University of Tennessee Cross Country (1962-1970)
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.