Editor's Note:Bill Traughber has earned his reputation as Middle Tennessee's premier sports historian. The Nashville native has brought back the enjoyment and discovery of golden stories from our city's long forgotten past over the decades. For many years, Traughber has been a popular contributor on Vanderbilt's official athletic web site as well as special articles in game programs and publications. His new book, a collection of his best works which includes past Vanderbilt athletic essays, is called Nashville Sports History and will be released early in the spring of 2010.
When former Vanderbilt guard Mike Rhodes (1978-81) graduated from Vanderbilt, he had endured two troublesome times. Rhodes played for two different head coaches while obtaining the title of Vanderbilt's all-time leading scorer in basketball. He is also one of the most popular and memorable Commodore to Vandy fans.
Rhodes learned to play basketball on his grandmother's farm in Linden, Tenn. (Perry County).
"We lived out in the country," Rhodes said recently from his Lobelville, Tenn., home.
"There wasn't much to do other than to hunt, fish and practice basketball or baseball. My grandmother had an old barn that had seen the better part of its years. My brother and dad built a makeshift basket out of planks that wasn't much. They nailed it up on one side of the barn. That's how it all started, I guess. I remember days after it rained I would go down there to practice. The ball would be muddy and my hands were black. If you tried to make real quick moves on the gravel, you'd slip and fall down."
Rhodes, 50, was part of back-to-back Class A state championships at Perry County. Rhodes was named as the MVP of both title games while breaking nine tournament records. He was a consensus all-state selection averaging a state leading 41.9 points per game. His brother David, who played guard for the Ole Miss Rebels from 1971-73, coached Rhodes.
"The biggest part for me, in many folds, was carrying on the tradition of Perry County High School basketball." said Rhodes. "They won three state championships in 1955-57 before the state classifications were instituted. That was exciting to be able to rekindle that tradition. You always tend to play for more than yourself. You are playing for the people in the county and your teammates. I had some good friends with close relationships on those teams. The biggest thing was my brother was the coach of those two teams.
"At the time it was a coach-player relationship and we had a brother-brother relationship. He pushed me to be the guy I was. That was very special when you put in all the effort and time. I'm brought back to Vince Lombardi's saying that man's finest hour and his greatest fulfillment to what he holds dear, is that moment when he worked his heart out in a good cause and might exhausted on the field of battle victorious. That is what I felt when I was holding that trophy on the court with my brother."
Since Rhodes was the state's leading scorer, he attracted the attention of most colleges for his basketball talent. The Commodores was coming off a 10-16 (SEC, 6-12) record with head coach Wayne Dobbs finishing his first year at Vanderbilt after replacing the legendary Roy Skinner.
"I was leaning pretty heavily with Alabama and C.M. Newton as their coach," Rhodes said. "It was between them and Vanderbilt. Kentucky had recruited me pretty good. The omen to that is I was supposed to have taken a recruiting trip to Lexington and got snowed out. I never did make the trip. So I never did get to see "The Lodge" as they called it where the players stayed. That would have been pretty impressive to an 18-year-old. I choose Vanderbilt because of the closeness to home.
"We had an assistant coach at Vanderbilt, Ron Bartgatze, that I became close. Sometimes you just have to feel comfortable with who is leading you. I felt really secure and comfortable with him and what he was going to try and do for me at Vanderbilt. To this day we are still pretty close.
"As a high school senior I remember going to a UT game when Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld walked past me. I said right then I couldn't play at this level because they were men. They never offered me a scholarship because they knew I was not a Tennessee fan."
During Rhodes first season as a freshman, the Commodores were 10-17 (SEC, 6-12). Rhodes led Vanderbilt in scoring with an 18.8 average, seventh best in the SEC. He also ranked fourth in the conference in free throw shooting for 81.1 per cent (103-of-127). Rhodes 507 total points erased the Vanderbilt freshman scoring record (399) of Charles Davis.
Rhodes scoring mark broke Clyde Lee's 471 points for a first-year player. Lee set his mark as a sophomore in an era that freshmen were ineligible for the varsity. Rhodes was selected Third Team All-SEC by both AP and UPI. The top honor came when Rhodes was selected Freshman-of-the-Year. No other Commodore has received that award.
"It seems like my freshman year was a haze because we weren't successful," said Rhodes. "I can remember before a game with Virginia Tech I hurt my back extremely bad and wasn't sure I was going to play that night. The trainer, Joe Worden taped my back up and I got 34 points that night. You always remember the good players you play against. Reggie "Mule" King of Alabama was a great player back then. He was a physical specimen. He could outrun me dribbling the basketball and he was about 6-foot-8.
