Flashback: Bob Polk's Last Hurrah

Bob Polk was not the first choice to be the first real basketball coach at Vanderbilt. In 1947, Athletics Director Red Sanders hired Ed Diddle's top assistant at Western Kentucky, Ted Hornback, to turn the Commodores into a serious threat to the SEC's Goliath from Lexington.

Hornback's tenure as Commodore head coach lasted only a little longer than Tom Collen's tenure with the Commodore women's team. After being on the job a few months, citing multiple reasons, he left to return to Bowling Green and the Hilltoppers. He would later become the athletics director at WKU, but except for one season as an acting coach for ailing Diddle, he never became a head coach.

Bob Polk had been the second choice of Sanders the first time around. The top assistant at Georgia Tech, he was a master teacher of offensive patterned basketball.

Polk's arrival at Vanderbilt started the great Commodore round ball tradition. In the following dozen years, he won the lone SEC tournament championship (1951), developed nine different All-SEC performers including one All-American, built up the Commodore fan base from a few dozen season ticket holders to several thousand, was responsible for the construction of Memorial Gymnasium, and hired Roy Skinner as his assistant coach. By the mid-1950's Vanderbilt basketball was a consistent top 20 program. Only two things prevented Polk from leading Vanderbilt to the NCAA tournament--Kentucky and his health. In 1952 and from 1955 through 1957, The Commodores narrowly missed winning the conference championship and playing in the 16-team NCAA tourney. Just prior to the start of the 1958-59 season, Polk suffered a heart attack on a recruiting trip and missed the entire season. He returned the following year.

Coming into the 1960-61 season, defending champ Auburn, Mississippi State, Georgia Tech, and Kentucky were tabbed to compete for the SEC title. LSU, Vanderbilt, Florida, and Tennessee were considered the best of the rest. Vandy had finished a mediocre 7-7 in the league and 14-9 overall the year before. The Commodores returned center Bill Depp and leading scorer guard Bill Johnson, two all-SEC selections, but Johnson had recently suffered from pneumonia and was not expected to contribute much to the 1960-61 squad after having to drop out of school in the first semester. In his place, Polk inserted sophomore John Russell to complement junior play-maker Bobby Bland. Russell was another in a long line of sharp-shooting guards in the mold of Al Rochelle. His biggest asset though was his aggressive defensive play. He could badger an opponent to the point that the opposing player would give up trying to score or even get open to receive a pass. Bland was more in the Kevin Anglin mold; he could score points, but his leadership and passing ability made him indispensable. The two starting forwards were Larry Banks, a 6-06 strong man, and Ray Clark, a 6-01 quick man.

Polk had begun his career at Vanderbilt as a slow, patterned offense believer. Once guards like Al Rochelle and Jim Henry matriculated to campus, he started to switch his philosophy more to the fast break style. With a pair of excellent rebounders in Depp and Banks and a trio of speedsters in Clark, Russell, and Bland, the fast break would pay huge dividends during this season.

The 1960-61 team opened at home against Michigan. First year coach Dave Strack would eventually turn the Wolverines into one of the best teams in the nation and have them for several weeks at number one. His initial squad returned one great player from a 1-13 Big Ten slate. John Tidwell had averaged 22 points a game including a 41-point outburst in his final game in 1960.

The offense didn't click in the season opener, but an outstanding defensive effort produced a 58-43 win over the Wolverines. Vandy held Michigan under 33% shooting. Clark, with 22 points and 10 rebounds, and Depp with 19 points and 16 boards, were the offensive output. Tidwell scored 18 points for Michigan.

Florida State came to Nashville off an upset win over Kentucky in Lexington. Coach Bud Kennedy was a devotee of the Auburn Shuffle offense. In this offense, players cut off stationary screens into the scoring zone with the ball being passed to them as they rubbed off those screens. The offense, made famous by Auburn coach Joel Eaves and Oklahoma coach Bruce Drake was an early predecessor of the 5-man passing game (The motion offense actually is older with its roots going back to Coach Doc Carlson at Pittsburgh in the early 1930's, and Duck Dowell at Pepperdine in the 1940's and 1950's). In Dave Fedor, FSU had a player capable of scoring 30 points and pulling down 20 rebounds. This game was expected to be close, but the Commodores blew the Seminoles off the floor 75-55. Russell (22), Bland (16), Depp (15), and Banks (12) led the offensive, but it was spectacular defense, especially in the backcourt, which shut down the shuffle. The Seminoles went over one quarter of the game without hitting a shot! Fedor led FSU with 18 points and 14 rebounds.

SMU was victim number three. The Mustangs, the kings of the Southwest Conference, succumbed 76-64, as Depp starred with 22 points and 19 rebounds. The two guards added 37 more points (Russell 19 & Bland 18).

