Flashback: Vandy's splendid septet of 1973-74

Jan van Breda Kolff. Terry Compton. Lee Fowler. Bill Ligon. Jeff Fosnes. Butch Feher. Joe Ford. These seven Commodores played about 95% of the minutes during the 1973-74 season, one which brought Vanderbilt an SEC Championship. VandyMania historian Howell Peiser takes a look back at the seven individuals who made up one of the greatest teams in Vandy history.

Vandy's splendid septet of 1973-74 could do everything, and when you add a fairly decent second group of players (Bob Chess, Mike Moore, Warren McSwain, John Norton, and Haworth Parks, Jr., Neil DeCourcy, and Spence Young), Vandy was loaded with talent.

Jan Van Breda Kolff

Vanderbilt lost Steve Turner, Ray Maddux, and Rod Freeman from the 1972-73 season. There were no experienced centers left on the roster. The Commodores were loaded at every other position, but with no legitimate big man in the lineup, the pundits picked the black and gold to compete with Tennessee and LSU for third place in the SEC race, behind co-favorites Kentucky and Alabama.

As preseason practices passed daily, Roy Skinner and his assistants Ron Bargatze and Wayne Dobbs realized their pivot problems didn't really exist. After noticing that whenever Jan van Breda Kolff, a 6-8 point guard from Palos Verdes, Calif., competed under the baskets for rebounds, he almost always won the battle underneath. On defense in the post, VBK frequently blocked shots. Voila, overnight, the starting point guard of the previous two seasons became the starting center. VBK's quickness became a matchup problem for several of the league's taller, less agile post men. Giants like Len Kosmalski of Tennessee, Fred Cox of Ole Miss, Bob Guyette of Kentucky, and Danny Knight of Kansas couldn't guard the quicker VBK.

Van Breda Kolff deserved his SEC Player of the Year honors in 1974. He was the total package, an early version of Magic Johnson. VBK could play any of the five positions, sometimes in the same game. He could post up a bigger player and score with a quick move. He could come outside and swish a 20-foot jumper. He was the best Commodore rebounder since Perry Wallace, and only Will Perdue since has surpassed him. He could steal a pass and block a shot from a seven-footer. But, most of all, he was the quarterback of the team--a coach on the floor. Jan the Man was the emir of assists.

Early in the season at Texas Tech, the Southwest Conference's preseason pick to take the crown, VBK played all five positions. He tallied 13 points and 16 rebounds to keep the Goldmen in the game until Terry Compton and Lee Fowler got hot and took over the game. The Dores pulled off an 84-82 upset.

The Vandy team leader was also cool under pressure. During final exams for the first semester, Vandy found itself about to be upset by tiny Samford College (future assistant coach Al Walter starred for the Bulldogs). VBK tipped in a missed shot to win the game.

VBK came up big when the games were big. At home against eventual co-champ Alabama, he out-rebounded Tide star center Leon Douglas. His 11th and final board that night was the crucial one; with Vandy leading by one point, a late jumper by Bama's Charles Cleveland barely missed, and Jan out-jumped Douglas and tapped the ball down the floor toward Commodore Coach Roy Skinner. By the time it rolled into the coach's arm, no time remained on the clock. On the return game in Tuscaloosa, it was a pivotal late block of a jumper by Douglas that sealed Bama's fate. Vandy survived 67-65.

On consecutive Monday nights, VBK led the black and gold to huge wins in Knoxville and Lexington. Against Tennessee, he moved out to one wing while Jeff Fosnes went to the opposite wing. Tennessee used the 1-3-1 zone defense, and VBK found the seam in the zone. He proceeded to sink 20-footers from the side for the balance of the second half en route to an 18-point outing (at least six baskets would have been treys today), as Tennessee had to score a late bucket to avoid Mears' worst home loss ever, losing 82-65.

A week later, VBK recorded a triple-double at Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum. After playing a sluggish first half, Jan exploded in the final 20 minutes. He schooled Wildcat center Bob Guyette in the low post. Using drop steps, quick turnaround jumpers, and quick cuts from the opposite block, he beat the slower Guyette repeatedly. When Kentucky missed at the other end, he was there to grab the rebound. Several times, a Wildcat saw his shot smacked back at him. When the game ended, UK scored a late basket to avoid its worst home loss ever, as Vandy won again by the score of 82-65 (the worst home loss for Kentucky up to that time had been to Vandy in 1965, 97-79). VBK recorded 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 blocked shots!

In a fracas in Baton Rouge, Jan suffered a collapsed lung more than likely from that game. Two weeks later, it was unsure whether he could play a home game against a tough Ole Miss team. The decision allowing him to play came just before the team dressed for the game. Skinner planned on using him in spurts as his stamina would allow. He played only one spurt; it was 40 minutes long. He tossed in 10 points and 11 rebounds, as Vandy won by 15.

