April 21, 2011
Bill Wright, former University of Tennessee standout student-athlete and longtime baseball coach, died Thursday morning from failing health at his Knoxville home. He was 87.
Wright was a local product and graduated from the old Knoxville High School. His basketball team won the state championship in 1939 and 1941, and Wright was an all-state performer on the 1941 squad. In that year's championship game, held in Maryville, Wright outscored the opposing team all by himself to establish a mark that still stands in Tennessee.
Wright turned down a professional baseball offer to instead play basketball for Tennessee. He was a team member in 1942 and the starting guard for the 1943 SEC champions. Wright then had his career interrupted by a three-year service in the Marines for World War II.
While with the Marines and stationed with a V-12 Navy College Training Program in Durham, N.C., Wright played basketball and baseball at Duke University. He was the basketball team's co-captain and earned All-Southern Conference honors en route to leading Duke to the league title. In addition, Wright compiled a .400 batting average to pace the Blue Devils baseball team.
Wright then returned to UT and played two more years of basketball in 1946 and 1947.
Wright graduated in the spring of 1947 and signed a baseball bonus contract with the St. Louis Browns. In his first season in the minors, Wright led the Northern League with 99 RBIs. Promoted to Class A the following season, he became ill before spring training and was forced to give up his promising career.
Wright eventually returned to Tennessee and earned his master's degree in 1951. Following graduation, Wright proceeded to become a head coach at Knoxville's West High School. He coached both basketball and baseball at West, leading three different basketball squads to Knoxville prep championships.
Wright then was hired in 1960 by Bowden Wyatt as the first full-time academic advisor to UT student-athletes. Included were duties as assistant baseball coach under head coach George Cafego.
Baseball Head Coach 19 Years
Wright was promoted to head baseball coach at Tennessee in 1963, and he compiled an impressive overall record of 408-308-2 (.570) during his 19 years with the Vols. Wright's 408 victories were the school record when he retired and that total remains second only to Rod Delmonico. In addition, Wright's 408 wins still rank inside the top 20 of the SEC's overall victory list.
Throughout his tenure as coach of the Vols, Wright endured only three losing seasons, one of which was his first year. Wright also won at least a share of the SEC Eastern Division title three times (1966, 1970 and 1976) and finished in the top three of the division 15 of his 19 seasons. Wright's record against SEC competition was 178-156. During the 1966 campaign, Wright accomplished the Vols' first 20-win season (22-9).
Wright recruited many elite athletes during his time at Tennessee, coaching 19 different players who signed professional baseball contracts after they left Tennessee. Furthermore, he had four different players -- Sam Ewing (1970), Bobby Tucker (1973), Condredge Holloway (1975) and Rick Honeycutt (1976) -- qualify for All-America honors and two who won the NCAA home run title -- Phil Garner (1969) and Tucker (1973).
After retiring from his UT baseball duties, Wright was head coach of the 1982 gold medal winning USA team in the World's Fair International Baseball tournament, held in Knoxville. The Americans defeated Japan in the final game.
Wright is a member of six different halls of fame, including the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame (1996) and Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame (1988).
Funeral services are pending, and Berry's Funeral Home on Chapman Highway is handling the arrangements.
Wright's Tennessee Baseball Coaching Record
1963 -- 11-15
1964 -- 17-14
1965 -- 14-10
1966 -- 22-9
1967 -- 14-16
1968 -- 20-12
1969 -- 19-15
1970 -- 24-10
1971 -- 15-15-1
1972 -- 19-14
1973 -- 20-15
1974 -- 29-15
1975 -- 32-16
1976 -- 33-17
1977 -- 24-24-1
1978 -- 25-21
1979 -- 25-22
1980 -- 23-21
1981 -- 22-27
Total -- 408-308-2