NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Former Vanderbilt basketball coach Roy Skinner officially took over the Commodores program beginning in the 1961-62 season. He was the interim (1958-59) head coach for one season substituting for Bob Polk who was recovering from a heart attack. Polk would resign two years later for heath issues leaving Skinner the opportunity to lead the Commodores.
One of Skinner’s first tasks was to hire a top assistant coach. The four-time SEC Coach of the Year found his man in the high school coaching ranks. Don Knodel had been an outstanding basketball player at the University of Miami (Ohio).
“It was strange,” Knodel said about his hiring by Skinner. “I noticed there was a coaching change at Vanderbilt so I applied for an assistant’s job by letter. I got a letter back that the job had been filled. A few weeks later, I got a telephone call from a coach I knew that was recommending me.
“He told me I was going to get a call from Roy Skinner. Skinner invited me to Vanderbilt for a visit and talk over the assistant coach position. Of course, I thought it was filled but it didn’t work out for whatever reason. I took a visit and he offered me the job.”
Knodel, 85, is from Hamilton, Ohio, which is 14 miles from Miami of Ohio in Oxford. He was a three-time All-Mid-American Conference guard who was selected to the Miami of Ohio Athletics Hall of Fame (1974). Knodel coached high school basketball for several years prior to his arrival in Nashville.
“It was quite a change going from high school into college coaching,” said Knodel. “I spent one year as a graduate assistant at Miami (OH) when I got out of the service. I had an opportunity there to coach college basketball. It all got down to dealing with older kids and giving them what I knew and help them become better players.”
“I found that to be interesting and a challenge. My whole philosophy was teaching fundamentals and to learn the basic things you think about when you are playing. Of course, we had some pretty good guys there to start with in rebuilding that program. The types of players we were getting at Vanderbilt were dedicated to being the best they could be.”
Knodel said that he had a part in recruiting, but Skinner handled the luring of Clyde Lee (1964-66), a Nashville native, to Vanderbilt. With the arrival of Lee, Vanderbilt basketball thrived. In Knodel’s first four seasons at Vanderbilt, the Commodores were 12-12 (SEC 6-8), 16-7 (SEC 9-5), 19-6 (SEC 8-6) and 24-4 (SEC 15-1), including the school’s first-ever SEC title. The only loss was at Tennessee.
So how did Vanderbilt go from a 12-12 team to SEC champions in four years?
“It got down to where we didn’t bring in the greatest players, but dedicated ones,” Knodel said. “They were capable of doing things on the offensive end, and things on the defensive end. We became a very good rebounding team. Everybody had a role and everybody carried out their role.”
In that SEC title season, Vanderbilt played DePaul, coached by Ray Meyer in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. There were only 23 teams in the tournament that included 16 conference champions and seven independents. The 83-78 victory over DePaul set up an Elite Eight match with powerful Michigan led by Cazzie Russell. The Commodores lost to the Wolverines, 87-85 in Lexington, Ky.
“They [Michigan] looked like NFL football players,” Knodel said. “They were big and strong. Clyde had four fouls in the first half and played a great second half with those four fouls. Keith Thomas did a great job guarding Russell, but we just couldn’t get past them. That was one big game. I know the walking call on John Ed Miller has been a controversy. I believe we would have won had it not been for that call. It still sticks in my craw.”
“I went to the Final Four that year and saw Michigan play UCLA. UCLA’s full court press just murdered those guys. I thought we would have gone through Wooden’s press like a sieve. I thought we had a better chance to win than Michigan because of the type of players we had. We could have handled UCLA’s press. It never happened, but it’s something you dream about.”
Michigan defeated a Bill Bradley-led Princeton team in the semi-finals and lost to John Wooden’s Bruins in the finals, 91-80. Knodel mentioned a few of his players that helped Vanderbilt leap into national prominence.
“Bob “Snake” Grace (1963-65) was the rebounder,” said Knodel. “We always joked with him about leading the country in personal fouls. He was one of those role players. Snake was not a great offensive player. He could get off the boards and his defense and rebounding were a big contribution to the success we had.”
“I can still see John Ed Miller (1963-65) making those shots. I see that one photo against Kentucky where he is shooting the ball way out there past where the three-point line is in today’s game. The scoreboard behind him is going down to zero and we won the ball game [85-83 in January 1964]. John Ed Miller was unreal. He could not only handle the ball, but could shoot from anywhere on the floor.”
“Jerry Southwood (1965-67) was the true guard. He was a heck of a team player. If you needed him to score, he could score. He liked to pass the ball off to someone else. He was a very unselfish player.”
“Roger Schurig (1963-65) was an outstanding player. That year we went to the NCAA Tournament, Roger had a problem and wasn’t with us. He could shoot the ball. We didn’t have that three-point shot, but he would have loved it. Roger didn’t see a shot that he didn’t like to take.”
“Clyde Lee was a great player and a great person. He was really responsible for us getting to the success we had. He could score, rebound, run and had all the qualities of an All-American, which he was. Clyde was very quiet, and was a reliable teammate.”
In the next season, Vanderbilt almost achieved as much success with a 22-4 record (SEC 13-3) and a second-place conference finish. In this era of college basketball only the conference champions and independents were selected to the national tournament.
“I thought we were going to win it again, but we had difficulty with Kentucky,” said Knodel. “It got down to the end of the season where we had already played Kentucky twice and Tennessee still had to play them twice. We thought Tennessee would definitely win one of those two games, which they did. If we could have pulled out one of those Kentucky games we’d been right back in it. But we didn’t.”
