Vanderbilt visits Auburn again Wednesday for a 7 pm CT SEC game."> Vanderbilt visits Auburn again Wednesday for a 7 pm CT SEC game.">

Flashback: Auburn's old gym was death to visitors

For 28 seasons between 1942 and 1969, Auburn's men's basketball team played its home games at the Auburn Sports Arena, a 2,500-seat shoebox that was death to visiting teams. VandyMania hoops historian Howell Peiser looks back at several memorable Vanderbilt away games played over the years in the "Loveliest Village on the Plains." <I>Vanderbilt visits Auburn again Wednesday for a 7 pm CT SEC game.

If you plan on making the road trip Wednesday for Vanderbilt's basketball game against Auburn, take time to visit the parking lot between left field of the Auburn baseball stadium and Jordan-Hare Stadium (the home of Auburn football). Divide that parking lot into four quadrants. Now, imagine placing a tiny basketball gym in just the northwest quadrant, close to Roosevelt Road.

That, my friends, was where Auburn played basketball for 28 seasons between 1942 and 1969. Known as Auburn Sports Arena (right), this 2,500 seat shoebox was death to visiting teams. The white barn-like building resembled the gymnasium at Nashville's Hillsboro High School before Metro remodeled it. Adolph Rupp (left) refused to play road games against the Tigers in this Arena for many years, forcing Auburn to move their game to either Montgomery or Mobile. Rupp finally was forced to play at the Arena in the 1960's, and his Wildcats lost four out of six games there. 

Imagine Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and take out the knee wall that goes all around the playing floor. Now, shorten the sideline distance to the first row of seats enough to visualize the fans on the first row being able to place their feet inbounds. That's a real home court advantage, for several opposing players (and the occasional referee if he made some bad calls) found themselves getting tripped during games. 

Legendary Auburn coach Joel Eaves (right) and protege Bill Lynn needed little extra help to defeat opponents, so the home court advantage made it nearly impossible to win at the Loveliest Village on the Plains. Between 1953 and 1965, Vanderbilt tasted defeat every time it played at the Sports Arena. When the Commodores finally broke the streak, it was more than special. Let's take a look at that streak-ending win, plus a few others both at the old arena and at Beard-Eaves Coliseum. 

March 1, 1965

A Day That Lives In Infamy 

Vanderbilt ventured south to Auburn on the first day of March 1965 looking to do something no other Commodore team had ever done. Auburn stood at 10-4 in third place in the SEC, one half game behind Tennessee at 10-3. Vandy's SEC record was 12-1. A win over the Tigers and a loss by slumping Tennessee at 9-5 Florida meant the Commodores would clinch their first Southeastern Conference Championship and NCAA tournament berth. 

A month earlier, Clyde Lee (left) had destroyed the Tigers in Nashville 105-77, but the Tigers' star player, Joe Newton, missed that game due to the death of his father. Vanderbilt had come to Auburn in 1964 at 14-1 and ranked in the top five in both polls. The Tigers blew Vandy off the floor by 18 points and sent the young Commodores into a tailspin dive that didn't end until Vandy had dropped four more conference games. Auburn could stay alive in the race with a win, and the Commodore players knew the daunting task that lay ahead of them. 

Starting for the Commodores were the same five who had started every game since Roger Schurig was forced off the team due to grades at the end of the first semester. Clyde Lee, Snake Grace, Wayne Taylor, Keith Thomas, and John Ed Miller had become a cohesive unit with Wayne Calvert serving as the best sixth man in the conference.  

Since the insertion of Thomas into the lineup, the Commodores high-speed offense had averaged 86 points per game. Auburn head coach Bill Lynn knew he would have to control the tempo and hope Newton would make the difference in the rematch. 

Auburn grabbed an early lead, but Grace hit a close in shot off the glass to give Vandy its first lead at 9-8 five minutes into the game. The Commodores gradually increased the lead to double digits mainly due to Auburn's overaggressive man-to-man defense. As is often the case when a slower-paced team tries to play at a quicker pace, the Tigers were whistled for a high amount of fouls. Vanderbilt, not enjoying one of its better free throw shooting seasons, nonetheless took advantage of the numerous trips to the foul line. The lead was 13 points when with six minutes to go in the half, Miller went to the bench with a painful back injury. He tried to return to the game in the closing minutes of the half, but the pain was too much to handle. As Vandy went to the locker up 45-34, they knew they would have to play the entire second half without their senior point guard. 