Vandy traveled to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama in a game that didn't count in the SEC standings. Banks controlled the boards at both ends, while Bland and Russell did the damage on offense. The guards combined for 41 points on 19 & 22 respectively, as Vandy cruised to an easy 77-61 win, holding the Tide to under 33% from the field.

On the cusp of a top 20 ranking, Vandy entertained Rice. The Owls had already bested LSU and Florida and were looking for SEC victim number three. Once again, a stellar defensive effort put this game away quickly. Rice could only connect on 29% of its shots, as Vandy bombed the Owls 70-44. Bland paced four Commodores in double figures with 18. Russell added 11, but it was the initial appearances of the rest of the outstanding sophomore class (Don Ringstaff, Ray Clark, Lance Gish, Ronald Griffiths, Sam Hosbach, and Bob Scott), considered one of the best ever at Vanderbilt at that time, that sparked the team. Forwards Scott and Ringstaff and center Griffiths saw considerable action with Scott tossing in 10 points.

The Commodores entered the top 20 at number 16 in the AP and number 20 in the UPI. A tough road game was next up. Texas Tech rarely lost on their home floor led by fiery coach Polk Robison, a former inhabitant of Springfield, TN. Fiery guard Del Ray Mounts was an earlier version of Vandy's Phil Cox. He sparked the Red Raiders.

This game produced quite a few fireworks and two great exhibitions. The first exhibition was a close game that saw the lead change hands over a dozen times in the second half in addition to several ties. The second exhibition was the disrobing of Lance Gish. Polk inserted Gish in the game to relieve a flu-stricken Bland. When Gish's warm-ups came off, so did his trunks. He showed off his backside to 5,000 screaming fans. Oh yeah, Vandy escaped with an 80-78 win. Depp led the way with 26 points, while Ringstaff and Scott came off the bench (fully clothed) to contribute 14 and 10 points. The diminutive Mounts torched Vandy for 31.

The road trip continued with a jog west to Albuquerque to face New Mexico. The Lobos did something different against the Vandy fast attack. They employed a zone defense, and the Commodores couldn't find their outside shooting touch. But, the black and gold defense was strong, and the Commodores won 66-59 even though they shot under 33%. Banks, Depp, and Clark pulled down 30 rebounds to limit many second chance opportunities for the equally cold Lobos. The game was won at the foul line, where Vandy hit 22-29 to New Mexico's 15-23.

The 7-0 start was the best in Vandy history. The record improved the ranking to number 16 in both polls. Two weaker teams stood in the way of a perfect pre-conference. Chattanooga and Sewanee each came to Memorial Gym, and each were out manned. The Moccasins put up a good fight for 20 minutes, before Vandy pulled away to win 92-78. This game saw the emergence of backup center Ron Griffiths. He came off the bench to score 15 points and retrieve 24 rebounds! Meanwhile, starting center Depp scored 24 points and added 20 rebounds. Polk played the big men together for about 10 minutes, and the Goldmen dominated on the glass pulling down 72 rebounds to UC's 36.

Ranked 14th, Vandy faced Sewanee and its jovial coach Lon Varnell. Varnell, who coached future Kentucky headman Joe B. Hall, would later become one of the top music and sports promoters ever. Varnell held the exclusive rights to the Harlem Globetrotters and The Lawrence Welk Show and promoted tours for Barbara Mandrell and George Strait among others. Varnell's Purple-clad cagers were little match for the bigger Commodores, as Vandy won 80-57. Ringstaff came off the bench to pace the team with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

In starting 9-0, Vandy outscored their opponents 75 to 60, out-rebounded them 56 to 42, and took 11 more shots a game (72 to 61), limiting the opposition to 36% shooting.

The first conference game was on the road against Tennessee. The Vols, under Coach John Sines, ran a fast-paced offense, but the Orangemen did not play much defense. Vandy held the lead throughout the most of the first half, leading by three at the break. The second half opened with five consecutive Commodore baskets, as the lead ballooned to 13. Still leading by 13 at 53-40 with 12 minutes to go, Bland went down with a shoulder injury and missed the rest of the game. Tennessee began to chip away and cut the lead to two in the final minute. The Vols had a chance to tie when a long shot just missed in the final seconds. Vandy held on for a 68-66 victory. Depp led with 20 points, while Russell added 17.

In addition to Bland's injury, Griffiths was also sidelined for the next game with a collarbone injury. It wasn't just any game, for the 10-0 12th-ranked Commodores next faced Kentucky at Memorial Gym. Kentucky at 7-3 was favored to win the game.

