Beating UK topped DeVoe's tenure

The coaching carousel had not been kind to Don DeVoe. He went from a successful program at Virginia Tech to the wilderness of Wyoming, all because he had an interest in coaching at his alma mater, Ohio State. But then, the Tennessee job came open.

DeVoe was a hot candidate, and Tennessee had been a hot team. But Ray Mears had resigned, the Vols were coming off an 11-16 season (6-12 in the SEC) and the program had never won an NCAA Tournament game.

When he arrived in Knoxville, the picture he was painted was bleak. He met with UT president Dr. Ed Boling and chancellor Dr. Jack Reese.

``They didn't talk very fondly of the basketball team at all,'' DeVoe said. ``The team had been very young the year before. They had struggled. It was a situation where they didn't have a great deal of confidence.

``I took a look at the talent and I said to myself, `These guys can play basketball.' I was really fortunate in many ways to take over a team that had the potential to really grow fast and we were able to put it together that first year.''

That first year might have been DeVoe's best. The Vols won 21 games, finished second in the SEC, beat Kentucky three times, won the first SEC Tournament held in 25 years and recorded the program's first-ever NCAA Tournament win.

``It was a great start for the team that I coached that had not won the year before,'' DeVoe said.

The team was led by Reggie Johnson, Howard Wood, Steve Ray, Bert Bertelkamp, Terry Crosby, Kevin Nash and Gary Carter.

``We had the nucleus of guys hungry to get things turned around,'' DeVoe said. ``It was a great experience that first year to be able to win the SEC Tournament and win the first-ever NCAA Tournament game.''

It was the start of DeVoe's 11-year run at Tennessee. He won 204 games – only Mears' 278 victories is better – and five NCAA Tournament games. He won at least 20 games six of his first seven seasons. He coached such stars as Reggie Johnson, Dale Ellis, Tony White and Dyron Nix.

For all the accomplished, he was selected for induction into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame. The banquet is July 12 at the Knoxville Convention Center.

DeVoe feels honored to be chosen.

``I can't tell you how surprised I am to begin with,'' DeVoe said. ``To think of all the great people who have come out of Knoxville and Knox Country and not been selected, it really is very humbling, to be quite frank with you.''

It's DeVoe's second Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into his home county Hall in Wilmington, Ohio, for his playing and coaching achievements.

DeVoe reflects fondly as his days as Tennessee's coach (1978-89).

``They were absolutely rewarding years,'' DeVoe said. ``I always felt I had great support from the people who hired me. … Those were really fun years. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the opportunity. Even though I've coached at Virginia Tech and Wyoming and the Naval Academy, I'm still often just looked at as being the former Tennessee coach.''

The former Tennessee coach did something his first season that endeared him to many Vol fans forever. He beat Kentucky and Joe B. Hall three times – the first time UT had done that since 1920. It hasn't happened since.

The first win was at Kentucky, 66-55. The second win was in Knoxville four weeks later, 101-84. The third win was in the final of the SEC Tournament, 75-69.

DeVoe recalls after the second win over Kentucky, he was having dinner with former Vol star A.W. Davis and the Voice of the Vols, John Ward.

``A.W. said, `Don, do you understand what you have done?''' DeVoe said. ``I said, `Well, we won a very important game.' He said, `This doesn't happen very often.'''

DeVoe had not quite grasped the historical significance. Kentucky was the premier program in the SEC. Tennessee was always the step-child. While the Vols fielded some good teams, they played second fiddled to the Wildcats. During one stretch of this series, Kentucky won 32 of 33 games and 37 of 39.

But DeVoe didn't know – or care – about those shortcomings. He grew up in Ohio. He played for Ohio State. Despite Kentucky's tradition, he said Ohio State usually beat Kentucky.

``I kind of had a mindset we could win these games,'' DeVoe said. ``We're not playing a team that's not beatable. Where I grew up and where I played, Ohio State, there was the expectation you would win against Kentucky.''

DeVoe was 11-12 against Kentucky, losing twice by one point, once by two points and once in overtime.

Interestingly, DeVoe said his best team at Tennessee was his second, the only team of his first seven not to win 20 games. The Vols went 18-11, lost in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and lost in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament against what DeVoe said was rated the nation's toughest schedule.

During his UT tenure, DeVoe was known for playing Dale Ellis in the post, where Ellis earned SEC Player of the Year twice. DeVoe said Ellis is a great example of not being able to figure out how people will turn out.

``Dale Ellis was my pivot man for four years, then goes to the NBA and becomes one of the all-time leading 3-point shooters – that just absolutely throws me for a loop,'' DeVoe said.

``People blame me for not playing Dale Ellis on the perimeter, but I know this, when he played for me, he shot about 66 percent from the floor and he was one of the leading field goal shooters in the country. We had to put him where he could help the team the most.

``But you never really can tell how people will develop.''

DeVoe developed into an outstanding coach. And for his efforts, he'll be honored with induction into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.


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