Luckily for the Commodores, Roy Skinner (right) had the services of the super sub Calvert. The junior from Kentucky (nicknamed "Pops," as he and his wife had a 3-year old son) played the entire second half. Skinner ordered the squad into a spread formation with the intent of stalling away a good bit of the second half. Vandy did not attempt to score, trying to hold the ball and salt away the clock. Auburn forced some turnovers and began to creep back into the game. The raucous crowd got into the game, as the lead shrunk back into single digits.  

While Auburn continued to foul, Vandy's free throw shooting problem reared its ugly head. The Tigers then ran their shuffle offense to perfection, scoring close-in baskets. The lead was down to just three points at 60-57, and more than six minutes remained. The crowd was in a frenzy.

Vandy took another 45 seconds off the clock with Auburn playing tight defense. Then, the ball was knocked loose, apparently going out of bounds to the home team. Umpire Charley Bloodworth gave the ball to the Commodores, but the home fans thought otherwise and began to shower the floor with paper cups and paper torn from the game programs. Referee Don Souder, a no-nonsense official, quickly blew his whistle and formed his hands in the familiar "T" alignment; he charged the Auburn crowd with a technical foul.  

It took a minute and the threat of a forfeit to calm the Tiger fans down. When play resumed, Thomas went to the foul line and hit his free throw to make it a 4-point game. On the ensuing possession, Auburn was called for yet another foul. Grace hit two foul shots to give the Goldmen breathing room at 63-57. Auburn began to hurry their offense and took poor shots. Lee, Grace and Taylor retrieved the rebounds, and Auburn fouled. After Thomas and Grace hit the previous three in a row, Vandy's hot foul shooting continued. Lee hit a pair; Grace hit two, and Thomas hit five in a row. The lead stood at 74-60 with just a little over one minute to go. 

While Vandy was hitting all the late foul shots to sew up a victory, about 300 miles to the Southeast, Florida Gator all-American Brooks Henderson was driving for a buzzer-beating lay-up to beat the Volunteers by two. Vandy didn't know it, but one minute was the only thing separating the Commodores from their first conference championship. A few more trips to the foul line and one exclamation point basket by Grace, and Vandy won the game 79-64. Grace led in scoring with 23 points, while Thomas added 20 and Lee 19. The Commodores outscored Auburn at the charity stripe 31 to 8. 

When the team entered the locker room after victory, they received word about the outcome in Gainesville. It was an ecstatic group of Commodores who returned to Berry Field in Nashville late that evening. They arrived to a cheering welcoming committee of over 1,000 fans. Hundreds of students paraded down West End Avenue to Woodmont Boulevard and out to the airport. Police had to detour traffic. It was the penultimate time to be a Commodore basketball supporter. 


Two In A Row At The Sports Arena 

The 1965-66 season was supposed to see Vanderbilt repeat as conference champions, as Lee, Thomas, Calvert, Ron Green, Kenny Gibbs, and Jerry Southwood returned for the Commodores, while promising sophomore Bo Wyenadt joined the team after leading the freshman squad in 1965. Undefeated Kentucky spoiled the encore by beating Vandy in Nashville and taking a two-game conference lead with just seven games left. The Wildcats would have to finish 4-3, while Vandy ran the table for another banner to be raides at Memorial Gym. It looked improbable, but Kentucky still had to play at Auburn in late February and home and away against Tennessee in back-to-back season ending games in March. Vandy also had a road game scheduled against Auburn. It was a must win, as the Commodores traveled to the 6-5/13-7 War Eagles knowing a loss would eliminate them from the race. 

Vanderbilt struggled to beat Auburn in Nashville 68-63 a month earlier, as the Tigers' two stars, Lee Defore and Bobby Buisson gave them fits. Also starting for the Tigers was Monk Montgomery, a junior forward from Murfreesboro. Montgomery had been the top high schooler in Tennessee at Kittrell High, amassing more than 4,000 points in his career (a record that remains today). 

