As a senior at Knoxville’s Fulton High School he waited for a major-college scholarship offer. It never arrived. Declining offers from Eastern Kentucky and Tennessee State, he decided to stay in town and walk on at Tennessee.
Stuck behind scholarship guards Jordan McRae, Trae Golden, Cameron Tatum, Skylar McBee and Josh Richardson, Campbell waited for an opportunity to play for the 2011-12 Vols that never arrived. He saw just seven minutes of mop-up duty as a freshman that season and scored one basket.
He figured 2012-13 had to be better but he was wrong. With the program limited to two walk-ons per year, the 6-foot-2 Campbell was passed over in favor of 6-foot-8 Rob Murphy and close friend Brandon Lopez, who earned a spot based on his point-guard skills. Campbell thought about transferring but decided to wait and see what the 2013-14 season would bring. What it brought was another year of waiting on the bench – 12 minutes of mop-up action and two baskets.
The waiting ended last Friday, however, when Vol head coach Donnie Tyndall called Campbell to the front of the meeting room and announced before the entire team that he is being placed on scholarship. Mobbed by teammates, Campbell seemed shocked.
“I was speechless, honestly,” he recalled.
Then he called his mom, who was anything but speechless. Unaware she was on speaker-phone, she reacted to the news by exclaiming, “Oh, God! Thank you, Jesus!” She then wept loudly into the phone, too moved to say another word.
Tyndall says awarding Campbell a scholarship was a blessing for the giver, as well as the recipient.
"Galen is a great kid, first of all, and he's been committed to the program for three and a half years,” the coach said. “He never gripes or complains about anything. When he talks in our locker room our guys respect him even though he doesn't get to play a whole lot.”
Although Campbell’s low-key nature prevented him from displaying his feelings at the time, he promises they were welling up inside him when he got the news from Tyndall.
“My mom was really emotional. I was emotional, too, but I'm one of those guys that tries to hide my emotions,” he said. “I'm one of those in-the-closet emotional guys. I go back in my room and get emotional by myself. I try to be tough and everything.”
Campbell says his cell-phone and his social-media accounts have been “going crazy” with congratulatory messages in recent days. The news even created a stir during worship service at his home church on Sunday. That’s fitting since he describes the scholarship as “an honor and a blessing. It was definitely a dream come true. All I could do was give the glory to God.”
Campbell got to make cameo appearances in Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament games against Iowa and Mercer last March, recording a three-point play in the latter. Basically, that was all he had to show for his first three and one-half years on The Hill. Such is the life of a walk-on, however.
“It has definitely been rough,” he conceded, later adding: “I never told anyone, but I came close a lot of times where I wanted to quit. I just didn't want to play anymore. If it is wasn't for my family, my pastor and my girlfriend being encouraging to me and just telling me to stay through ... I don't think I would have made it. I'm glad I stayed, because I got rewarded for it."
The “reward” is one semester of free tuition and books. He will graduate in May and, although he has a year of eligibility remaining, he will not be back in 2015-16 to use it.
“This is going to be my last semester,” he said. “I thought about it. I prayed about it and everything. This probably will be my last four months playing basketball in my life. I've been playing basketball since I was four, and both of my parents played college basketball. It's been a long journey but I'm ready for a new stepping stone.”
He hopes that “stepping stone” will lead to a job in coaching. He and Lopez co-directed a youth team during the summer of 2013, finding the experience wildly rewarding. Campbell believes his association with Vol head coaches Cuonzo Martin and Tyndall will give his career a boost, as well.
"It has definitely helped me a lot,” Campbell said. “Being with two good coaching staffs – first under Coach Martin and now Coach Tyndall – I have learned so much about different levels of basketball. It is just amazing. I feel like I will do good at that career, and I just can't wait."
Actually, if there is one thing Galen Campbell has proved the past four years, it is that he can wait. And wait. And wait.
GAME NOTES: Tennessee brings a 9-5 overall record and 1-1 SEC mark into Tuesday night’s game. Arkansas, riding a seven-game winning streak, is 13-2 and 2-0…. Tennessee point guard Josh Richardson has scored 25.3 percent of his team’s points, ranking No. 1 among all SEC players in that category…. Richardson and the other Vol guards will be severely tested by an Arkansas press known as “40 minutes of hell.” The Razorbacks lead the SEC in turnover margin at plus-4.9 per game…. Arkansas superstar Bobby Portis ranks No. 1 among SEC scorers (18.1 points per game) and No. 5 among rebounders (7.8 per game). The 6-foot-11, 242-pound sophomore is the reigning SEC Player of the Week after averaging 26.5 points and 8.0 rebounds in guiding wins over Georgia and Vanderbilt…. Tennessee leads the all-time series with the Hogs 18-14…. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock. The game can be viewed at ESPNU.