Veteran Vanderbilt basketball fans might have to reflect for a few seconds when they hear the name Grace. But when "Snake" is substituted those fans are immediately reminded of Bob "Snake" Grace.
"I got that name as a sophomore in high school," Grace said recently from his Nashville home. "I played for a small county school in Kentucky. In a game I made a slithering move on the basketball court and my coach said I looked like a snake doing that. Being about six-foot-five, 145 pounds at the time, my physique was skinny and slippery. I was called "Snake" for three years in high school. I came across the state line to Vanderbilt and the name just stuck. My wife and friends still call me `Snake.'"
Grace was an All-State player at Christian County High School in Hopkinsville, Ky. Grace learned more about Vanderbilt through television. In this era of the early 1960's, cable did not exist and Nashville only had three television channels that blasted into Southern Kentucky and Hopkinsville. The Louisville and Lexington television stations did not reach that far south.
"Adolph Rupp and Kentucky offered me a scholarship, but in those days they said, `Snake,' here's your scholarship," Grace said. "There wasn't any high-pressure stuff and they didn't push it. I just didn't have any desire to go there. I would rather beat them than play for them. My top choices were Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Louisville and Western Kentucky. The main thing was Kentucky was a three-hour drive from Hop Town and Nashville was an hour and one-half drive. So, I stayed close to my parents so they could see every game that I played at home.
"I never visited the Vanderbilt campus. Coach [Roy] Skinner was the assistant coach when I signed and he recruited me for two whole years. I played basketball, baseball and ran track and never came to the Vanderbilt campus. Bob Polk was the head coach so Coach Skinner came up to sign me. I signed because of Coach Skinner. That summer Coach Polk resigned due to health problems and Coach Skinner became the head coach."
Grace arrived onto the Vanderbilt campus in the late summer of 1961. In this era of college athletics, freshmen were not allowed to compete on the varsity teams. Grace was a standout player for the Vanderbilt frosh.
"In those days we played a full schedule," said Grace. "We played all the conference schools, Western [Kentucky] and MTSU. "Georgia Tech and Tulane were members of the SEC at that time. The freshmen played a 20-game schedule. It was a pretty big deal. We all took it seriously. We had a great learning experience with a very good freshmen team with six scholarship boys who were all good players. John Ed Miller, Wayne Taylor and I each started as freshmen and on the varsity."
In Grace's first varsity season (1962-63), he started at center and led the SEC in rebounding with a 14.3 average per game. Grace had grown to six-foot-seven and 190 pounds.
"I had a great high school coach who taught me how to block out," Grace said. "In those days fundamental basketball was a big deal in high school. We did all the fundamentals. I blocked out and could jump pretty well for a boy six-foot-seven in Skinner's run-and-gun-and-shoot offense. We shot the ball and rebounded like mad. That's what we did--shoot it and rebound it."
The Commodores were 16-7 (9-5, SEC) in Grace's sophomore season. The Commodores would beat Kentucky, Tennessee (twice), Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky--a small college power at the time.
"Back in those days we had Georgia Tech and Tulane in the conference," said Grace. "We had a guard, John Russell, who got hurt halfway during the season. His injury set us back. He was a really good player. We beat Kentucky and played teams like Duke and Louisville. It was a fun year. Skinner's teams had a good time. We worked hard, played hard and partied hard (laughing). Skinner didn't have any curfews--no rules. If you played hard you did well."
As a junior, Grace was moved to a forward position to make room for incoming sophomore Clyde Lee to play center. Lee was a high school basketball star at Nashville's David Lipscomb and would later enjoy a 10-year professional career.
"That was a difficult move for me," said Grace. "I was not a shooter. When I played inside on the post, I could shoot hook shots and stay close to the rim. Having to play forward put me out on the wing and I couldn't shoot the ball very well. I still crashed the boards hard and would work the fast break. It was a difficult move so for that next year Skinner developed the high-low post. Clyde and I both played center with one high and one low while rotating all the time. I started every game I played at Vanderbilt. Skinner was a player's coach and he made it easy for you.
"It was a big deal to have Clyde join our program. I don't think he looked anywhere else. He was, of course, recruited by David Lipscomb College. He could have played there and been a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond. So he chose Vanderbilt and became a little fish in a big pond. His nickname at the time was "Big Fish." Clyde adjusted very well. He came in and rebounded very well. He was a great guy to play with."
While playing with Lee in the rotating post position, Grace and the Commodores were 19-6 (8-6. SEC). Key wins came over Duke, Memphis, Georgia Tech and Kentucky. The chemistry was forming and the rebounding duo of Grace and Lee was dominating.
"Skinner's offense was mainly fast break," said Grace. "So the guards shot all the time while Clyde and I just tried for the rebound. I'm not blowing smoke. I didn't shoot very much. Our practices were very hard, not verbally, but we just ran and ran and ran. We were in very good shape. We would press in the full and half court doing our best to steal the ball and fast break.
"We had one play that was our stall play. If we had a lead before halftime or near the end of the game we'd hold the ball with as much as three minutes left. This was long before the shot clock. Clyde would average about 16 rebounds per game and I'd average about 12 per game. That was pretty big for two guys to have that many rebounds per game."
Grace's senior season would be historic and memorable as Vanderbilt won its first SEC championship. The Commodores were 24-4 (15-1, SEC) and ranked in the preseason polls as the third best team in the country. They knew they would be good.
"We were pretty cocky in my junior year," said Grace. "In those days only the conference champion went to the NCAA Tournament. Our 19-6 record was good. So we thought the next year that we would be pretty doggone good. We were picked at the top of the conference in preseason. We lost to Virginia Tech and North Carolina early in the season. If we'd beaten just one of those teams we would have been No 1 in the country. We only lost one game in the conference that whole year and that was with Tennessee in Knoxville. We weren't cocky, but we just believed in ourselves. We had a well-balanced team. Clyde was an All-American, the star, but we had four guys that averaged in double figures in scoring."