An overflow crowd of 7,300+ fans (no balconies yet) got their money's worth. The two teams fought tooth and nail for forty minutes, with both squads playing complete games. Kentucky jumped out to an early seven-point lead, before the Commodores mounted a charge and took the lead late in the half. The second half opened with Kentucky coming back from a six-point halftime deficit to regain the lead at 49-48. Ringstaff hit a basket to put Vandy ahead 50-49, and the Commodores led the rest of the way, winning 64-62. The Commodores played another brilliant game defensively. Russell held Kentucky's star guard Roger Newman to a single field goal, while the rest of the Blue and White did little better. The Wildcats were held under 30% from the field and were forced into 21 turnovers. Depp led the way with 17 points and 15 rebounds.

At 11-0, Vandy took a rough road trip to the Magnolia state. Mississippi State ended the winning streak, as the Bulldogs proved to be the class of the league. Coach Babe McCarthy's squad was a year away from possibly being the best team in the nation, but in 1961, they were still clearly the best in the league.

Mississippi State pulled ahead by double digits in the first half and once up by 14 points in the second half, the Maroons went into a stall. Polk responded by ordering a press defense, and MSU began turning the ball over. Vandy crept back into the game and pulled to within one point late, before McCarthy took off the freeze. MSU quickly drew multiple fouls on Vandy and hit their foul shots. The final margin was 74-65. Ringstaff, starting in place of Clark, paced the team with 22 points, while Depp added 20.

Moving upstate to Oxford, Vandy took on an Ole Miss team that was much improved over Rebel squads of the 1950's. Ole Miss pulled out a squeaker 74-72. Once again, it was Ringstaff and Depp who scored the points with Depp hitting for 23 and Ringstaff for 19, before suffering a foot injury. With Bland, Griffiths, and Ringstaff now injured, and the record at 2-2 in the league, the future did not look bright.

Griffiths returned for the next game against Georgia Tech, and Ringstaff was able to play as well, but Bland was still out. The Commodores left Atlanta still alive in the race after beating the Techsters 69-56. A 13-1 run in the middle of the second half put the game away. Banks came off the bench to lead the team with 22.

Bland returned for the next game against Auburn. The defending SEC champs ran their famous shuffle offense, and Vanderbilt's players were confident they could stop it after having destroyed Florida State's shuffle. Vandy controlled the boards against the Tigers, as the shuffle offense (much like today's so-called Princeton offense) didn't dedicate players for offensive rebounding. Winning the battle of the boards 47-32, Vandy pulled out a 58-53 win. Ringstaff led the scoring attack with 18 points, while Banks pulled down 20 boards, many of them on the offensive end. Russell held Auburn's star guard Porter Gilbert to 12 points.

Alabama followed Auburn into Nashville. This time, Vandy laid an egg against the Tide and barely escaped with a 73-70 win after clobbering the Crimson in December. "The Big Dipper" Depp led the way with 23 points and 17 rebounds. The one bright spot was the return of Bill Johnson, who saw action for the first time. He scored four points in limited action. If the former all-SEC guard could regain his former form, Vandy would have the best trio of guards in the league.

[Break the story up into two parts here] Mississippi State was 7-0 and running away with the title, but Bulldog officials had already made it known they would decline an NCAA tournament bid rather than play in an integrated tournament. The second place team would garner the automatic NCAA bid, and Vandy was tied for second with surprising Florida at 5-2 halfway through the season. LSU was 4-3, while Kentucky and Tennessee were both disappointing at 3-4 and tied with Tulane, Georgia Tech, and Georgia. The Wildcats had started league play just 1-3, but had begun to play very good ball as of late. The second half of the season began with a road trip to the bayou to take on the Green Wave of Tulane and LSU (two places where Kentucky had lost). Tulane had the best rebounder in the league in Jack Arden, while Depp was number two. Arden won the individual battle in this game, but Vandy won the war by a score of 63-60. The Sophomore Ringstaff did the damage with 21 points. Meanwhile, Florida lost at Auburn to give the black and gold sole possession of second place.

That spot disappeared two nights later in Baton Rouge as LSU moved into a three-way tie for second with the defeated Commodores and Florida. The Tigers, undefeated at home, held on for a narrow 65-61 win. Meanwhile, Adolph Rupp's Wildcats had knocked off Mississippi State in Starkville to improve to 6-4, just one half game behind the three co-number twos. The final month of the season was going to be like a tight pennant race in the major leagues.

Tennessee came to Nashville seeking revenge for the earlier loss at the Armory Field House in Knoxville. Vandy had no trouble dismissing the fast-fading Vols 76-60, as Depp dominated with 31 points and 18 rebounds. The Commodores hit 30 foul shots in 40 attempts, while the Vols connected on just 14 of 22.

