Vanderbilt Basketball: Bob Polk and 1956
It’s not the way life is supposed to be, but it’s the way life often is. Great work, greater results, no real rewards. This was the reality for several Roy Skinner-coached teams at Vanderbilt, but before those gut-punches in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was the 1956 season, another one of many “bright but painful” episodes in this program’s complicated history.
Vanderbilt men’s basketball was a very odd program from the late 1920s through the late 1940s, even though the explanation for the oddities was easy to identify. When Bob Polk came aboard to coach the team in 1947, the coaches in the previous two seasons – Gus Morrow in 1945-’46 and Norm Cooper in 1946-’47 – were both second-time men at Vanderbilt, due to the fact that full-time coaches had not been in existence during that time. Morrow had coached the team from 1929 through 1931, Cooper from 1941 through 1943. Years earlier, another man coached Vanderbilt for a second time after going elsewhere in between his two stints. Josh Cody coached the team in the mid-1930s after leading the program in the mid-1920s.
This is where our story of the 1956 team and its coach gains momentum.
If you go through the record books, it was Josh Cody who authored the last truly great and resoundingly successful Vanderbilt basketball season before World War II. The 20-4 team of 1927 was the gold standard by which all other VU men’s basketball teams were measured. Morrow and Cooper and Jim Buford and Smokey Harper could not match that level of success. The closest anyone got in a 20-year period was Morrow, who went 16-8 in 1931. When Polk came aboard in 1947, Vanderbilt had known little other than very rapid coaching changes and marked instability. Polk, though, was hired by then-athletic director Red Sanders as a full-time coach, and that was the true reason the program moved forward.
In previous weeks, we’ve talked about Roy Skinner and his magnificent Vanderbilt career, a radiant body of work that is under-appreciated on a national level due to a lack of consistent NCAA tournament appearances. We took care to mention that such a reality was caused not by coaching deficiencies, but by a deficient system and a far-too-small NCAA tournament field.
Before Skinner fell victim to the way college basketball was structured, Polk endured the same basic fate. Before Skinner came aboard, Polk reset the way Vanderbilt treated its men’s basketball coaches. Polk was the one who set in motion the larger pattern of coaches staying at VU rather than leaving after a short time. The 1990s were marked by fluctuations, but thanks to Robert Polk, the post-World War II era of VU men’s hoops has been defined by steady coaching careers that have been given a chance to grow. Given the successes of Kevin Stallings in the present day, Vanderbilt basketball fans owe a debt to Polk.
After two seasons of getting acclimated to the program, Polk’s career and his VU teams took off. 17-8 in 1950, 19-8 in 1951, 18-9 in 1952. Three straight years of considerable quality gave fans something they hadn’t been accustomed to. The 1951 SEC Tournament championship was VU’s only such title in the event until the 2012 team created championship number two. After two rebuilding years, Vanderbilt went 16-6 in 1955, setting the table for a 1956 season that – in modern times – would have led to a top-3 national seed if not a No. 2 seed, and a real shot at the Final Four.
The 1956 Commodores lost only four times. Three of their losses came to great teams. Iowa State went 18-5 that season. Kentucky and Alabama were brilliant. (More on them in a very short while.) Only a loss to Auburn in the finale dented VU’s resume, but the final 19-4 record was the best the program had known since Cody’s 20-4 team, 29 long years earlier in the late winter of 1927. Vanderbilt claimed seven of its 11 SEC wins by double-figure margins, sometimes playing games in the mid- to high-80s and other times playing in the high 60s. Vanderbilt could – like any great team – not only win, but thrive, while playing at different tempos.
Viewed through the lens of today, the idea that playing freshmen was an NCAA violation is laughable and ludicrous. However, in the world of 1956, any discovery that players took the court as freshmen made a program ineligible for the NCAA tournament. The Alabama Crimson Tide just happened to field their very best men’s basketball team – of all time, not just that era – with athletes who had played as freshmen. Therefore, when Alabama went 21-3 and 14-0 in the SEC, it could not compete in the NCAA tournament. The 1956 season would therefore create a remarkable reality in which two teams with combined overall records of 40-7 – 25-3 in the SEC – could not participate in March Madness.
The team which benefited from these circumstances? Why, of course, it was Kentucky. It could only be Kentucky. A fine team with a 12-2 SEC record nevertheless swooped in to get what Alabama could not by way of eligibility issues, and which Vanderbilt could not gain by way of a small NCAA field. Life isn’t fair? Just look at the 1956 SEC season.
Alabama beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt once each in 1956, so it’s not as though Vanderbilt had a case that it was better than or just as deserving as Kentucky to get the SEC’s berth to the NCAAs. Had Alabama beaten Vanderbilt twice and Kentucky once – or Vanderbilt once and Kentucky not at all – the Dores would have had a much stronger argument to make. As it was, the dominoes just didn’t fall in VU’s favor, something that’s been a core part of the program over many decades.
A word should be said about Polk’s career as a whole: It mirrored his 13 seasons in Nashville. Polk spent five seasons in Saint Louis with the Billikens and three with Rice in the mid-1970s, at the tailend of his career. The Rice job was a rescue job, an attempt to save that program in the midst of great difficulties. It was a disaster. Polk had to eat 63 losses in 80 games. Without those three years at Rice, Polk’s career coaching record would have been more than 100 games over .500 (269-166). As it was, his record was a still-respectable 286-229. Polk’s record at Vanderbilt was nearly 100 over .500 as well: 197-106. He gave Roy Skinner a good program, and Skinner took VU closer to the Final Four (1965) than anyone has before or since.
Robert Polk and the 1956 VU men’s basketball team are linked in history – in their greatness, in their proximity to a better team that didn’t play by the rules, and in their inability to prove themselves in the NCAA tournament, all because of a very small postseason framework magnified by the even smaller 12-team NIT. That VU couldn’t participate in either of America’s two signature postseason college basketball tournaments left the Commodores marveling at their wonderful 19-4 campaign… and wondering when life would cease being unfair.
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