Bowden Wyatt, a legendary football player at the University of Tennessee, returned in 1955 as head football coach and athletic director after winning championships at Wyoming and Arkansas. In his first three seasons at UT (1955-57) the Vols had 6-3-1, 10-1-0, and 8-3-0 season records; a Southeastern Conference championship; two Bowl appearances; and #2 and #13 rankings in final Associated Press polls. In his second season with the Vols (1956), Coach Wyatt was voted national coach of the year in recognition for his team’s accomplishments.
It was a great beginning for Coach Wyatt and the Vols but then things began to go wrong. Tennessee football teams over the next four years (1958-61) had a combined 21-16-3 record; finished no higher than a tie for fourth in the SEC; and were not invited to any Bowl games. University of Tennessee alumni and fans were not happy and began to demand changes before the 1962-1963 school year began.
In response to demands from alumni and fans, President A.D. (Andy) Holt handed down a directive that Tennessee should have good teams in all sports whenever it was possible and it was decided by administrators, committees, and Athletic Department officials to make some changes. Out of these decisions came some events that not only moved Tennessee back to the top in football and basketball, but actually revolutionized the entire spring sports program in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
One of the first big moves came when Athletic Director Bowden Wyatt contacted Furman Track Coach Chuck Rohe on the recommendation of Dean L.R. Hesler. Coach Rohe tells how it all came about:
General Robert R. Neyland [Athletic Director at the University of Tennessee and legendary former football coach] had ruled the athletic department with an iron hand. When he passed away on March 28, 1962, there was a general thought among the academic people and the faculty and administration at Tennessee that they needed to be more than a football program, and that’s all Tennessee was. They had a pretty good basketball program, but nothing with any of the other sports. So, when the general passed away, Bowden Wyatt was named interim athletic director and continued as head football coach. The athletic board of trustees at the time was headed by Dean L.R. Hessler. He told Coach Wyatt before the athletic board, “Look, if you want to become the athletic director, you’re going to need to do something with the other sports programs.” Dean Hessler had heard from Ben Plotnicki and Sam Venable of the Physical Education Department and Charlie Durham of the Knoxville Track Club that there was guy at Furman that was doing a great job. So Dean Hessler went to Bowden Wyatt and said, “Hey, Coach, here’s the kind of guy you ought to bring in.” I don’t know how he decided to contact Ray Mears, who became a close friend, but, Ray had just won the national small college championship at Wittenberg University and was a hot number in the basketball coaching circles. He had Ray Mears and me come over to visit at Knoxville the same week—a day or two apart. Ray had just been there and was just leaving when I came in, and he hired us both in the same week. Of course, Ray went on to do some great things with the basketball program. [His career record of 399-135 (.747) ranks among the top 15 all-time NCAA coaching records and includes three SEC championships. He is largely regarded as the father of University of Tennessee basketball. He always wore his trademark orange blazer during games and is credited with coining the phrase “Big Orange Country.”] He didn’t have quite the success we had in track, but that’s how Bowden Wyatt hired Ray and me.
Chuck Rohe and Ray Mears exceeded all expectations. Their dedication, enthusiasm, and leadership turned the tide and led directly to the success of Tennessee’s initiative to excel in all sports. It was the beginning of a new era for sports other than football at the University of Tennessee and soon spilled over to athletic programs at other schools in the Southeastern Conference.
Coach Rohe had the reputation of being a man looking ahead and always on the move. Mrs. Rohe told Marvin West of the Knoxville News-Sentinel in an interview:
When Coach Wyatt was talking with Chuck about moving from Furman to Tennessee, he phoned one night after midnight. Chuck wasn’t home. Bowden called back at 5:30 a.m. Chuck was already out for the morning practice.
Finally catching up with him and with the promise of many scholarships, a new track, and Coach Wyatt’s assurance that Tennessee wanted a top-notch track program, Chuck Rohe made his decision to come to Knoxville.