After the triumphant win at Tuscaloosa, Vandy found itself about to be upset in Starkville by Mississippi State. VBK, en route to a 16-point, 12-rebound performance fired the game-winning jumper to lead Vandy to a 60-59 win.

Van Breda Kolff had one more triple-double performance left, and he waited for Vandy's first TV appearance to do it. On a day when Vandy played without intensity against weak-sister Georgia, VBK tallied 12 points, 16 rebounds, and 12 assists as the Commodores struggled to beat the lowly Bulldogs 83-78.

With the conference title on the line, VBK stepped forward and directed his team to the decisive title-clincher. Trailing at home to Kentucky, and knowing Alabama had already lost to fast-closing Florida, he took command of the game by directing the Commodores in a variation of the Auburn Shuffle offense. Jeff Fosnes and Butch Feher received some precise passes for baskets which propelled the Commodores back into the lead; they won 71-69.

I can think of no modern day players who remind me exactly of Jan van Breda Kolff. Maybe the closest current player is Ryan Gomes at Providence. Gomes has more offensive moves, but he isn't the equal of VBK in court knowledge and passing ability.

Terry Compton

Terry Compton was a 6-4 guard/forward from Horse Cave, Ky. Like Tom Hagan before him, he was one who got away from Adolph Rupp. As a freshman, he teamed with Bill Ligon to form a deadly duo, as both players averaged just under 20 points a game bombing long-range jumpers. Compton was a master at hitting from the top of the key, often coming off a downscreen and firing almost as quickly as he caught the pass; if the three-pointer had been in effect in those days, his 17-point career average would have been about 22 points per game.

Shooting was not Compton's only asset. He was a marvelous defender and ball hawk. He had the ability to study his opponent and discover the weakness in his ball-handling ability. Then, once his radar had picked up on that weakness, BAM! There came a steal and usually a lay-up followed. No two steals were more important than the pilfers of Charles Russell in Nashville and of T.R. Dunn in Tuscaloosa in the two big wins against Alabama. In the first match, he stole the ball from Russell after Russell had rebounded a missed foul shot by Butch Feher in the final seconds. The steal led to a pass to Feher for the winning lay-up. At Bama, Compton watched Dunn repeatedly dribble to the same spot, stop, and bring the ball over his head for a pass. With Vandy needing a crucial stop, he timed Dunn's routine movement and took the ball away just as the 6-4 all-SEC guard brought the ball up to his head. Dunn fouled him, and Compton sank both foul shots to give Vandy a chance to pull off the upset and put Vandy in the driver's seat for the championship.

Speaking of foul shooting, Compton shot free throws quite well, hitting 87.3% in 1974. His foul shooting remained consistent even though he suffered a mid-season scoring slump and saw his playing time dropped, as he was forced to come off the bench in some of those games.

When his shot was falling, Compton could score points quickly. He frequently scored 15 to 20 points in one half and then very few or none in the other half. He wasn't afraid to mix it up under the basket with bigger opponents. Against Ole Miss, and their muscular frontcourt of seven foot Fred Cox, George Foreman body double Coolidge Ball, and lanky Walter Actwood, Compton recorded a double double with 18 points and 10 boards.

I would compare Compton's style of play with Matt Freije. Freije was taller and more physical, but Compton played a similar game with the added ability to steal the ball.

Bill Ligon

Bill Ligon came to Vanderbilt from nearby Gallatin High School, where he led the Green Wave to a state title. The 6-3 swing man was one of the best long range shooters to play at Memorial Gym. As a freshman, he routinely sank 20 to 25-foot jumpers against surprised defenders. His sophomore season in 1972 saw him hit a hot streak that lasted over a month, as he averaged 17 points a game for the year. He suffered a long slump in 1973 and lost his starting job for the second half of the year.

In 1974, he was a spot starter. He regained his touch, but by his senior year, Vandy was so loaded with talent at the wing position, that he played fewer minutes than his sophomore campaign. Like Compton, Ligon was a streak shooter. He frequently scored points in bunches in one half. In the season opener at Rice, he popped in 17 of his 22 points in the first 13 minutes of the second half to pace the Commodores in an 89-80 victory. In the tight, scary rematch* against LSU, his second half scoring burst kept the Commodores in the game when the rest of the team went cold.

After graduating, Ligon played one season of pro ball with the Detroit Pistons, before returning to Vanderbilt as a student assistant while he attended law school.