The ball certainly didn't bounce the Commodores way in the opening minutes of the game. Vandy couldn't buy a basket, while Auburn couldn't miss. Additionally, Thomas found himself in early foul trouble with three and missed the next 17 minutes. Once again, super sixth man Calvert came to the rescue. The Commodores found themselves down double digits just seven minutes into the game, as Auburn led 14-3. The lead mushroomed to 16 at 27-11, when Pops began firing. He proceeded to hit five of his first six shots, while Southwood and Lee started getting free for baskets. Vandy finished the last eight minutes of the opening stanza on a 30-6 run to take a 41-33 lead. 

Thomas returned in the second half on a mission. For a long stretch, he took all the Commodore shots, and he was blazing hot. He scored 20, second half points, as Vandy's offense kept piling on the points. Defore and Montgomery kept hitting for Auburn, but they couldn't keep pace with Thomas. Vandy scored 50 second half points (80 in the last 28 minutes), to blitz Auburn 91-76. Thomas led the way with 24 points, with Calvert contributing 20 on 6 of 9 shooting from the field and 8 of 8 shooting at the foul line. Lee poured in 19 points to go with 13 rebounds, while Wyenadt added 11. Defore led all scorers with 30, while Montgomery had 16. 


Vandy's Last Win At The Sports Arena 

January 15, 1968, was the day after Green Bay demolished The Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl Two. Just five days away was a basketball game that had more hype than the first Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier fight. Undefeated UCLA was going to play undefeated Houston in the sold out Astrodome with a late-night nationally televised audience of millions tuning in. 

January 15, 1968, saw 11-3 Vanderbilt making its then annual trip to Auburn to face the 6-6 Tigers. Vandy had handled Auburn by 13 on December 4 in their earliest official conference game. The Commodores were in a do-or-die situation in the conference race, having lost road games at Florida and Tennessee and a home tilt against Kentucky. One more loss would end any hopes for a title. 

Auburn did not play the previous Saturday, so the Tigers had a full week to prepare for what many experts called Vandy's best fast breaking team ever. Coach Roy Skinner had adjusted his starting lineup, taking out Kenny Campbell and moving forward Bo Wyenadt to the backcourt with Tom Hagan. Bob Warren and Perry Wallace were set at the forwards, while Bob Bundy started at center. Two nights earlier, this lineup produced a 96-70 win over Ole Miss, in which the Commodores hit an incredible 26 of 28 foul shots to bolt into the nation's top spot in free throw accuracy (a post they would hold the rest of the season). 

Vanderbilt quickly established its inside game with the early plays going to Bundy in the post. Once Bundy hit a basket or two, he would stay hot. His first three shots swished through the nets; Auburn was in for a long night. At the other end, the Tigers were as cold as Bundy was hot. It took them the entire half to match Bundy's early output; they managed only three field goals in 20 minutes, as Vandy had their shuffle offense solved. Only a plethora of Commodore fouls allowed Auburn to get into double figures in the first half. Vandy led by 15 at 27-12, 14 minutes into the contest. At the break, the score was 36-23. Bundy had 14.  

Auburn warmed up to 46.2% in the second half, but the hill was too steep to climb. Hagan joined Bundy in the second half barrage, as the Commodores continued to find the range. Vandy hit 55% of their second half shots. They froze the ball for the last five or six minutes, and Auburn was forced to foul. For the second straight game, the line was kind. Vandy hit 24 of 29 for 83%. 

At one point, Auburn cut the lead to four points after a 17-9 run, but the foul shooting secured a nine-point win at 74-65. Bundy led the way with 22 points and nine rebounds, while Hagan added 15, and Warren and Wyenadt scored 11 each. Top sub and former starter Campbell came in at a crucial point after Hagan fouled out and hit four free throws when Vandy needed them most. 


