Mark Elliott (1977-80) is a fan favorite for longtime Vanderbilt basketball followers. He played for the Commodores in interesting times, which included a controversial coaching change and replacement. Elliott prepped at Dobyns-Bennett in Kingsport, Tenn. Wake Forest, Duke and Tennessee were recruiting the guard among others.
“I was also thinking about going to West Point,” Elliott said recently from his Nashville office. “I wanted to play both basketball and baseball. I made that clear that was what I wanted to do. If a college wasn’t going to allow me to play both sports then I wasn’t going to choose them.
“Choosing Vanderbilt was just a God thing. Ultimately that is where I believe I was led to go. They had a great basketball tradition and guys at Vanderbilt that were very much like me with the same academic and athletic interest. The team was made up from a bunch of folks that were compatible.
“I signed under Coach [Roy] Skinner, but I never got to play for him. After the [1975-76] season he resigned, but I had committed to play at Vanderbilt. If it had been today with a coaching change it would have been on Facebook, Twitter and ESPN. There weren’t cell phones back then. It would have been all over. I didn’t know he retired until a few days later. It wasn’t as big a thing back then because Ron Bargatze had been recruiting me and he was still there. He was my main contact. It was more about the school than the coach.”
Joining Elliott in that recruiting class were Charles Davis, Tommy Springer, Greg Fuller and Clarence Smith. Elliott, Springer and Davis recorded the most playing time of the group. The eligibility of the famous F-Troop of Jeff Fosnes, Joe Ford and Butch Feher expired the year before after compiling a 16-11 (12-6 SEC) record. One of Skinner’s assistant coaches, Wayne Dobbs, was named the Commodores new head coach.
“The F-Troop had just graduated,” said Elliott. “It was a class with some really good players, well-known and loved. When they went out the class that was coming behind them, like Tom Shultz, Carl Crain, John Sneed, Tim Thompson and Jay Lowenthal were guys that didn’t play that much.
“We all thought that Ron Bargatze was going to get the job,” said Elliott. “We were shocked that Coach Bargatze, who seemed to be the guy that did all the recruiting and had the relationships, was going to be the new head coach at Vanderbilt. Wayne Dobbs got the job. To this day I don’t really know the inside story, but what we came to understand was that Coach Skinner had a hand in picking Dobbs to be his replacement. I think the athletic director at the time, Clay Stapleton, took it upon himself to take the recommendation of Coach Skinner.”
Elliott, 55, would start as a freshman and throughout his four seasons. During those first two years the Commodores were 10-16 (6-12) and 10-17 (6-12) without any major victories.
“My first four games as a freshman began at Kansas State then Louisville at home, at St. John’s, and Michigan at home,” said Elliott. “Michigan won the national championship the year before. Kansas State had a couple of All-American players. These were phenomenal NCAA Tournament teams. We went into overtime with Louisville at home and lost. The game was stopped with Michigan with about eight seconds left because a fight broke out.
“This was at the time Memorial Gym held over 16, 000 people. It was sold out on a season ticket basis. There weren't no-shows. They all came because there wasn’t anything left to do. Today you go in and there are 14,000-plus seats and half of them are empty until some big conference games because there are so many things going on. Back then Vanderbilt basketball was the thing to do in town. Everybody went to the games and it was crowded. Everybody knew each other. I believe it was the most fun time to be a Vanderbilt player.”
There was a huge turnaround with the Vanderbilt program in Dobbs third season and Elliott was enjoying his junior season. The Commodores were 18-9 (11-7). They were winning close games and overcoming large deficits. This squad was known as the “Cardiac Commodores.”
“Charles Davis and Tommy Springer had phenomenal years,” said Elliott. “They were just great players. Coach Dobbs was an old fashioned, old school coach. The players were united in one thing; they were pretty mad at the coach most of the time. We would have team meetings before the games. It was an amazing chemistry team we had that year. Chemistry is just an important ingredient probably even more so today since there is so much individualism. Back then you were expected to be a team player.
“Coach Dobbs was a very good coach, but from a personality standpoint there was not a lot of love there. Despite the coaching relationship that we didn’t have it was a great relationship within the team. We had been in the Top 20 most of the season. We were a team on the rise like a Cinderella story to almost a conference championship. He was an old style coach and he’d get on guys a lot. He was constantly driving us. Some of us could take it better than others. I grew up with a coach in high school who chewed us out all the time. It was no big deal to me.
“But there were some guys who could not take being chewed out all the time. Coach Dobbs was on our tails all the time. It was back in the time that coaches didn’t feel that relationships were important. They wanted to coach you and not be nice to you. Bargatze was a player’s coach. He was a personality and a relationship-type guy. Coach Dobbs was not. And consequently the team did not have a close relationship with our coach. I can remember some of the team meetings before a game the players who had not been yelled out very much were saying, ‘I don’t care what he says, and I’m going to play my game.’
