My top 10 UT athletes

Jimmy Hyams penned an excellent article last week offering what he considers to be the 10 finest athletes in the modern era (post 1950) of UT sports.

In response to a request on our Recruitniks message board, I'll offer my top 10. Without further adieu, here goes:

1. Bernard King. John Ward says King was the greatest SEC basketball player he saw in three decades broadcasting UT games … better than Pete Maravich, better than Charles Barkley, better than all of those Kentucky All-Americans. That's enough for me. Bernard averaged an incredible 25.8 points and 13.2 rebounds per game for his career. His subsequent success in the NBA showed his college achievements were no fluke.

2. Doug Atkins. He was a 6-7, 260-pounder at a time when most college defensive linemen were 6-2 and 220 or thereabouts. In short, he was a freak of nature. He was signed to a UT basketball scholarship and could've been a very good hoopster had Gen. Neyland permitted him to play that sport. Atkins was agile, as well as huge. He placed second in the high jump (6 feet, 6 inches) at the SEC Track Championships one year, despite only a few days of preparation. He went on to become perhaps the greatest defensive end in NFL history.

3. Ron Widby. As a Vol senior he led NCAA football in punting (43.8 yards) and led SEC basketball in scoring (22.1 points per game), becoming the only player in school history to earn All-America recognition in both sports. He led the baseball team in hitting as a sophomore, then gave up the game to distinguish himself as a member of the UT golf team. The 6-4, 210-pounder was athletic enough that he could've played receiver for the Football Vols but he was too valuable as a punter to risk getting him hurt. Widby lettered three times each in football and basketball, once each in baseball and golf.

4. Condredge Holloway. He played for so-so football teams and spent most of his senior season hurt. Still, he was the most electrifying Vol I've ever witnessed – a smaller, quicker, more elusive Tee Martin. I covered UT baseball for The Knoxville Journal in those days, and I'm convinced Holloway would've been an all-star shortstop at the Major League level had he chosen the diamond over the gridiron. He was good enough as a high school basketball player to be recruited by some guy on the Left Coast named John Wooden. If Holloway had been 6-1 and 190 pounds, instead of 5-9 and 160, there's no telling how many records he could've broken.

5. Peyton Manning. As an athlete, he was a 4 or 5 on a 1-10 scale. As a field general, he was an 11. Peyton was so brilliant as a passer that he turned Phillip "Pound the rock" Fulmer into a pass-happy coach in 1995, '96 and '97. Manning set UT records that will never be broken. If only he could've beaten Florida

6. Todd Helton. He would've been an excellent college quarterback except for two things: 1. He was a world-class baseball prospect and 2. He was finishing his Vol career just as Manning was starting his. Helton was the SEC's finest hitter during his Vol career and also the SEC's finest relief pitcher. What he has done with the Colorado Rockies shows he can hit with a wooden bat, too.

7. Stanley Morgan. Up to this point, I've based my rankings mostly on what a guy did at UT. In Stanley's case, I'm basing my ranking on what he COULD'VE done at UT. Because the Vols desperately needed a tailback, Stanley rarely got to display his pass-catching skills in college. He went on to become perhaps the finest NFL receiver of his era, however. He also was an exceptional sprinter for the Vol track team.

8. Ernie Grunfeld. Ernie G wasn't as athletic, as smooth or as spectacular as Bernard King. But if he'd had the spotlight to himself – instead of sharing it with Bernard – Ernie would've set scoring records at UT that would never be approached. Like Peyton Mannning, Grunfeld was a great player without being a great pure athlete.

9. Tom Pappas. Being a decathlete proves you have a multitude of varied skills. Winning an Olympic gold medal proves you are an elite athlete. To win a gold medal as a decathlete makes you special in my book.

10. Willie Gault/Richmond Flowers. Basically, they were the same guy in different-colored skin. Both starred as sprinters in track and both were dangerous (but not exactly sure-handed) receivers in football. Gault gets a slight edge because he was such a fantastic return specialist.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Chuck Webb/Reggie White. Each would've made my top 10 except he only had one big year in college. Webb was the greatest running back I've ever seen in person … and I've seen Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen, Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis, Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams, among others. Webb's instincts, balance and cutting ability were beyond belief. If not for a career-killing ACL injury he would've had a similar NFL career to that of Barry Sanders. White was the most dominating player in college football as a senior – he should've won the Heisman that year – but he had limited impact his first three seasons. Reggie was the finest NFL defensive lineman of his era but I'm basing my ratings primarily on what a guy did at UT.

Allan Houston. He was a scoring machine at UT but he had to be. The Basketball Vols of his era had no one to share the load. If Houston had played for better teams he probably would've made my top 10 but it's difficult to justify that type of recognition for a guy who played on mediocre teams, no matter how brilliant he was individually.

Carl Pickens. He was the finest receiver and also the finest safety on the Vol roster during his career. He starred in the NFL at the former but could've been all-pro at the latter, as well. He also excelled as a return specialist. Pickens participated in Vol track and I'm told he could've started for the Vol basketball team in those days, had he been inclined to make the attempt.

Heath Shuler/Tony Robinson. Like Gault and Flowers, these guys had similar skills in different-color skin. Shuler was the better runner but Robinson was the better pocket passer. Both had amazing arm strength but both had their careers cut short. Shuler elected to bypass his senior year; Robinson tore an ACL midway through his senior year.

Justin Gatlin. Being the world's fastest man is an incredible distinction. Still, running fast is a singular skill. I'm more impressed by a guy who can run fast while catching a 60-yard pass … or run fast while dribbling a basketball … or run fast after hitting a baseball into the gap. But that's just me.


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