Vandy Wins In First Try At The New Coliseum 

The 1969-70 season saw Vanderbilt suffer its worse record during the Roy Skinner era. For the only time in his 16-year career, he suffered a losing season, finishing 8-10 (6th) in the SEC and 12-14 overall. An upset over undefeated Kentucky left the record at 9-7, but five straight losses followed the big upset. The streak stopped with a win over lowly Alabama, but the Commodores ventured to Auburn, minus two regulars. 6-02 guard and super foul shooter Rudy Thacker and 7-04 center Steve Turner did not dress for the game. Thacker was ineligible due to grades and actually stayed at home, while Turner had missed some classes and was suspended for the game. Turner had led Vandy with 17 points against Auburn in Nashville, but star Tiger guard John Mengelt torched the black and gold for 33 points in an 84-75 win, the Tigers' third straight over Vandy. 

Vanderbilt went into the game a considerable underdog. Auburn sported a 9-5 record in the league and remained in contention for an NIT bid. Starting in Coach Skinner's patchwork lineup were 6-7 sophomore Chris Schweer at center in place of Turner, 6-05 senior captain Perry Wallace (right) and 6-08 junior Thorpe Weber at forward and 6-3 junior Ralph Mayes and 6-1 sophomore Jimmy Conn at guard. On the bench were 6-8 center Van Oliver, 6-4 guard/forward Les Yates, 6-5 forward/guard Art Welhoelter, and 6-2 guard Tom Arnholt. 

Joining the All-American nominee Mengelt in Auburn's lineup was center Bill Alexander, forwards Al Leaphart and Henry Harris, and guard Carl Shetler. Harris was the second African-American to play in the SEC; he would later take his own life. This Auburn squad still ran the shuffle offense, but the fast break was starting to become more of a factor. 

The game started out as predicted with Auburn jumping out to an early lead. Then, something happened. The Tigers went ice cold and missed shot after shot. Vandy, enjoying one of its best rebounding seasons, only gave the Tigers one shot per possession. Led by Wallace, the Commodores grabbed the missed shots and ran the fast break to perfection. Looking like one of the glory teams of the 1960's, Vandy, or shall I say Thorpe Weber, quickly took command of the game. Weber scored the game's next 11 points, as Vandy took a 16-7 lead. Auburn never got closer than eight points the rest of the night. 

Wallace continued to clear the glass with 13 rebounds in the opening half, and Vandy coasted to a 42-32 halftime lead. The second half was more of the same. Vandy cooled off from the field, but Wallace, joined by backup center Oliver, Weber, and even guard Arnholt, combined to pull down over a dozen second half offensive rebounds.  

Mengelt had begun to hit for Auburn at the end of the first half, and he was now virtually scoring all the Tigers' second half points, but Vandy had five players scoring and five beat one handily. The lead swelled to more than 20 points and peaked at 23 before Coach Skinner sent in the reserves. Vandy cruised to a 92-74 win and ended the NIT dreams of the War Eagles. 

Mengelt was a stud, scoring an even 40 points on 14-of-35 shooting. The rest of the Tigers combined for only 27% field goal shooting. Vandy ended the game with five players scoring in double figures. Weber's early game onslaught propelled him to a 25-point outing. Wallace added 18, many on offensive put-backs. Oliver and Arnholt off the bench added 15 and 10 points respectively, while playmaker Conn connected for a dozen. 

The rebounding margin was astounding. Vandy won the battle of the boards 68-37. Wallace led the way with 19, while Weber, Oliver, and Arnholt each had nine. 


Vandy Wins A Battle Of Post-Season Contenders 

Auburn was the surprise of the SEC in 1975, finishing 11-7 in the league and 18-8 overall. The Tigers ran the table at home, including a stunning upset over Alabama at the end of the year, which cost the Tide an outright conference championship. The bulk of that team returned in 1975-76, and the Tigers were picked to contend for the title. This Auburn team had an excellent inside game with All-SEC forward Mike Mitchell (averaging 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game) and near All-SEC forward Gary Redding. Tiger point guard Eddie Johnson (21.2 ppg) was the best scorer in the league after Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King of Tennessee. If anyone tried to zone Auburn, Coach Bob Davis called upon designated zone buster Stan Pietkiewicz (pronounced Patcavage). The Tigers had started conference play at 4-2 and 8-5 overall, but they had played a large number of their games on the road. 

