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Jamie Vaught: Return of SEC Tournament in 1979 still provides lots of memories of Cats’ valiant run

There have been numerous flashbacks or memories in the past SEC men’s tournaments, but the 1979 tourney in Birmingham, Ala., will always be a special one to me for three reasons.

— It marked the renewal of the conference tournament after an absence of nearly three decades. The last league tourney had taken place in 1952 in Louisville where Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats defeated LSU 44-43 in the title game. The SEC had decided to host its post-season event for two primary reasons: 1) Extending the tourney champion an automatic bid to NCAA tourney, while giving the conference schools that didn’t fare very well during the regular season another chance for a Big Dance trip and 2) money.

— It was my first time covering a major event as a student reporter working for a campus daily newspaper while at UK. My Kentucky Kernel colleague John Clay, now a longtime sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader, and perhaps student writer Brian Rickerd tagged along (he couldn’t remember if he rode with us or not) and we borrowed my mother’s Pontiac Bonneville to make the six-hour journey to Birmingham.

Kyle Macy was the MVP of the 1979 SEC Tournament, played in Birmingham, Ala. (UK Athletics Photo)

Kyle Macy was the MVP of the 1979 SEC Tournament, played in Birmingham, Ala. (UK Athletics Photo)

Like a typical mother, she probably worried herself to death about us college kids taking the trip.

— It turned out to be a wildly exciting tourney, especially covering the unranked and surprising Wildcats, who would have had to win four straight nights to win the whole thing. The rebuilding Kentucky squad was coming off its national championship season of 1977-78 and had lost superstars like Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and James Lee, among others, to graduation.

Watch Kentucky’s 1979 SEC Tournament game against Tennessee

In January of 1979, the Cats had gotten off to a slow start in the conference race with a 1-5 mark before finishing strong at 10-8. In the SEC tournament, as you may recall, Kentucky, a No. 6-seed, stunned observers by posting three consecutive victories over Mississippi, Alabama and heavily-favored LSU before tiring in the finals, dropping to a strong Coach Don DeVoe’s Tennessee club in overtime.

The loss actually ruined UK’s Cinderella story.

When asked about the 1979 tourney, Clay remarked, “Wow! That was a long time ago.”

But he managed to come up with some memories of that event.

“I just remember it being new and it was neat to get to see all the teams together,” added Clay. “I remember Kentucky’s wild 101-100 win over Alabama in the quarterfinals. Truman Claytor had a big game. Remember (freshman sensation) Dwight Anderson breaking his wrist against LSU and Kentucky winning anyway. Could’ve or should’ve beaten Tennessee in the final.

“I remember I did a story on the Sheraton Hotel (near Birmingham–Jefferson Civic Center) and the business they did because of the tournament. The lobby was filled with fans of all of the schools.”

On Kentucky’s not-so-typical 19-12 campaign, Kyle Macy — who was UK’s leading scorer and 1979 SEC tourney MVP — commented in a postseason interview back then, “We were young and we made a lot of mistakes. But at the same time we learned from mistakes. I think the fans enjoyed watching us play. Even though we were small, we tried to make up with hustle. It was very different from the previous year….The SEC tournament was the highlight (of that season).”

Macy, then a junior, said his best overall performance in the tournament was perhaps the LSU game “because they were the top-rated team in the conference. They had already beaten us twice. It was a very satisfying win for the team and me.”

Against the fresh Tigers, who had received first- and second-round byes, Macy hit 10 of 15 field goals and made all of his nine free throws for 29 points in UK’s 80-67 victory, the third one of the tournament. And remember there were no three-point field goals back then.

The night before was the classic Kentucky-Alabama matchup which saw the Cats edge the Crimson Tide 101-100, ranking among the top SEC tournament games in history. My old front-page article showed that Anderson sank two crucial free throws with eight seconds left to give the Wildcats a come-from-behind victory.

In a wild shooting affair, both teams were hot with Kentucky making 68 percent of its shots and Alabama hitting 58 percent. Senior guard Truman Claytor had a season-high 25 points for Kentucky and his teammate, 6-6 freshman Chuck Verderber, slowed down Alabama All-American Reggie King with his hustling defense.

“It was the kind of game you hate to see either side lose, because both played extremely well,” said Alabama coach and future UK athletics director C.M. Newton.

UK boss Joe B. Hall added, “It was a well-played game.”

Brian Rickerd, another colleague from UK newspaper, covered the tourney, too.

“LSU had a pair of great forwards in DeWayne Scales and Rudy Macklin,” he remembered. “Scales was thought of as, shall we say, quite the free spirit. A couple years later, when I was working at the Evansville Press, right out of college, Scales came through town playing for some minor league basketball team and I did a story on him for some paper in Louisiana. And I just remember really enjoying talking to him one on one.”

Rickerd, who is now a UK beat writer for Frankfort’s State Journal, has another memory of the 1979 tourney.

“I had only been covering UK men’s basketball, at all, for that year, and so I was pretty intimidated as a college kid to be in that tournament environment. And I was sitting in the media room between sessions at some point, by myself, and (then) UK broadcaster Ralph Hacker and some other media celebrities came up and sat all around me and started up a conversation amongst themselves.

“After a couple of minutes, Ralph turned to me and introduced himself, and told me how much he liked the Kernel and read it every day, so on. He was simply reaching out to try to include me in the conversation with him and his friends. I just really, really appreciated Ralph for that. I always liked him a lot and thought he was an underrated broadcaster. He called a good game….a great voice for broadcasting.”

And some of my other memories include:

— Seeing game officials standing in the hotel lobby observing the noisy crowd of fans from various schools. Today we have zebra guys like Doug Shows, Ted Valentine and Tony Greene. In the past, we had guys like Paul Galvan, Ben Dunn and Don Shea, whom all three officiated the UK-UT championship contest. Dale Kelly and Burrell Crowell were the other well-known officials that I remember during that period.

— When we first checked in to pick up the media credentials at the hotel, SEC commissioner Dr. Boyd McWhorter was there. The former English professor from University of Georgia made us feel welcome. The commissioner was so down to earth and took the time to talk to an inexperienced sportswriter like me. That was so nice of him to do that.

— After the games in the media room, Clay relayed our articles via telephone back to the Kernel office on UK campus. He slowly read our stories to the editor on the other end who was listening and retyping the articles. For some reason, we didn’t use the fax machines. Maybe they were too expensive for us to use. Anyhow, looking back, the technology was really primitive.

— Attending postgame press conferences conducted by coaching legends like Georgia’s Hugh Durham, Auburn’s Sonny Smith, LSU’s Dale Brown, Kentucky’s Hall and Alabama’s Newton. Some of them were pretty colorful, providing news media a good dose of useful quotes and one-liners. Smith, who once coached at the old Pine Knot High School in McCreary County, was especially entertaining.

Those were the good old days and I still even have my old 1979 SEC Tournament sweatshirt, which of course is not looking very pretty these days.

And hopefully this week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville will provide us another great chapter.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.

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