The current Vandy player who reminds me most of Ligon is Mario Moore. Moore can dominate a game in a short period of time. Ligon was never the point guard, but he was the same type of sparkplug. If a long shot swished through the hoop, the next four or five would also.

*--Concerning the LSU game in Nashville. After the basketbrawl in Baton Rouge, this game was played with extra security. At the half, a crank caller phoned the VU operator and told him that he was near the gym, had a pistol, and would assassinate LSU coach Dale Brown and center Collis Temple in the second half if Brown put Temple in the game. The VU Police took this call seriously and informed Brown and Skinner during halftime, forcing the half to be extended for a few extra minutes. Prior to the start of the second half, players on both teams were informed by their coaches that if anything out of the ordinary were to occur, armed police would storm the court and escort both teams to their lockers immediately.

Lee Fowler

As a star at Columbia High School, Fowler came to Vandy after scoring well over 30 points a game. He was a 6-7 guard-forward who could play outside or under the basket. He was deceptively strong and quick, and he could really jump off the ground (somebody inform Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes). He was the last player to wear #43 at Vandy, as Clyde Lee gave his permission for him to wear the retired number.

While other players often hit the game-winning baskets, Fowler usually played a behind the scenes part in the buzzer beater. Twice as a sophomore, he faked a shot and fed a player closer to the basket for the game-winner. In 1974, he contributed to the cause in the second game. Leading the team in scoring against Texas Tech with 21 points, it was his control of a last minute jump ball that sealed the win.

Playing a big game at Mid-South Coliseum against Memphis State, he led the Commodores with 17 points and made several key defensive plays late in the game, as Vandy upset the 9th-ranked Tigers. Fowler led the effort with 19 points in an 83-72 win over Final Four participant Kansas.

Fowler's ability to ignore pressure and hit big shots proved fatal to C.M. Newton's title hopes in 1974. The key game of the year saw him hit two key foul shots to ice the game in Tuscaloosa, after he had missed a big one and one moments earlier. He had gotten to the foul line by forcing a Tide player to charge into him while a Crimson shot was in the air.

In the big game in Nashville against LSU, Fowler joined Ligon by sinking most of his 15 points in the second half surge.

After graduating, Fowler went into coaching. He became an assistant at Memphis St. and appeared headed for a head coaching position, but he decided to leave coaching for the administrative end. He now serves as the Athletic Director at North Carolina State.

The 21st century Vandy player who reminds me most of Lee Fowler is Scott Hundley. Fowler scored a little more than Hundley, but the two players were made from the same cloth. They were winners.

Jeff Fosnes

One word can best describe his game: Smooth. The 6-6 forward from the west Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colo., came east to tantalize SEC coaches. The Fos was a complete player. He could score inside against the bangers; he could shoot outside as well as any of the hot-shooting guards in Vandy history. He could out-rebound any player his size; and he could run the break like a track star. He would have been a first-round NBA draft pick, but he made it known he was headed to medical school and would not play in the NBA.

Fosnes became a starter at the end of his freshman season in 1973. In 1974, he was relegated back to the bench for the first month. Once he cracked the starting lineup in his sophomore season, he never left it.

Fosnes's first big game as a sophomore came against Tennessee State in the finals of the Vanderbilt Invitational. This was an historic game, as it was the first time the two schools had played. TSU was as good as any SEC team, and their star center Leonard "Truck" Robinson dominated the game. Fosnes came off the bench for 10 points and 10 rebounds to help lead Vandy's comeback in a 67-66 win.

In his first start of 1974, he single-handedly put Mississippi State out of their misery with 20 points and 16 rebounds in a 75-69 win. He recorded another double double a week later in a 91-71 blowout at Georgia, finishing with 15 points and 13 boards. In the next game, he came out firing against Auburn and hit eight of ten shots as Vandy ran away from the Tigers, winning 96-51. Poor Auburn saw him torch them on their home floor, as he hit 11 of 14 (19 of 24 in two games against the War Eagles) and added a foul shot for 23 points.

In Knoxville, Fos teamed with VBK in the wing-shooting barrage and led the team with 20 points, while hauling down 13 rebounds.

Down the stretch, Fosnes became the number one scoring option. He torched Ole Miss for 26 on 11 of 15 shooting and led the attack in the clinching win over Kentucky with 24 points and 10 rebounds.

As a junior in 1975, Fosnes nearly broke Tom Hagan's scoring average record. He averaged over 22 points a game, while shooting better than 55%, with at least half of those points coming from the perimeter.

The current Vandy player who potentially reminds me most of Fosnes is Shan Foster. Let's hope Foster lives up to that comparison. Call him Fos II.

