Bill Traughber – December is the time of the year where sports fans are looking forward to the college football bowl games with basketball still in its early season and hockey as the other winter sport to follow.
One historic former Vanderbilt athlete, George Kelley (1949-51), had playing experience in both football and basketball. Kelley played football with “That Team to the East” and later as team captain, led the basketball Commodores to the 1951 SEC Tournament title.
This article by Tennessean sports writer John Bibb in September 1980 explains the football side of Kelley who was a Tennessee Vol. The heading of the story read: “The Best of Two:”
“This morning, Nashville’s George Kelley holds a distinctive position among those millions of college football followers who are awaiting the struggle between Tennessee and Southern California in Knoxville tonight. A conflict in appointments will keep Kelley from joining the throng of 95,000 expected for the Neyland Stadium battle. And while pre-game parties will chock full of conversation about the last time USC and UT played football, nobody has a more vivid memory of that game than Kelley.
“Kelley, of course, enjoys a special niche in sports lore. He’s the only man around who played intercollegiate athletics at both Tennessee and Vanderbilt. On. Jan. 1, 1945, Kelley played for the football Volunteers in the Rose Bowl against Southern California. A few years later, March of 1951, Kelley was the staring center on Vandy’s basketball team which upset No 1 Kentucky in the finals of the Southeastern Conference tournament in Louisville.”
“When George paused to reflect on my inquiry about his role in that Rose Bowl battle of 35 years ago, he chuckled and said: ‘Naturally, you understand that you have just ruined my day.’ Not wanting to be a spoil sport, I wondered how such an innocent question could carry such damaging results.
“Well, I was a freshman – wet behind the ears, and all that sort of thing – when I went into the game against Southern Cal. We were already a couple of touchdowns behind. It was in the fourth quarter, and part of my duties was to call the defenses. I’d get a signal from the bench and then relay these instructions to the others,’ Kelley said. ‘At this particular point in the game, we were backed up on about our seven or eight yard line. The USC quarterback was a guy named Jim Hardy. He was having an exceptional good day throwing the ball. The signal from the bench was for us to crash in anticipation of another pass. These days, I think they call that sort of movement a blitz.
“Our defense called for the end to really get after the quarterback as soon as possible. I was then to protect the vacated end position against the run. Instead, I figured I’d crash too. But, wouldn’t you know it? That rascal didn’t throw. He ran, instead, scoring Southern Cal’s third touchdown of the game right through the hole I had left unprotected.”
“There’s more. USC went on to get another touchdown and beat us 25-0. It was Tennessee’s second trip to the Rose Bowl against USC and we still hadn’t been able to score on them. (UT lost to Southern Cal, 14-0 in the 1940 Rose Bowl). You can imagine how disappointed our dressing room was after the game. I was sitting there taking off my jersey. I felt this hand on my shoulder. It was a friendly pat and when I looked around, I saw Coach (John) Barnhill standing there.
“I guess I was expecting him to say something consoling. Instead, he said, ‘George, I just had a call from your mother. She says you are to report to the army in Fort McPherson, Ga., on Jan. 7.’ Now do you understand why memories of that afternoon in Pasadena are enough to ruin my day?’
“I get the picture, George.”
“Kelley came back to UT after 18 months in the Air Force. He arrived on campus in time to join the Vols in pre-season practice and accompany them to another bowl, the Orange Bowl of 1947 where Tennessee lost, 8-0, against Rice, a club coached by Vanderbilt’s athletic director emeritus, Jess Neely.
“Kelley, an all-around star athlete at (Nashville) West High before going to UT on a football scholarship, left Knoxville after the 1947 Orange Bowl, and shortly afterwards he enrolled at Vanderbilt. Under the rules of those days, Kelley was allowed to play basketball at Vandy. He played three seasons and was captain of the Commodores team which beat Kentucky.
“It’s a funny thing about that,’ Kelley said of his football-basketball careers for the bitter rivals. ‘If Tennessee hadn’t gone to the Rose Bowl when I was a freshman, I probably never would have returned to Nashville and Vanderbilt. I loved to play basketball and planned to join the Vol basketball squad at the end of the season. They had a trip to Madison Square Garden. But, when our football team did well (7 wins, 1 tie), why of course, my commitment was to continue to play.’
“As it turned out, Kelley figures he wound up enjoying the best of both worlds.”