Vanderbilt was picked as a middle of the pack team in the 1975-76 conference race. After going 10-8/15-11 the year before, The Commodores got off to a rocky start going only 4-5 in pre-conference play. After a 17-point loss at Alabama to open conference play, The Commodores won consecutive come-from-behind overtime games at Mississippi State and against Georgia. They followed those two wins with a huge upset over Tennessee. Then, the Commodores went to Lexington and blew a lead losing a televised game against Kentucky by a single point. At 3-2 in the league and 7-7 overall, nobody realized the Commodores were about to turn things around and win eight of their next nine to put themselves within sight of an NCAA invitation. 

This was the final act of the F-Troop. Seniors Jeff Fosnes (left), Butch Feher, and Joe Ford formed a formidable trio. Center John Sneed and guard Dickie Keffer rounded out the starting quintet. Former starter Mike Moore was the lone key sub seeing appreciable playing time.  

The Commodores big Achilles heel was a lack of rebounding strength; Auburn's greatest asset was their league-leading rebounding dominance. Coach Roy Skinner realized Vandy's lone chance of winning would be to limit possessions and try to take only high percentage shots, while trying to force Mitchell and Johnson into taking bad shots. 

Auburn opened the game in a 2-3 zone. Vandy was patient passing the ball around the perimeter before finding a seam in the inside. Vanderbilt chose to play a combination man-to-man defense. Ford shadowed Johnson as close as possible, while Fosnes stuck tightly to Mitchell. Keffer, Feher, and Sneed played a loose man-to-man on the other three Tigers. After trading baskets to start the game, Vandy took the lead at 10-9 and never relinquished it. Auburn looked sluggish in the zone and began to miss boxing out assignments. Fosnes and Feher both pulled down big offensive rebounds in the first half. Meanwhile Sneed held his own on the defensive boards, and Auburn had very few second chance opportunities.  

With Vandy holding their own on the boards, they also committed only three turnovers in the first half. The extra scoring opportunities paid off, since neither team had much success finding the basket. Vandy assumed a six point halftime lead of 35-29, but they shot barely over 40% in doing so. 

The second half saw Vandy warm up a little thanks to the outside shooting touch of Ford. He found open spots against the zone and scored some quick baskets. The six point lead extended to double figures. Meanwhile, Ford also prevented Johnson from getting the ball, while Mitchell found the going rough under the basket. With ten minutes remaining, the Commodores were in command with a 15-point lead.  

Auburn refused to come out of their zone, so Vandy held the ball for up to a minute per possession down the stretch waiting for the Tigers to foul. Ford and Keffer made the War Eagles pay for this tactic and hit shot after shot. The game was out of reach with four minutes to go. 

Johnson got free in the remaining moments and scored three baskets late, but the game was over by then. Vandy cruised to a 71-59 win. Four Commodores scored 10 or more points. Ford led the way with 17 points. Fosnes hit for 15, while Keffer added 10. Moore came off the bench for 13, including a perfect 5-5 at the foul line. While Sneed scored only seven points, he pulled down a game high 15 boards. At the same time, Mitchell and Redding combined for only 13 rebounds, as Vandy out-hustled Auburn and won the overall rebounding battle 43-42. 

Johnson tossed in 20 points, and Mitchell hit for 14, but the two stars hit only 14 of 37 shots (37.8%). The loss effectively eliminated the Tigers from the conference race, while Vandy started a winning streak that took them to the brink of a conference championship. The Commodores swooned at the end and settled for third place at 12-6.  


Note: Some information and statistics for this story came from the Nashville Banner, Nashville Tennessean, and Birmingham News. Special thanks go to Kirk Simpson of the Auburn Media Relations Department for helping me pinpoint the exact location of the old sports arena. 

Note: To get an idea of just how small the old Auburn Sports Arena really was, log onto the Microsoft Terra Server and punch in these coordinates: Longitude: -85.49048 and Latitude 32.60084. (LINK) You will see a close-up satellite photo of Jordan Hare Stadium, the Auburn Baseball stadium, and Beard-Eaves Coliseum (the large elliptical building in the lower left corner). The little white barn between left field and the football stadium was the old gym. Notice how much smaller it is than Auburn's current gym, which seats less than 12,000. The old gym caught fire during Auburn's 1996 football game against LSU. It was razed, so that more parking spots could be created. 

Next Week: The 1972 Commodores' three week offensive explosion. 

Commodores Daily Top Stories