Tennessee was Vanderbilt’s rivalry, but Kentucky seemed to be the target each year for Skinner and Knodel.
“Kentucky had the name,” said Knodel. “We went to Kentucky when Vanderbilt beat them for the first time in Lexington [69-67 in February 1963]. As we were walking off the floor Coach Rupp was there with us. I never heard him say to Roy ‘nice game.’ He just complained about his players not doing what he wanted them to do. That really got under my craw that Roy never got complimented on winning at Lexington for the very first time. Roy was a gentle guy and deserved more from Rupp than what he gave us.”
Knodel had great respect for Skinner.
“Roy gave me a job,” said Knodel. “It was just the two of us in the beginning. We didn’t have a staff like they do today. He would let me do whatever I felt could help our situation and make the team better. He was very good to work with. Roy gave me a great opportunity and I learned a lot in those five years I was there. He was very favorable when it was time for me to move on and I forever appreciated what he did for me.”
Bob “Snake” Grace was a First Team All-SEC forward as a senior. His final game at Vanderbilt was the Michigan game. Said Grace about Knodel, “I know two things that made him a great coach. He taught fundamental basketball and could motivate you just by making sly comments.”
“Like the one in my senior year where I had two bad games in a row and he came up to me in practice and said to me privately, ‘Snake, how many games have you started since you’ve been at Vanderbilt?’ I proudly told him all of them. He came back real quick and said, ‘that streak is about to come to an end if you don’t turn your game around.’ My game turned around the next night.
“The assistant coaches would do the scouting. Coach Knodel’s scouting reports were very personal as to each of the opposing team’s players plus his offense and defense scouting were perfect. He would tell me ‘now Snake, on the first play of the game, give this guy you are guarding an elbow to the gut. He will spend the whole night trying to get back at you and forget his team duties.’ It always worked. I think he had the right personality for a coach.”
After coaching five seasons at Vanderbilt, Knodel left in 1966 to take the head coaching position at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
“It started with Fred Russell [legendary Nashville Banner sports writer]," said Knodel. “He and Jess Neely [Rice’s AD] were friends and went to school together at Vanderbilt. Somehow Russell got on my bandwagon and contacted Jess. Before too long I got a telephone call and flew to Houston to visit for the weekend. Neely offered me the job. I was young and didn’t know a whole lot, but wanted to become a head coach myself. I had been here (Houston) in a couple of our trips when Vanderbilt played Rice. I decided to take it and have been here ever since.”
Knodel coached at Rice for eight seasons compiling a 76-127 record. The Owls won the Southwest Conference championship in 1970 with a 14-11 (SWC 10-4) record. This is Rice’s only conference championship. Knodel was also named the SWC Coach of the Year.
“It was special,” Knodel said about the championship season. “We started out the season just playing ordinary. Then we won a big game in New Orleans with Tulane then started our conference schedule. We were winning all the close games. The year before we lost all the close games. It was a lot like our Vandy teams.”
“We didn’t have outstanding stars as we did have those role players that could work well in what they did best. And it all came together. I think we just surprised everybody.” The Rice program that I took over was 3-44 the previous two seasons, which I didn’t know. After getting here I was wondering why did I leave a good thing at Vanderbilt. But it worked out.”
Rice lost to New Mexico State 101-77 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Rice sports information department put the moniker “Silent K” on Knodel since the “K” in his name is silent.
In December 1970, Rice played Wooden’s UCLA Bruins in a regular season game. Wooden planned to suspend his two top players Curtis Rowe and Sidney Wicks for the first half for a team rule violation.
“They had Wicks and Rowe that were All-Americans,” Knodel said. “Coach Wooden came up to me before the game and said, ‘Don, I’m not going to start Wicks and Rowe.’ I think he said they were late for a meeting or a pre-game meal. I thought to myself, ‘that’s good.’ We started out going through their press like a sieve. We had them down by 15 points. I nudged my assistant and told him they weren’t so tough. Then about five minutes before the half I looked at the scorer’s table and there they were. Wicks and Rowe were checking in. That changed the whole ball game. They ended up beating us real bad [124-78]. After the game I went over to shake Coach Wooden’s hand and said, ‘Coach, you sure as hell ruined a good ball game.’ He laughed.”
Knodel was replaced at Rice ironically by Bob Polk. Knodel would coach the Houston Angels in the Women’s Professional League (WBL). This was the league’s inaugural (1978-79) season where the Angels won the league championship and Knodel honored as Coach of the Year. Later, Knodel would work in the Rice administration offices and named to the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009. He has made Houston his home.
Knodel was asked about the importance of his Vanderbilt years.
“I enjoyed my five years at Vanderbilt,” said Knodel. “I really liked Nashville. The players were just super. They were good to work, talk and hang out with. They not only were like that as players, but also have been ever since. I keep in touch with Southwood and Shurig, Snake, Thomas, John Russell and those guys. They keep me informed with what’s going on with the group. They’ve been like a family after these 50-something years. It was a great part of my life.”
Traughber’s Tidbit: The photograph attached to this story is the Vanderbilt 1964-65 SEC championship team. Front Row (L-R): John Ed Miller, Head Coach Roy Skinner, Assistant Coach Don Knodel, and Kenny Campbell. Back Row (L to R): Athletic Trainer Joe Worden, Garner Petrie, Bob “Snake” Grace, Ron Green, Wayne Calvert, Keith Thomas, Wayne Taylor, Kenny Gibbs, Clyde Lee and Student Manager John Tarpley.
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com