March 2, 2005
From the beginning of fall football drills in 1966 through the end of hoops season in 1967, Tennessee's Ron Widby made his senior season one to remember on both fronts. One of Tennessee's most gifted athletes ever, Widby began the year being named All-America in football, the NCAA-authenticated punting champion with a 43.8-yard average on 48 punts. In basketball, he was named All-America and conference player of the year after leading a youthful Vol squad to the SEC title.
His exploits on the basketball court that season have earned him the title of "SEC Basketball Legend," and he'll be so honored at the SEC Basketball Tournament this March, joining fellow legends Gary Waites, Alabama; Scott Hastings, Arkansas; Rex Frederick, Auburn; Stacey Poole, Florida; Ronnie Hogue, Georgia; Sam Bowie, Kentucky; Bobby Lowther, LSU; Coolidge Ball, Ole Miss; Jack Bouldin, Mississippi State; Art Whisnant, South Carolina; and Jeff Fosnes, Vanderbilt.
Widby was a two-time All-SEC selection for Ray Mears-coached teams in 1966 and 1967 and helped the Vols surprise nearly everybody by winning the SEC crown in 1967. He averaged 22.1 points and 8.7 rebounds his senior year and carried his team through the peaks and valleys of an 18-game conference schedule. It was something to watch night-in and night-out.
Widby's career at Tennessee brought a wholesale revision to the Vol record books, as he left UT the school's second all-time leading scorer (1432 points) and the all-time single season points leader (619 points). He averaged 18.1 points per game during his career and was the SEC's Sophomore of the Year in 1964-65. He averaged in double figures all three years as a Vol. He was the last four-sport letterman at Tennessee, with three varsity letters in football, three in basketball, and one each in baseball and golf.
"It was probably one of the best times I've had in sports," said Widby. "The team was close. Everyone knew their role and did their job exceptionally well. It was a thrill to be part of a great team that helped me achieve."
"We were picked fifth or sixth pre-season, but we had confidence in ourselves. I had told Knoxville News-Sentinel reporter Marvin West before the season we were going to win it. There was a good corps of players."
In the first season in which the Vols played in a new facility called Stokely Athletics Center, Widby was the old hand on the squad, with juniors Tom Hendrix and Tom Boerwinkle being joined by sophomore guards Bill Justus and Bill Hann. Only Widby had seen significant varsity service. Hendrix and Boerwinkle had come in with Widby in 1963-64, redshirted and played sparingly in 1965-66.
Freshmen were not eligible in those days, so Justus and Hann had not been through the rigors of the SEC, particularly on the road. But everything broke right for the Vols that season and, when the dust had settled in early March, the Vols were 15-3, 6-3 away from home, 21-7 overall, and headed to a much-smaller NCAA Tournament. The team was dubbed the "Fearless Five" and is affectionately remembered nearly 40 years later.
On the night of his home finale, Widby scored a school-record 50 points against LSU, a mark that lasted 20 years, before Tony White canned 51 against Auburn in 1987, the last year the Vols played in Stokely Center.
"Scoring 50 that night was very exciting," said Widby. "It was a gift I got from my teammates. Once we got ahead and had the game under control, they were content to watch me shoot."
That game gave the Vols no worse than a tie for the SEC title going to Starkville and the Vols brought home the brass ring with a dramatic triple overtime win at the old McCarthy Gym on the Mississippi State campus. Widby had 35 points and nine rebounds that night as the Vols just refused to lose. He had 10 in the three overtimes, including 10 in a row in the extra periods, two in the first, six in the second and two more in the third.
The 1966-67 Vols captured the SEC championship with a thrilling 78-76 victory at Mississippi State in triple overtime and earned UT its first NCAA Tournament berth.
Previously, the Vols also knocked off Kentucky twice that season, in double overtime at Lexington in Memorial Coliseum as Hendrix, a native of Elizabethtown, Ky., canned two free throws in the waning seconds, and by 87-59 in Knoxville.
"It was always a thrill to beat Kentucky," said Widby. "The game at Lexington was a tribute our depth. I got hurt the night before and only scored eight points."
Widby's versatility occasionally made life a bit hectic, particularly in December when football bowl preparations and basketball tourneys peacefully coexisted. In 1965, he played hoops in Shreveport in the Gulf South Classic on Friday night, flew to Houston for the Bluebonnet Bowl Saturday afternoon and went back to Shreveport to play hoops that night.
A year later, he played in the Sugar Bowl basketball tournament on Thursday and Friday and punted in the Gator Bowl Saturday afternoon.
"People might think it was tiring, but they did a good job of getting me where I needed to go," said Widby. "I was young and in good shape. Both teams and the coaches understood the deal. I went to a different city and put on a different uniform."
After leaving Tennessee, he played in the NFL with Dallas and Green Bay, playing in Super Bowl V and VI for the Cowboys and in the 1971 Pro Bowl. He had an 84-yard punt in 1968 against New Orleans while at Dallas, setting a Cowboys record. He also tried his hand at the PGA Senior Golf Tour, but now is back in private business as a sales rep with Portals Plus in his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas, a company that manufactures roof drains and accessories.