Vanderbilt got serious about playing basketball when powerful Kentucky thrashed the Commodores 98-29 in the 1947 SEC Tournament played in Louisville. That embarrassment motivated Vanderbilt athletics director and head football coach Red Sanders to hire a full-time basketball coach. In previous years it was generally an assistant football coach that took control of basketball.
Billy Joe Adcock (1948-50) was the first full scholarship basketball player and Georgia Tech assistant coach Bob Polk (1948-58, 1960-61) was hired as Vanderbilt’s first full-time basketball coach. Polk turned his attention to recruiting with five basketball scholarships to distribute. He dipped into Indiana, Ohio and Nashville for his first full scholarship class. These included Dave Kardokus, Jack Heldman, Gene Southwood, George McChesney, and Bob Dudley Smith.
McChesney was from Middletown, Ohio and was pleased to be a recipient of one of those scholarships.
“I think our high school basketball coach was under consideration for the position that Bob Polk got,” McChesney said recently. “That’s how I first learned of Vanderbilt basketball. Shelby Linville was on my high school team and went to Kentucky. We won the state championship in Ohio that year. Somehow they [Vanderbilt] got newspaper clippings of me playing in high school. That’s how most coaches learned of good recruits back then.”
“I came down to Nashville to meet with Coach Polk for the first time in April before my graduation. Football players Bucky Curtis and Russ Faulkinberry entertained me during my visit. Except for Billy Joe Adcock they didn’t have any basketball scholarship players. I was recruited for my outside shooting ability. I wasn’t big enough to play under the basket. Coach Polk told us there were going to be a new field house to play and other things that didn’t happen until after we were gone.
“There were five of us that came in together that year. Basketball changed a lot between my high school and college years. When you come out of high school you didn’t really know what you were getting into. We went to college with open eyes. We were awed by Vanderbilt and loved it. The five of us just bonded very rapidly. We all stayed in Kissam Hall on campus. We did things together all year long. I like to think that we started the modern era of Vanderbilt basketball."
In this era of college athletics, freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition. Vanderbilt was 14-8 (SEC 9-5) during McChesney’s freshman season and learned from practicing against the varsity. The young freshmen would give the varsity tough competition in those practice games.
“In college it was a lot more physical,” said McChesney. “We practiced in the Old Gym annex on campus that had a small seating capacity. It wasn’t air-conditioned. I couldn’t believe I was playing basketball in 90-degree heat. My high school gym was bigger and better.”
“We couldn’t play games there, but practiced and had our lockers in the basement. I was busy trying to handle the problem of playing center since I was small and a natural guard. We were successful playing against the varsity, but I don’t think Coach Polk wanted that to happen a lot. Billy Joe was the best player and became an All-American. I could tell Dave Kardokus was going to be really good for us.”
Vanderbilt played most of their home games at Nashville’s East High School. Later their games were played in David Lipscomb College’s McQuiddy Gym. Memorial Gym was constructed many years later playing its first game in December 1952.
“I remember going out to East Nashville High School as a freshman and watching the team play Kentucky,” McChesney said. “This was against Kentucky’s ‘Fabulous Five’. East High School was more of a theatre where they had plays and assemblies. It was large enough for a basketball court.”
“I remember there were 300 people sitting on a stage watching Kentucky the best team in the country. They sat there like they were watching animals because they were so physical. We were all screaming and yelling trying to encourage Vanderbilt from our seats on the stage. That was one of Adolph Rupp’s teams. I’m sure he didn’t like playing in that cramped gymnasium.”
In McChesney’s sophomore year the Commodores were 17-8 (SEC 11-3). Polk was in his third year leading Vanderbilt into the modern era of Commodore basketball. McChesney played in 11 games for a 1.6 ppg. average. Adcock (12.6 ppg.), Kardokus (10.1 ppg.), George Kelley (9.8 ppg.) and Heldman (6.4 ppg.) led the team in scoring that season.
“I was brought in to use my ability to shoot from what is today the three-point line,” said McChesney. “Coach Polk pulled me to the side and told me he didn’t have a center. I told him I wasn’t big enough to be an SEC center. He said he needed a center and asked me to help at that position.”
“I never played center in high school. I never played a game in college as a center. Finally they ended up with Al Weiss. Al was a lot stronger. I got as good as I was going to get. Then there was no place for me to go. I played in very little games for not much time. I’m afraid I wasn’t a star. But it was a fun time.”
Another memorable game in Vanderbilt history was a contest played in New York’s historic Madison Square Garden. The Commodores were able to upset New York University in overtime, 65-59. Kardokus (19 points) and Heldman (10 points) were top scorers for the victors.
“It was unbelievable playing in Madison Square Garden’” said McChesney. “It was awe-inspiring. We played New York University who was expected to beat us. The fans were cheering for them, but when we started doing well and leading the game, they started yelling for us.”