“We would come out of that meeting very unified. We just did what the coach said, like this is the offense we are going to run, this is the defense we are going to run and we are going to win this game for ourselves. That was the attitude we had that year until the end when it all blew up.”
Vanderbilt began the season at 18-5, but lost the final four games to finish 18-9 (11-7). They did secure a huge home win against Kentucky. But the Cinderella story had an unusual ending with Dobbs being named SEC Coach of the Year and losing his job nearly at the same time.
“We were getting ready to go to Georgia and Tennessee,” said Elliott. “This was the second and third to last games of the season. We were tied for the SEC lead at this time. So we get to Georgia and Coach Dobbs is ill. He is sick. Prior to the game he is throwing up in the locker room. He had the flu or something, but he coached the game. We went out to play Georgia and we didn’t play poorly, but we didn’t play great. Walter Daniels [Georgia player] hit a fade away jump shot from about 25 feet. Charles Davis and myself were double-teaming him. It was a crazy shot at the end of the game. It just killed us and we lost.
“That night there was an ice storm and we were at the Ramada Inn just off the campus and we barely get back to the motel because the ice storm hit. It was just a solid sheet of ice everywhere. The next day we can’t get out of Athens. We were supposed to fly to Knoxville to play at Tennessee. Dale Clayton was one of our assistant coaches. He was going to run practice for us if we could get to the Georgia Coliseum. My father was about the only Vanderbilt fan down there because he was at the University of Georgia on business. He was looking for a high school principle for his school district and was interviewing. We had a Pontiac where he kept tire chains in the trunk. He put the chains on the back wheels and took us by groups of four back-and-forth from the hotel to the gym so we could practice. We were stuck in the hotel and can’t get out on the airplane. Coach Clayton does the practice.
“We ultimately on Monday were able to get out and go to Knoxville. We played Tennessee, but again didn’t play horribly, but at this point we are all messed up with the travel schedule. Tennessee beats us and the next week we get beat by Kentucky. Then we went to the SEC Tournament. That was the first year they revived the tournament. When we got on the bus to go to the SEC Tournament several of the guys had newspapers. The lead story in the sports page is, ‘Wayne Dobbs has applied to be the new head coach at Memphis State.’ He was seating on the front of the bus and we were asking, ‘why would he apply to Memphis State?’
“We had our mandatory media practice the day before our first game. We’re supposed to practice and talk with the media. We started to warm-up with simple stuff like lay-ups in the Birmingham Civic Center. Coach Dobbs blows his whistle and says, ‘everybody back in the locker room.’ We only had about an hour on the court so we were surprised to go back into the looker room. Dobbs came in and starts getting emotional. He said, ‘I just wanted to thank you guys and tell you I have just been selected SEC Coach of the Year.’ We looked around and smiled and thought that was cool. Then he said, ‘I’ve just been fired.’ Here we are a bunch of 18 to 22 year-old guys in the locker room and our coach tells us he is the SEC Coach of the Year and has been fired.”
Vanderbilt lost to Auburn in their first game (59-53) of the revived SEC Tournament in 1979 to end the season. Elliott said there was talk that the NIT wanted Vanderbilt to attend their tournament, but believes Vanderbilt officials, due to the lack of a head coach, declined the invitation. Richard Schmidt, who was an assistant coach at Virginia, replaced Dobbs.
“Coach Schmidt was way ahead of his time,” Elliott said. “Now he wasn’t prepared to be the best Vanderbilt coach, but he knew basketball. He could coach basketball. If you look at his record after he left Vanderbilt for Tampa in Division II, he won a couple of national championships. Obviously he wasn’t a poor coach. He wasn’t right for Vanderbilt. He was the first guy to run what everybody knows now as the “Flex Offense.” You hear dribble-drive now and Princeton Offense that was a super offense popular on the West Coast. He was the first one in the SEC to run it. Some of the defensive stuff we did was really unique.
“Honestly from a basketball perspective, Coach Schmidt was a very good coach, but with the relationship side of things getting players to trust, liking and wanting to play for him was not there. The organizational skill that was necessary to be the CEO of a big-time program was not him and it didn’t work out to well. He was trying to be Bobby Knight-ish with guys he didn’t need to be Bobby Knight-ish with. I had no problems with what he did, but a lot of the other guys really had problems with what he did. The two main guys that really suffered under him were Charles Davis and Mike Rhodes whom he benched in lieu of having people play the way he wanted to have them play.”