"At the time I didn't know there was that honor [Freshman-of-the-Year]. When I was told about the award I said, `I got what? What is that?' With the season having gone the way it did, the award was a bright spot. There were quite a few incredible freshmen in the league like Dewayne Scales (LSU), Ethan Martin (LSU), and Reggie Hannah (Florida)."
Rhodes second season saw the Commodores improve to 18-9 (SEC, 11-7) record. Vanderbilt had a shot at a share of the SEC title, but lost its last three games on the road to Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Rhodes led the team in free throw percentage (82.7) while repeating as Third Team All-SEC. The 6-foot-5 Rhodes averaged 15.5 points per game.
Dobbs was named SEC Coach-of-the-Year, but was dismissed as head coach by the university soon after the season ended. The Vanderbilt fans and Nashville community were stunned about the dismissal. The controversial coaching change has remained a mystery today.
"It came as a shock," Rhodes said about Dobbs firing. "I remember going down on the bus to the SEC Tournament and reading in the newspaper that his job was in jeopardy. We were just scratching our heads thinking that didn't make any sense. But there were obviously a lot of things we weren't privy.
"He was not real popular with the players. One day in practice, after he was chewing us out, he said `I've tried everything guys. I've even tried to make you hate me so you would come together and play better.' He was his own guy. I certainly enjoyed playing for him and do not have any bad feelings towards him. I haven't talked to him since he left.
"That season we got things clicking. Everyone found their role on the team. I didn't score as much that year, but I had a different role on that team. Winning was a lot better than any individual accomplishments. We just fell apart after losing those three straight heading into the tournament."
Vanderbilt hired Richard Schmidt as Dobbs replacement. Schmidt was an assistant coach at Virginia and had previously built a dynasty basketball program at Louisville's Ballard High School.
"We were all sitting over in McGugin Center after Dobbs left and they were talking about different names to be interviewed," said Rhodes. "One guy in particular who was brought up was a guy named Mike Krzyzewski. Nobody knew who he was at the time. He went to Duke and we got Coach Schmidt. Then a few years later, Krzyzewski wins a national championship at Duke and I'd tell everyone he was almost my coach.
"Once the season was over, we took a few weeks off. I remember him [Schmidt] calling for a special practice and we went through some pickup games. I was not very good when I did not practice. We had about three of four weeks off. His comment was that Mike Rhodes and Charles Davis could not play for him. So that got everybody on the wrong foot. This is before the summer of my junior year."
In Rhodes junior season, Vanderbilt was 13-13 (SEC, 7-11). Rhodes led the team in scoring (18.4) and free throw percentage (80.9). He was selected to the First Team All-SEC team.
But Rhodes was not happy with the relationship with the new coach.
"It was up and down all year long," said Rhodes. "I can remember going up to Mississippi State and putting up 34 points and two nights later going to Memphis and playing about four minutes. Those things as a young man weigh on your confidence level for certain. After the first game of the season, I could tell there was some uncertainly about my playing time. I actually called someone I knew at Memphis State to see about transferring right then. But I decided the Vanderbilt education was more important to me than being happy playing basketball."
Davis was not happy with his situation either while his playing time would also be reduced. He was an All-SEC performer also. Davis was a sophomore when Rhodes was a freshman, but red shirted before his junior season due to an injury. Davis and Rhodes would play their senior seasons together.
Rhodes said that Schmidt didn't really explain what he was doing to him and Davis.
"His whole deal was `Mike, I think you play better coming off the bench.' He tried to convince me of that," said Rhodes. "I didn't say anything, but I wanted to say `Look, I've started every single game since I have been in the third grade and I don't play better coming off the bench.'
"What it was, and I could kind of see it in a way, he had his own recruits. He actually had one guy that he coached in high school that he was trying to bring along who wasn't a bad player. I could see him wanting to inject his own system and leave us as role players. That is something you don't do unless these people just can't play. And I was a good player, but Charles was above good. He was really a great player and very athletic."
The senior season for the one-two punch of the "Town and Country" duo would find each player well within reach of passing Clyde Lee's all-time scoring record (1,691) at Vanderbilt. To the dismay and confusion of the Vanderbilt community, both All-SEC performers spent a lot of time on the bench. The inside-outside punch had been scoring a lot of points for the Commodores in previous years.