The biggest game of the year was next, as the 7-3/16-3 Goldmen ventured north to the Bluegrass state. Kentucky was just one game in back of Vandy and Florida, tied with LSU for fourth and just one game ahead of fast-charging Auburn. A Vandy win would virtually eliminate the Wildcats, as the Commodores would have to lose all three remaining games for Kentucky to pass them in the standings. The night got off to a good start, as Vandy jumped to the lead and held it throughout the first stanza, leading 32-26 at the break. Kentucky then hit a hot streak and went into the lead. The Cats held that lead and seemed to have the game wrapped up leading by 11 points late at 58-47. Vandy mounted a furious comeback, and reeled off 12 quick points to take a one-point lead in the final minute at 59-58. Kentucky began playing for one shot, when Griffiths stole the ball. With nothing but hardwood between him and the basket, the 6-07 forward/center was free to go the distance and ice the game. Something went wrong, as on the last dribble before shooting, he almost lost the ball. The shot was delivered off balance and missed. Griffiths had enough time to get his own rebound and decided to shoot another crip shot. It missed too, and Kentucky grabbed the rebound. Working for a final shot, UK center Ned Jennings fired a jumper from what was thought to be a few feet out of his range. It swished through, and Kentucky won 60-59. Meanwhile Florida won to move one full game ahead of Vandy and Kentucky. The Commodores returned home to the friendly confines of Memorial and faced a do or die situation, for the Gators came to town looking to sew up their first NCAA bid. Vandy played its best game of the season thoroughly demolishing Florida 77-60. In the winning effort, Banks had pulled down a Commodore record 26 rebounds. That left the race for second place tied between Vandy, Florida, And Kentucky all at 8-4, while red-hot Auburn was 7-5. LSU had slumped to 6-6 and was out of the race.

Georgia followed Florida into Memorial, and the Commodores disposed of them 87-76. Depp scored 23 points and grabbed 20 rebounds, while Banks added 20 points and 16 rebounds. Kentucky disposed of Florida to make it a two-team race. If Vandy and Kentucky both won their finales, a playoff would decide the NCAA representative. SEC commissioner Bernie Moore offered three sites for a playoff: Atlanta, Louisville, and Knoxville. Vanderbilt vetoed Louisville, while Rupp wanted no part of Alexander Coliseum, as his Cats had never played their best on that floor. By default, Knoxville became the proposed playoff spot if both teams finished 10-4. In the event both teams lost, while Florida and Auburn both won to make it a four-way tie at 9-5, no contingency plan had been issued.

Vandy ran Georgia Tech off the floor, winning 79-59. The two big guys, Depp and Banks, each hauled down 19 rebounds. Meanwhile, Kentucky had a tough go of it, but edged Tennessee in Knoxville. The playoff would occur.

A sold out Armory Field House saw the streaking Wildcats take on Vandy in a game officially called an NCAA playoff game, thus making it Vandy's first ever post-season game (The SEC tournament was not considered postseason since all SEC teams participated). The Wildcats had been here before, and their experience in these pressure-packed games proved fatal to Vandy's chances. The game was never close, as Kentucky destroyed the Commodores 88-67. Ringstaff tossed in 21 points off the bench, but by the time he got the hot hand, UK was up double digits. The Commodores hit only 30% of their shots and turned the ball over 20 times, many on unforced errors.

The season ended at 19-5. The two close losses on the road to Ole Miss and Kentucky were what kept them from advancing to the NCAA tourney in Louisville. Kentucky beat Morehead State before falling to top-ranked Ohio State in the Mid-east Regional finals.

The senior Depp was a consensus 1st Team All-SEC pick. He would enjoy a successful career as a sales rep and manager with a company in Brentwood. Our family construction company relied on his services to construct rubber roofs on projects involving flat roofs. One day my father happened to bring up Depp's basketball feats at Memorial, and Depp was elated that someone remembered his excellent contribution to Vanderbilt Basketball history.

Coach Polk welcomed back a strong group of returning players for 1961-62. However, the one weak spot was not on the floor, but in his chest. Doctors informed him in the spring of 1961 that his lack of good health would force him to give up coaching.

Roy Skinner took over for Polk and brought the Commodores into the national limelight. Polk stayed on at Vanderbilt, working for the hospital for a couple of years, until he was given a clean bill of health. He was cleared to coach again and made his return as the head coach of tiny Trinity College. From there, he moved on to St. Louis University (he won the Billiken's last conference championship in 1971), then Rice. He finished his career at Alabama-Birmingham in an administrative role. With good health, I believe he would have stayed at Vandy for 30 years.

Note: Some stats and information for this story came from the Nashville Banner, The Nashville Tennessean, and The Louisville Courier Journal. Next: Sweet victories over the Vols and Cats


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