Chuck Rohe began his coaching career at Hattiesburg (Mississippi) High School (1954-56) where he directed the junior high basketball team and high school track team to state championships. The following year (1956-57), he did all the recruiting and most of the coaching for the track team at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi. He then served for the next five years (1957-62) as coach of Furman’s cross country and track & field teams. During that time the Paladins won the school’s first Southern Conference (SoCon) Championship ever in any sport when the men’s indoor track and field team won the league title at the 1961 championship meet. He also directed Furman to a SoCon cross country championship in 1961, an indoor track & field championship in 1962, and a second outdoor track & field championship in 1962. Furman athletes won 14 SoCon indoor individual event titles and 17 outdoor event titles (16 individual, one relay) in his five seasons at the helm of the Furman program.
Furman was prospering but Tennessee was struggling. Prior to Coach Rohe’s arrival in Knoxville in the fall of 1962, Volunteer trackmen had never in the 40 years of its existence won an SEC Track & Field Championship. That was about to change.
Coach Rohe was often heard to proclaim, “What a Day!” He fully believed that every day provided a new opportunity to excel and excel was what his trackmen did best.
1962-1963 SCHOOL YEAR
Chuck Rohe’s 1962-1963 track program almost met with disaster when he explained it at a squad meeting for the cross country and track members. Marvin West reported this to his Knoxville News-Sentinel readers:
Rohe said new recruits and current Vols might think him a mad man, but Tennessee distance runners in the future will run 60 to 70 miles each week – for nine months each year. The demands were too great and many returning trackmen quit the squad. This left Tennessee with only had 7 upperclassmen for the 1962 SEC cross country season, 16 for the 1963 indoor track & field season, and 9 for the 1963 outdoor track & field season.
Distance runner Tom Scott was finishing his freshman year at UT in 1962 when it was announced that a new track coach had been hired. The following is what he remembers of those early days:
It was a great day for me when UT announced in May 1962 that he had been hired as the new track coach. Just a few years earlier, UT had produced a number of
outstanding distance runners, but the program had degenerated and, during my freshman year, was truly awful. I had gone to UT for its academics and was a walk-on to the track team. Of course, as a freshman, I couldn't compete on the varsity. But I was shocked that the coaching was so indifferent that I largely had to coach myself. I guess Coach Rohe gave me a workout schedule to do on my own during the summer months of 1962, and I actually ran a 1:57.7, my fastest time ever, to win the 880 in a late summer Knoxville Track Club meet at Evans-Collins Stadium. Freshmen were not allowed to compete in varsity cross country meets, so Coach Rohe’s first recruiting class at Tennessee had to wait. Even so, the presence of these great athletes and the work ethic they exhibited was an inspiration to the upperclassmen that remained and enabled them to have some pretty good seasons despite having to compete without a full team.
One of the bright spots for Coach Rohe was the Knoxville Track Club (KTC). The KTC was established in 1962 to organize a team for track competition in AAU summer meets in the Southeast. Charter members of the KTC in attendance at that first meeting were Dr. Ben Plotnicki, Charlie Durham, Hal Canfield, Jerry Wrinkle, Sam Venable, Charles Lobetti, M.O. Vickers, and B. E. Sharp. According to Hal Canfield’s history on the KTC web site:
We set up a practice schedule three evenings a week on the old East High School track and invited any male track athlete to try out for the team. Of course, in those days there was no track and field activity for women except for Ed Temple's girls at Tennessee State University. In order to make a trip to Furman University late that spring to compete in an open AAU meet, we contacted Tom Siler, sports editor of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, who agreed to contact "friends" to contribute to the cause. He raised enough money to pay for food and gas for three carloads of runners to drive to Carolina to compete. We took some twenty athletes and came home with the first place team trophy. That was the beginning of the Knoxville Track Club's competitive activities. Early in 1963, the University of Tennessee hired Chuck Rohe as track coach from Furman University and, even before he began his UT duties, he helped the club stage its first open track meet at Evans-Collins field in East Knoxville. As the year progressed the nucleus of the club members, numbering about 5 or 6, began to hold weekly meetings with Coach Rohe as our inspirational leader. By the end of the year we were a charter organization with a set of bylaws. At the beginning of the following year the KTC had grown to fifty-two members and we had a bank account of $156. Our first slate of officers included myself as president, Jerry
Wrinkle, secretary-treasurer, Charlie Durham, program director and coach, and Chuck Rohe as executive director. It was during this period that such track
enthusiasts as Bobby and Herb Neff, Kim Koffman of Kingsport, and Al Rovere became affiliated with the club.