Butch Feher

A 6-3 forward/guard from Alpena, Mich., Butch Feher exemplified the perfect stereotype of a tough, hard-working upper Midwesterner. That work ethic made him a great garbage man. He picked up all the trash and put it back in its place (the basket). In his first two seasons, his offensive skills were raw, but defensively, he was a pepperpot who could shut down an offensive hot dog. The tougher the opponent was, the harder he played. His offensive prowess became the equal of his defensive ability his last two seasons, and he became one of a select Vandy few to average more than 20 points per game in a season.

In 1974, Feher first starred in a blowout win over Nebraska in the opening round of the Vanderbilt Invitational. He came off the bench to yank away 11 rebounds in about 20 minutes of action. He scored 13 points in the win at Memphis State and in the narrow escape over Samford in the following game, Feher repeated the Nebraska effort with 11 rebounds and added 10 points.

The hustling performance earned him a spot in the starting lineup. Against Alabama in Nashville, Feher hit the game-winning lay-up, after his brilliant defensive play down the stretch stifled Alabama. In the following game against Mississippi State, he joined fellow F-troopers Fosnes and Joe Ford in double figures with 19. A few weeks later against Ole Miss in Nashville, Feher recorded another double double with 11 points and 14 rebounds.

As a sophomore, Feher sometimes was cold from the field, but at the foul line, he was a hot 82% free throw shooter. He hit a pair of free throws at the end of the game to help ice LSU in the revenge match in Nashville.

Feher played a large role in the title clincher against Kentucky. He struck for 18 points and helped curtail Kevin Grevey in the final minutes.

After graduating in 1976, Feher spent a year in the NBA with the Phoenix Suns. Toward the end of the year, he got a chance to play with more regularity and topped 20 points in one of his final games.

I think Vanderbilt potentially has another Butch Feher on its current roster in Demarre Carroll. Carroll has the knack for getting to the offensive and defensive glass from the opposite side of the shooter much like Feher. He runs the floor in the same cat-like way and has the potential to be a good defender.

Joe Ford

Baseball legend Casey Stengel used to boast about some of his Yankees players whose statistics didn't measure up to Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Vic Raschi, Whitey Ford, or Allie Reynolds. Players like Gene Woodling, Billy Martin, Jerry Coleman, and Tommy Byrne didn't produce the stats of Joltin' Joe or the Mick, but they always won ball games by doing all the little things that didn't show up in the box score. Breaking up a potential double play; taking an extra base on a bloop single; advancing a runner by hitting to the right, these players were responsible for five to eight extra wins every year, the margin New York usually edged Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago 10 years out of 12.

Vanderbilt had a New York Yankee-like player in Joe Ford, a 6-2 guard from Mayfield, Ky. Ford was the glue that kept the 1974 championship team together. It was his ability to run the offense as a sophomore that allowed Skinner to move VBK to center.

Ford was the first of the F-troop to crack the starting lineup. He played like an upperclassman the moment he suited up in black and gold. Never flashy, he was fundamentally sound in every aspect of the game. He was a terrific passer and dribbler. He wasn't fast, but he was quick and knew where to be on the floor at any given time. Defensively, he was no John Havlicek, but he was more than adequate and could force a shooter to release the ball just off balance.

Besides running the offense, Ford was an excellent outside shooter, who could sneak by a defender for a quick lay-up; the backdoor was his specialty. Like several other players on this team, he was a foul shooting wizard. Against Tennessee State in the VIT finals, he sank two free throws at the end of the contest to preserve the win. In the next game at Memphis State, he hit five consecutive foul shots at the end to seal the Tigers' fate. His two free throws in the final seconds iced the LSU win in Nashville.

Ford hit for 17 points against Georgia in Athens and 16 points in the squeaker over Samford. For the season, he averaged just over 10 points a game.

I guess you can see by now where I'm going with this article in making my comparisons. I'm hoping that Alex Gordon will fit the Ford mode and combine with Foster and Carroll to become the next famous black and gold trio.

1974's Big Strength

The 1974 team had one major strength, not just the best in the conference, or even just the best in the nation. This squad set the all-time NCAA major college record for free throw percentage at 80.2%. The Commodores connected on 100 more foul shots than the opposition attempted. Down the stretch in the final seven games when the race for the championship was on the line, Vandy hit 86% at the line. Against Ole Miss in Oxford, the Commodores hit 20 of 23 foul shots, while Ole Miss never got to the charity stripe!

Share your memories of Vanderbilt's 1973-74 SEC Championship season on our VandyMania men's basketball message board!

Next Week: Big Wins over Kentucky

Note: Statistics for this story came from the Nashville Banner and The Nashville Tennessean. Player photos came from Vanderbilt Media Relations.


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