In Elliott’s senior year and Schmidt’s first, the Commodores were 13-13 (7-11). That was not a fun season for Elliott who was also thriving at the same time on the baseball diamond. He was hoping to be drafted by a major league team, which didn’t happen. Elliott was a team co-captain as a senior in basketball.
“I loved basketball and wanted to play,” said Elliott. “I felt like we were going to be really good. Charles Davis went down early in the year with an ankle injury that caused him to redshirt. So we lost Charles for the entire year. I had really good parents that taught me through things. I was aware of personnel type issues. Richard Schmidt came in and it was a new deal. It was his job to create the program the way he felt like was necessary to create. He brought some freshmen in and those were going to be his guys. I even came off the bench at some points during that year.
“But I was a team guy and understood it. I tried to put the best face on it that I possibly could. But it wasn’t an enjoyable year. We underachieved though we scored a lot of points. With that Flex Offense we could score for sure. I remember going to Kentucky when Kyle Macy and I were talking during a free throw. This was crazy. The final score was 106-90 like no one could stop anybody. We could score, but we didn’t have the entire package. The season ended when we got beat by Florida, who was absolutely horrible. They beat us in the tournament. I was looking ahead to baseball more than I had any other year.”
Schmidt resigned after this second season 15-14 (7-11), which followed another controversial season with star players Charles Davis and Mike Rhodes missing several starts without explanation.
Elliott averaged 8.4 points a game in his four-year basketball career. On the baseball diamond, Elliott batted .260 as a four-year starter and helped lead the Commodores to the 1980 SEC baseball championship. After graduating from Vanderbilt with a double major in History and Sociology, Elliott signed a contract as a free agent in the New York Mets organization.
Elliott played rookie ball in his hometown of Kingsport, Tenn., and Single-A Lynchburg (Virginia) of the Carolina League. He had some interesting experiences with the Mets.
“I backed up Darryl Strawberry,” said Elliott. “My first year I played center and Darryl played right. The next year Billy Bean of Moneyball was our center fielder and Darryl was our right fielder. I backed those two guys up the second year. Lloyd McClendon, who became the Pittsburgh Pirates manager, was our third baseman. Jose Oquendo, who is the third base coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, was our shortstop. Johnny Gibbons, who became the manager for Toronto and Florida, was our catcher. I realized I wasn’t going to make it to the big leagues, so I stepped aside from baseball.”
Life after baseball found Elliott back in basketball. He was the head basketball coach at Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy for five years followed by assistant coaching assignments at Vanderbilt under C.M. Newton for two seasons (1987-89) and Eddie Fogler’s four years (1989-92) with the Commodores.
“I was involved with the coaching staff when Eddie Fogler was the SEC Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year,” said Elliott. “C.M. Newton was SEC Coach of the Year twice. On that staff with C.M. were John Bostic, who was his longtime assistant, and the late Ed Martin, who was at Tennessee State all those years. I’m sitting there on a staff with these guys where people would do anything to be with. C.M. was basically friends with Bobby Knight and Dean Smith.
“In those years we are playing against Louisville with Denny Crum, Indiana with Bobby Knight, North Carolina with Dean Smith. Then the day before a game we would have a meeting with their staffs. I’m thinking to myself, ‘hey there’s Bobby Knight.’ Unbelievable. You just can’t buy that education basketball-wise. Then comes Eddie Fogler, who is everything that Dean Smith did. The first year that I was with Eddie in the summer I got to spend two days in the war room with Dean Smith and his entire staff. It was better than any Masters or PhD in coaching basketball. Those years included two Sweet 16s, an NIT championship, and a conference championship. That doesn’t happen at Vanderbilt very often.”
Elliott did not follow Fogler to South Carolina and went into private business in Nashville. He would spend 16 years in sales management at Fitness Systems and two years at A-Game Sportsplex on the basketball side in Franklin. Then in July 2011 Elliott was named as the athletics director at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.
“C.M. Newton did the evaluations of the athletic department at Trevecca,” said Elliott. “They asked him to do an assessment of the athletic department. He was the one that said you need to move from NAIA to the NCAA Division II. You are functioning like a Division II program so you ought to be one. He convinced the administration to make the move and they were looking for an athletic director that would help them go through that process. I applied for the job and C.M. was on my resume. C.M. recommended me and they hired me. I had the coaching background, the Nashville background and the business background. I believe it was of those God things and they took a chance on me.”
If you have any comments or suggestions, contact Bill Traughber via email at WLTraughber@aol.com. You can purchase Traughber’s new book “Vanderbilt Basketball, Tales of Commodore Hardwood History” online at Amazon.com or in Nashville-area bookstores.