coaches thought about Memorial Gym. “Coaches don’t like to play in gyms where they don’t win very often. I never did.
“It was an awful good place to play. It was just an ideal place for basketball since there was so much room around the playing court. Players could be chasing the ball and not be running into people, desks and all kinds of things.”
Skinner could not be pinned down to a special Memorial Gym moment since there were too many. He does admit that his 1965 SEC championship team was special along with the following year’s team. That team, also led by Lee, finished second in the conference one game out of first. They were predicted to finish near the bottom of the standings.
“Coaches didn’t like sitting in the end zone,” said Skinner. “Of course, we started out on the sides and the coaches in the Southeastern Conference got together and voted to move the benches to the ends. On the sides we sat down about three feet below the floor level and you couldn’t see.”
Several years ago the seats on the north side of the gym were replaced. The addition of chair backs in the end zones and new suites actually lowered the seating capacity to it’s current number of 14, 168.
A $23 million dollar renovation project concluded with new lighting and sound systems, new court design and lobby renovations. Also added was a three-court practice gym, new coaches offices, luxury suites and press areas.
Kevin Stallings’ current squad is playing the 59th season at Memorial Gym with an all-time record of 708-189 through the St. Mary’s game. The team has guaranteed for 2010-11 a winning record to continue the remarkable streak of never recording a losing record at Memorial. Stallings Memorial record is 163-38 (81.0 pct).
The “Magic of Memorial” continues!
Writer Nick Nicholas once wrote in his publication, The Cats’ Pause, “What the phone booth is to Clark Kent, Memorial Gym is to Vanderbilt.”
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.