“The New York fans were going with the people who were performing. We only got out one night to see the city and didn’t have much time to do much. Being from Middletown, Ohio and walking the streets of New York City was an experience for me. We had to be in bed early since we had a game the next day in Philadelphia.”
In McChesney’s junior and final season, his playing time was cut to seven games. The Commodores were 19-8 (SEC 10-4). Leading the team that season in scoring were Weiss (13.6 ppg) and Kardokus (11.1 ppg.). Kelley was the senior team captain (9.1 ppg.).
“I enjoyed being with the guys,” said a modest McChesney. “Basketball got to be more of a job than a game to me. Winning was absolutely what Coach Polk had to do. That was the basis for bringing in other players and to build a program. That was his job. As a freshman I didn’t realize this until later.”
That year, Vanderbilt won the school’s first SEC championship by beating No. 1 ranked Kentucky. The Wildcats would go on to win the NCAA National Championship that season. The Commodores rolled over Tennessee (88-52), Georgia (70-60), LSU (75-63) and the Wildcats (61-57).
McChesney, 86, played in the first game against the Vols scoring one field goal. Kelley’s rebounding aided in the Commodores victories. Kardokus was the scoring star collecting the most points (64) in the tournament. Kentucky had won the previous seven SEC Tournaments. It was the only SEC Tournament championship for Vandy until the 2012 title also over Kentucky (71-64).
“It was fantastic that we won the ball game,” McChesney said. “Kelley played center when Weiss fouled out and guarded Spivey in a match-up. Kelley was about 6-foot-4 and not as tall as Spivey. But Kelley was strong physically. We just out battled them. Nobody expected us to win. The only ones that thought we’d win were the guys that beat them.”
Most of the traveling by Vanderbilt at this time was by bus. A few airline trips were needed for far away cities. Kentucky ruled in the SEC with the best facilities for playing basketball. Most of the SEC towns had modest venues.
“Kentucky was so far ahead of everybody else with their basketball program back then,” said McChesney. “At Mississippi State we played in a Quonset Hut. They didn’t have locker rooms so we had to change into our uniforms in the hotel. The Quonset Hut had four wood burning stoves in each corner that heated the place.
“There were dead spots in the floor where the ball wouldn’t bounce like it was supposed to when we were dribbling. Playing in Oxford they had a basketball floor much like the Old Gym at Vanderbilt with a running track upstairs. Some of the fans would stand up there trying to block our shots from the corner.”
Kardokus would become the second Vanderbilt First Team All-SEC basketball player following Adcock. Kardokus was also the second Commodore to be named First Team All-SEC Tournament following Pinky Lipscomb (1939 and 1941). Kardokus led his class all three seasons in scoring and rebounding.
“Dave was a forward and had a unique way of driving up on an opponent then backing off for his jump shots,” said McChesney. “He was hard to stop and a successful scorer probably more than the other forwards. There were so many changes in basketball from when we played. They brought in the three-second rule for the center or low post which is what I was supposed to be. You had to be out of the lane in three seconds. That was hard to adjust too.”
McChesney did not play in his senior year choosing to concentrate on his academics.
“I was getting married,” McChesney said. “I hadn’t been a great student. I didn’t apply myself as I should have and take advantage of what Vanderbilt had to offer. I was behind in my class work. I had to get special permission to take extra hours. My career in basketball was over. There wasn’t anything I could contribute to the game. When I talked to Polk we decided it would be better off if he had the extra scholarship.”
McChesney earned a Business Administration degree from Vanderbilt. He worked in the banking business and was a long-time real estate developer. He lives with his wife in North Carolina and St. Simons Island, Ga., in the winter months.
McChesney looks back on his Vanderbilt years with pleasure.
“The Vanderbilt I went to was unreal,” McChesney said. “There were 10 guys for every girl [McChesney laughing]. That was tough, but Ward Belmont was close by. I stayed in touch with the fellows and have gotten together with them occasionally. We are really solidified as friends. Everybody got along so well. I just contributed when I could and when I was asked. I certainly did not have a distinguished college basketball career.”
Traughber’s Tidbit: To learn more about the early Bob Polk era and Vanderbilt basketball, locate CHC Archives and find: Bob Polk (Jan. 3, 2007), Billy Joe Adcock (Jan. 18, 2012), Jack Heldman (Jan. 23, 2013), Dave Kardokus (Dec. 16, 2015), George Kelley (Dec. 15, 2016) and the historic win in Madison Square Garden (Jan. 10, 2007).
Tidbit Two: Dave Kardokus led the first full scholarship class for three seasons in scoring and rebounding. His 11.0 career points per game average is tops with Heldman (8.5 ppg) second and Smith (7.6 ppg) third of the four players that completed their eligibility. It is this Vanderbilt sports historian’s opinion that Kardokus represent the first full basketball scholarship class in the Vanderbilt Sports Hall of Fame.
If you have any comments or suggestions contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.