In that season, Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky twice and split with the Volunteers. Vanderbilt played Ray Meyer's DePaul team in the first round of the NCAA Mid-East Regional in the Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, Ky. The Commodores entered the 16-team tournament ranked No. 6 in the country.
"They were pretty doggone good," said Grace. "They had a guy that could jump out of the gym and we had a hard time with him. We should have won easily, but it ended up being a close ball game. I think we were looking ahead to Michigan, which was our next game. I think we overlooked DePaul. I remember it was a rough and physical game."
Vanderbilt won over DePaul, 83-78 in overtime. Grace collected four rebounds and scored 11 points. After that game, the Commodores sat in the stands to wait on the winner of the second game with Michigan and Dayton. Michigan was ranked No. 1 in the country and entered the tournament as Big Ten champions. All-American Cazzie Russell led the Wolverines.
"They were scary," said Grace. "They were from the Big Ten and very rugged. Russell was an All-American about six-foot-six, 230 pounds. And they had a guy named Bill Buntin who was six-foot-eight about 240 pounds. We were skinny guys -- little guys from the South. It was an eye-opening experience for us to watch them play. They were the No. 1 team at that time. We thought we could beat them with our game plan. We boxed out real well and kept them off the boards and played them down to the wire."
Underdog Vanderbilt took a 38-37 halftime lead into the locker room. But Lee was charged with four first half fouls and Grace had three. Lee would not pick up a fifth foul, but Grace collected his fourth foul very early in the second half.
"We knew we had to be very tentative playing defense," Grace said. "Our guard, Keith Thomas, had about four calls go against him while guarding Russell. They were charging calls. We didn't get a good game at all from the referees. We thought we could have beaten them nine out of 10 times. We thought we were as good as they were. That was the one time we got beat."
The game was close throughout and wasn't decided until the final minute of the game. Michigan had taken a one-point lead when one of the most controversial calls in Vanderbilt basketball history went against the Commodores. Miller drove to the basket for a lay-up and two points. But, a referee signaled that Miller had walked and disallowed the basket. Vanderbilt had to foul in desperation. Michigan held on for an 87-85 victory. Grace scored seven points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
"He kept his pivot foot, but they thought he moved it when he made a move to the basket," Grace said about the controversial call on Miller. "We watched that game film 15 to 20 times a day and never saw a walk at all. The film got worn out from us watching it so many times. It was just a bad call. Coach Skinner wanted to talk to the referee after the game, but as soon as the game was over they were gone.
"It was sad in the locker room and everybody was crying, but we were proud of what we did. In those days the SEC was not considered as good as the Big Ten in basketball. The SEC was a football conference. Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia Tech were the four main schools in the SEC then. We thought we could win the whole national tournament. When you know you are good, you don't feel too bad about a close loss. It was one of those deals where we kept our heads high."
During his playing days a writer once said that Grace was a "hatchet-man" on the court. Kentucky center Cotton Nash once said that Grace was the dirtiest player in the SEC. Grace said at the time that he played "ungentlemanly."
"I was six-foot-seven, 190 pounds and very skinny," Grace said. "But I was very fast and ran the 100-yard dash in high school. I had sharp elbows. I would hit a guy and he would turn around and I'd be gone. I was a hit and run guy. My high school coach believed in bringing blood on a block out.
"He told me to swing an elbow. I wasn't very big so I had to do things to be aggressive. We were an aggressive team. Clyde was an aggressive rebounder, but he was not as tough as I was as far as throwing elbows. Skinner never said anything to me about my style of play. Sometimes they called fouls on me, and sometimes they didn't."
Grace said his most memorable games in his career was beating his home state Kentucky Wildcats five of the eight games they played and the Michigan game. He also is proud that a coaching legend remembered him.
"We lost to Dean Smith and North Carolina in Chapel Hill in my last season, but I had a very good game scoring about 26 points and 20 rebounds," Grace said. "That was probably my best stat game in a loss. Smith came to Nashville to speak at a banquet when C.M. [Newton] was here. I introduced myself as Bob Grace and he said, `you're Snake--the rebounder.' I said thank you for remembering me. He remembered that game I had against him."
Grace did not think too much about Tennessee coach Ray Mears and some of his antics.
"Tennessee was not very good until he got there," said Grace. "Ray Mears wore that orange jacket. We would go to Tennessee to play a game and where we always practiced the day before the gym was supposed to be open. Every time we got there the gym would be locked. We'd have to run around to find someone with the keys. Those were some of Ray Mears tricks to keep us off guard. He had all kinds of gimmicks he tried to play on teams."
While Lee dominates the Vanderbilt rebounding records, Grace ranks fourth all-time in career rebounds (837), third in rebounds per game (11.0) and eighth for most rebounds in a season (13.4).
Grace earned his degree in civil engineering and went to work in Nashville for a private firm that fabricated structural steel. He said he turned down a chance to play in the ABA for the New Orleans Buccaneers. Grace was offered a three-year, no-cut contract for very little money. Though not drafted by the NBA, the St. Louis Hawks invited him to a tryout, but he didn't attend.
Grace started his own company in 1992, "Snake Steel," and sold his interest five years ago. He worked part-time for a few years and retired last year. Grace has been a long-time Vanderbilt basketball season ticket holder.
"I'm a fan," said Grace. "I don't go to all the games, but I have season tickets on the first row next to the scorer's table. I put my feet up on the floor, sit back and watch Kevin [Stallings] do his thing."
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via e-mail WLTraughber@aol.com.