"My senior year was another fiasco," Rhodes said. "I had broken a finger on my left hand, which meant I couldn't catch the ball very well, but I could shoot. That kind of gave him an out to sit me aside. As a team, we weren't performing, as we should. When we got into the season and realized we weren't going to compete for the league title, he was probably thinking that he was going to play next year's team. So we found more time on the bench."
Vanderbilt played the first round of the SEC Tournament against Mississippi State and won to advance in their bracket. Rhodes only played eight minutes of the game scoring two points. This left him two points shy of Lee's record.
"I really thought too much was made out of the record," said Rhodes. "I have always said that Clyde Lee played three years and I played four. I've never thought of the leading scorer as being the leading scorer at Vanderbilt with the title they bestowed on you. It's irrelevant because it's the number of games played and the amount of points. If it's going to be something, it ought to be the average.
"A lot of players have come through there with a lot better average than I had. When they made that big of a deal out of the record, I think that prodded him [Schmidt] to fight the system. `Hey, its not about this one guy here, its about our team.' I think he probably resented that. Unfortunately, he wasn't mature enough to understand the repercussions of what he did with the city and the Vanderbilt following."
Vanderbilt would upset Kentucky (60-55) in the next round of the tournament. Rhodes did not play a single minute riding the bench the entire game.
"He lucked out on that one I will have to say," laughed Rhodes. "When it got to 10-0 in Kentucky's favor, I started pulling my shirt off and got ready to tell him I was ready. He told be to just sit there. I had seen that happen many times where a team gets down eight to 10 to nothing and all of a sudden they think this is going to be a cakewalk. Then they let up and you can get back into the game. Charles Davis saved us that night. He actually did get into the game and played a heck of a ball game."
This must have been a very frusta ring time for Rhodes not necessarily having the record in reach, but seeing his talent go to waste when he knew he could help his team.
"There were times that he sent me mixed signals the whole year," said Rhodes. "The coach did not have to be in the gym for me to give everything I had. We were going through our jump ropes and box jumps in practice and I remember him saying `Guys, if every one of you were like Mike Rhodes and give 100 per cent when I'm in here or not, we will be good.'
"From that aspect it was a positive thing he was giving. But then I turn right around and he plays somebody that that was young. It sent me mixed signals. I'm sure I had a few little chitchats with him here and there trying to understand, but nothing really pops out in my mind as far as how he explained that situation to me. It's the same old thing that coaches are going to give you the runaround."
The tournament run ended for Vanderbilt with a loss to Ole Miss. Rhodes played in the game and scored 10 points to break Lee's record. He finished his career scoring 1, 699 points. Davis would total 1,675 points for a career.
"It wasn't any fun to break the record," said Rhodes. "It was nearly humiliating to do it in that manner. I've had a lot more things mean more to me in my life than that record. I was glad the season was over. I was pretty much burnt."
At the conclusion of the season, Vanderbilt Athletics Director Roy Kramer fired Schmidt replacing him with C. M. Newton who had earlier retired from Alabama.
In his four-year career, Rhodes averaged 16.5 points per game, shooting 48.3 percent from the field, made a percentage at the free throw line of 81.6 and shared the career mark for most career field goals (683).
"The Linden Long Rifle" was also named as Vanderbilt's Athlete-of-the-Year after his senior season. He currently ranks fifth in all-time scoring (1,699), sixth in average (16.5), tied for third with most 30-plus points in a game (5), tied for second in field goals made (683) and eighth in free throw percentage (81.6).
Rhodes was selected in the fifth round (110th player) of the 1981 NBA draft by San Antonio. He didn't make the team realizing a fifth-rounder needed to be phenomenal to compete at that level.
Rhodes said it kind of made him sick when C. M. Newton was named to replace Schmidt. Newton was the type of coach Rhodes respected and admired. Rhodes did serve as a student assistant for Newton while completing his engineering degree.
Today, Rhodes works as an engineer for an automotive company Bates Acquisition in Lobelville, Tenn. His son, Cannon, is a sophomore for Perry County averaging 11 points per game. Cannon is also an outstanding golfer.
Rhodes said that he doesn't believe he could play for Vanderbilt these days that the talent level is too high for him to compete. In spite of the controversies Rhodes had to endure as a basketball player at Vanderbilt he feels no bitterness towards anyone and makes it to Commodores' games a few times each year.
"I think what happened to me at Vanderbilt prepared me for life," said Rhodes. "The Lord is going to throw things our way and see how we handle it. I just hope that I handled myself with professionalism back then. There are bigger and better things out there.
If you have any comments or suggestions you can contact Bill Traughber via email WLTraughber@aol.com.