On the Vanderbilt basketball side, Kelley played for Coach Bob Polk who became the Commodores first full-time basketball coach before the 1947-48 season. The next season Kelley joined the squad that was 14-8 (9-5 SEC), good for fourth-place in the league.
That season, Kelley averaged 12.5 points per game alongside All-American Billy Joe Adcock. Other members of that team were Hank Duvier, Pete Robinson and Mike Craig.
In Kelley’s junior season, the Commodores were 17-8 (11-3 SEC) climbing to third place. Joining the team that season was Vanderbilt’s first full-scholarship class of Dave Kardokus, Jack Heldman, Gene Southwood, George McChesney and Bob Dudley Smith. Scoring leaders were Adcock (12.6), Kardokus (10.1) and Kelley (9.8).
Vanderbilt had never won an SEC regular season championship or a SEC Tournament title until February 1951. The SEC was formed in 1932. The Commodores finished the 1950-51 season in second place 15-8 (10-4 SEC) behind Kentucky that only lost once that season to Saint Louis in overtime. The tournament was played in Louisville’s Jefferson Armory. During the regular season, Kelley averaged 9.1 points per game behind Al Weiss (13.6) and Kardokus (11.1).
Vanderbilt won the first tournament game over Tennessee (88-52) with scoring leaders Weiss (20), Kardokus (19), Kelley (12) and Heldman (10). Vanderbilt beat Georgia, 70-60, in the second round as Kardokus scored 17 points and Kelley added 12. The Tennessean wrote about Kelley’s perfomance after the victory over the Bulldogs by saying:
“George Kelley’s 24 points have figured prominently in Vanderbilt’s two Southeastern Conference tournament victories, but his greatest value hasn’t been in the box score. The Commodore captain has come up with 41 rebounds against Tennessee and Georgia. His 22 against the Vols were Kelley’s season high. He came back with 19 against Georgia yesterday in the quarterfinals.
“Our two victories have been truly team affairs,” said coach Bob Polk after yesterday’s 70-60 triumph, “but I hate to think what would have happened without Kelley’s great rebounding. He has done everything but take the paint off the backboards. George has played the last two games like he did all season.’”
Kelley recorded 11 points in a Vanderbilt semifinals victory over LSU (75-63) to put the Commodores in the finals against Kentucky, ranked No. 1 in the country. The Wildcats appeared invincible with seven-foot center Bill Spivey, Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan. Future Vanderbilt head basketball coach C.M. Newton was a substitute on that team.
The Wildcats had a 48-39 lead five minutes into the second half when Vanderbilt caught its second wind and Kentucky cooled off. Kardokus hit an outside jumper to pump up his teammates. Southwood would hit two set shots to give the Commodores a 51-50 lead. Kardokus and Spivey battled under the boards all night. When Weiss fouled out, Kelley took his role and connected on two key free throws late in the game to secure a 61-57 win. Kelley tallied eight points in the title game.
Kentucky had won the previous seven successive SEC Tournaments and 12 altogether. It was Vanderbilt’s first time in the finals of the SEC. The previous Vanderbilt basketball championship was the 1927 Southern Conference Tournament crown in Atlanta. Kardokus led the tournament with 64 points and named First Team SEC All-Tournament.
Polk and his weary squad would go home without playing another game that season as Kentucky, the SEC regular season champion, represented the conference in the NCAA National Tournament that they won.
In his three seasons playing basketball at Vanderbilt, Kelley played in 74 games and averaged 10.4 points per game. Kelley was a leader and would later go on to own a popular and successful flower shop (Kelley’s Flowers) for several decades as well as being a homebuilder. He graduated with a degree in Business Administration. Kelley died on March 5, 2012 at age 86.
Traughber’s Tidbit: It is this Vanderbilt sports historian’s belief that Dave Kardokus and Bob Polk should be selected into the Vanderbilt Sports Hall of Fame sometime in the future for leading Vanderbilt basketball into the modern era with success. Polk (1948-58, 1960-61) ranks third all-time in coaching wins (197-106) behind Kevin Stallings (322-220) and Roy Skinner (278-135).
Kardokus was the second Commodore to be honored as First Team All-SEC (Adcock was the first) for the regular season and led the first full scholarship class in scoring and rebounding all three seasons. Kardokus averaged 11.0 career points per game with Heldman second (8.5) and Smith (7.6) third. Go to Commodore History Corner archives to read about Polk (Jan. 3, 2007) and Kardokus (Dec. 15, 2016).
If you have any comments or questions, contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.