March 24, 2010
BY JOSH PATE
Editor's Note: This is the second of a three-part series highlighting the Tennessee men's tennis team's doubles program.
Mel Purcell and Rodney Harmon always loved playing in Athens. The two former Tennessee tennis players who teamed to win the 1980 NCAA doubles championship enjoyed playing on Georgia's home court so much because, well, they were among the few who won there.
The duo of Purcell and Harmon were among the most intimidating in Tennessee history. They dominated the 1980 season, going 33-2 in doubles play. And they handled Southeastern Conference power Georgia without issue. The Vols, as a team, beat the Bulldogs 5-4 at their place, then beat them 5-4 again at home. In the SEC Championships, it was Tennessee that emerged once more thanks to Purcell and Harmon winning the No. 1 draw in doubles.
"We had such a great 1-2 punch," Purcell said. "Coach Dan Magill (of Georgia) couldn't have said it any better after we won the SEC. He goes, `If Tennessee didn't have Purcell and Harmon, we would have won the SEC.'"
It was back to Athens shortly thereafter, when the NCAA Championships were held there. The Vols came in with the hot hand, but were upset in the first round as a team. Purcell was also upset early in singles play. Harmon, however, made it to the quarterfinals before being ousted. That's when Purcell, a sophomore at the time, had to step in and console Harmon, who was a freshman. The two had to gather themselves to take care of business in the doubles portion of the tournament.
One of Purcell and Harmon's losses earlier in the season was at the hands of Trinity. Funny thing was, after entering the NCAA tournament as the top seed, Purcell and Harmon faced Trinity one more time in the finals surrounded by that familiar Athens crowd.
"To actually play in Athens, Ga., in front of all those fans, it was actually the climax to a great year, no doubt about it," Purcell said. "Once we got into the finals, we had the Athens crowd behind us. That's the great thing about Georgia. They will boo you to submission and do everything they can when you're playing against them, but when you're the only SEC school around, they show up."
The Vols duo got their revenge on Trinity's Tony Giammalva and Johnny Benson, winning the NCAA title with a 7-6, 7-6 victory in the finals. It was Tennessee's first and only doubles national championship.
Shortly after the championship, Harmon was quoted as saying he just wanted to get his picture put in the halls of Stokely Athletic Center, where champions were traditionally recognized with a large photo that was placed on the wall around the walkway.
"I wanted to make sure tennis was represented," Harmon said. "Tennessee has had some good teams and some good players who won NCAA titles, guys who got to the finals in NCAA doubles. They deserved some recognition as well. Not necessarily just me or our team, but Chris Woodruff and Andy Kohlberg and Michal Fancutt, who got to the finals. The guys last year got to the finals, and J.P. (Smith) got to the finals in singles as well. You just want to get the recognition for the people and get the school the credit they deserve.
"It was easily one of the biggest highlights for me."
It was also one of the biggest highlights of the program.
"Those two guys obviously were great," current UT head coach Sam Winterbotham said. "Once you win a title in doubles, I think a program has a reputation it feels it has to live up to. Those are the roots of excellence."
Winning the title was one thing. How they got there was another.
Kohlberg and Fancutt reached the doubles finals in 1979, but Fancutt was injured the following year when Harmon came in as a freshman, and Kohlberg had moved on to the professional circuit. Purcell didn't have a doubles partner, so he teamed with Harmon for the Southern Intercollegiate, among the bigger fall tournaments that was held, where else, in Athens.
"We won the tournament," Harmon said. "We always got along well from the minute we got on campus. We seemed to mesh very well in doubles. It started off a pretty amazing year."
The Vols went on to win the SEC as a team in what Harmon considered among the biggest highlights of the season. The SEC has traditionally been the toughest conference in the country, so winning it translated into likely success in the NCAA field.
"The difficult part of playing in the SEC was when you go on the road," Harmon said. "I mean, you go to Mississippi State and they wave the cowbells at you. You go to Vanderbilt and they're calling you names. You go to Athens ... we played there for the SEC indoors down in Athens and they had like 2,500 fans out and were screaming at us.
"I mean, just going to different places like Auburn was hard. Going to Georgia was really hard. Playing at Mississippi was hard. LSU was just the worst place to play in the world. They had the loudest fans. They had this one big guy that got in the back with a drum. It was crazy. We'd play Arkansas and there were old ladies with hog hats on yelling at us. It was incredible. I had never seen anything like it in my life before then, so it was such a shock."
It didn't take him long to adjust. Harmon went 35-7 his freshman season and finished ranked No. 10 in the national singles rankings.
Purcell won the SEC singles title in 1980, his only season at UT.
The two quickly developed a system on the court, and it was one that became more fluid the more they played.
"I wasn't a big guy on signals. So he'd crank it down the middle and I'm just going to play the ball," Purcell said. "I was able to cut so many balls off after his serve. If a lob goes up in the air, Rodney it's yours. He could put every ball away."
Harmon's tall frame combined with his use of the large Prince racket during competition resulted in a massive advantage for the UT team. Purcell could cover ground and play on the net. The combination became a lethal one.
But the relationship the two built is one based on respect and talent. And it's one that will last forever in the record books at Tennessee.
"One of the things I enjoyed most while playing with him," Harmon said of Purcell, "he transferred from Memphis State and wasn't like, `I'm a sophomore and you're a freshman, we'll do it my way.' It was more like a partnership. `Hey, what do you think?' I would tell him what I thought and sometimes he would overrule me as the older guy, which was fine. And sometimes he would say, `Look, I think you're right.' So that was great. He respected me as a player, and I loved playing with him."
Added Purcell: "I was always running around and diving for shots, and he'd always say, `Oh, you're so silly.' He'd crack jokes. I just told him, that's the way I learned how to play. I chase the ball until the end. That was the complement there: me getting low returns, him crossing over. It was all about just enjoying it and having fun and realizing it was a special time out there."