Welcome to the final round of Southeastern Conference Jeopardy.
I’m your host, Ron Higgins, Mr. SEC Traditions, and here’s your final question.
He’s the greatest passer in Ole Miss history. You have 30 seconds. Good luck.
Cue the grating “we’re thinking really hard” theme music.
Okay contestant No. 1, Mr. Archie Manning. Your answer is “My son.” No, that’s incorrect. Let’s see what you wagered. It’s your used cast from the 1970 Ole Miss-LSU game!
Contestant No. 2, Mr. Eli Manning. Your answer is “My Dad.” That might get you a bump in your allowance, but it’s still the wrong answer. You wagered an empty bottle of stickum used by your New York Giants receiver David Tyree in the Super Bowl XLII! Wow, I thought that thing was already on e-Bay.
Finally, contestant No. 3, Mr. Sean Tuohy. And your answer is. . . “Myself.” While that is incredibly egotistic, it’s also CORRECT! Because I never specified a sport, you, as an Ole Miss point guard from 1979-82, recorded 830 assists in 117 games, which still remains the all-time SEC career record. Therefore, you are the GREATEST passer in Ole Miss history.
When you consider that three decades worth of increasingly superior players and athletes have graced SEC basketball courts since Sean played, the fact his record still stands is testimony to his willingness to be a true playmaking point guard.
“Think about the people I played with,” Sean says of John Stroud, Carlos Clark and Elston Turner, who still rank as the first, third and fourth leading scorers in Ole Miss history. “Those three guys could score. They were smart people.”
So is Sean, raised in New Orleans as part of a basketball family. His late father, Ed “Skeets” Tuohy, was a legendary coach at Isidore Newman, later best known as the alma mater of all the Manning brothers, Peyton, Eli and Cooper.
Long before the Mannings graced the halls of Newman, Skeets Tuohy was cranking out fundamentally sound championship basketball squads at Newman. They were the type of teams that would get on an opponent’s nerves, because they were always right there in someone’s face. They’d block out for rebounds 20 feet away from the basket. They’d be waiting for you outside your huddle after a timeout, trailing you all over the floor.
They were pests, they were smart and they were saavy.
Even after Skeets suffered a stroke and couldn’t coach, the Newman teams Sean played on were built the same way. So after his senior season in 1978, when he averaged more than 20 points per game, Sean looked at scholarship offers and thought with his head and not his heart.
Most kids in the state of Louisiana wanted to hop on LSU’s basketball train, which was finally starting to pick up national steam under Dale Brown. But instead, Sean chose Ole Miss, about to start its third season under Bob Weltlich, a former assistant under Bobby Knight at Indiana.
Why Ole Miss? Playing time, SEC exposure, Ethan Martin and girls.
“Ole Miss was just horrible,” Sean recalls. “Little did I know they had just six players at the time, and of the six, one was a guard and he was going to be a senior. So I figured there’s a chance if I hang in there that there would be no one left and I’d get to play.
“I wanted to stay in the SEC, because I wanted to be on TV on the SEC Game of the Week. That was the biggest thing going and Ole Miss had a big following in New Orleans.
“I wasn’t going to go to LSU, because it already had Ethan Martin at point guard. He was just a year ahead of me. If Ethan Martin had transferred from LSU, I would have gone there for sure. I wasn’t stupid enough to think I was going to beat him out. I’d played against him since I was eight years old and he’d been whipping me since I was eight. I didn’t think anything was going to change.
“Plus, Ole Miss had 1.2 girls to every guy student. If every one has to have a date, on sheer numbers alone, I’m in. I needed the numbers. Who wouldn’t want to sign at that school?”
When Sean arrived on the Ole Miss campus in the fall of ’78, he unpacked his stuff and placed his jump shot in storage, rarely, if ever, to be seen again.
He became the consummate point guard. His job was to run the offense, to understand when and where to throw passes to his best scorers at their pre-designated favorite spots on the floor in Weltlich’s precision, disciplined offense.
And when it came crunch time, it was Sean’s job to withstand the defensive pressure, the traps, get fouled and make free throws.
Weltlich never told Sean not to shoot. But Sean was smart enough to realize that if he wanted to play, his role was to facilitate for every one around him.
In other words, exactly the type of point guard that the demanding Weltlich needed as a floor general.
“I intended to come to Ole Miss, average 20 a game and move on to the pros like everyone else thinks,” Sean remembers. “But when I got there, I knew what would keep me on the bench and what would put me on the court and keep me there. I didn’t have a big problem not shooting and scoring, although my future wife did.
“I remember years later in that LSU-Ole Miss game in which Chris Jackson scored 55 for LSU and Gerald Glass 53 for Ole Miss. I was doing (Ole Miss) radio and I said, `Either one of those guys just scored as many points I had my entire freshman year.’
“But I scored some. My secret was that if we were up by five points with two minutes to go, nobody was going to touch the ball but me. They’d have to foul me. There was no shot clock.”
Playing for Weltlich could be brutal at times. Probably because the Rebels didn’t have dominating talent, he believed his teams had to be physically and mentally tougher. Four-hour practices were the norm. Weltlich’s biting tongue and mind games either made or broke players.
“My freshman year, we played Illinois State in a tournament up in Illinois on Dec. 23 and we had a game in Jackson on Dec. 26 against Memphis,” Sean recalls. “So after the Illinois State game, we drove in cars to St. Louis, got there at 4 in the morning, caught a plane from St. Louis to Memphis and then bused from Memphis to Oxford.
“I figured we’d have the day off since our next game was a couple of days away. Coach never said a word between the time with left Illinois and the time we got to Oxford. But just as we were getting off the bus back at school, he says, `Dress, stretch and tape in 30 minutes.’
“And we practiced a couple of times on Christmas. When you look back, that’s just crazy. But when you’re in the middle of the storm, it’s all survival. You didn’t even think about it. Stuff like that happened daily. If you didn’t like it, leave, and a lot of people chose to leave.”
The players who hung around like Sean for four years still have some issues even now about Weltlich’s harsh approach. Sean says that Weltlich apologized at a team reunion 10 years ago for pushing his team over the emotional cliff too many times.
But those who survived Weltlich never hesitate to say he was a taskmaster coach who always had his team prepared.
“He could evaluate film better than anybody I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Sean says, “and he could put game plans together quicker than anybody.
“That was always an advantage for us, especially in a tournament. Like when we won the SEC tournament in my junior year (1980-81) over Georgia, we were supposed to play Kentucky in the semifinals and Vanderbilt beat them. And we were supposed to play LSU in the finals, but Georgia beat them in the semifinals.
“I don’t know of anyone else but Coach who could have put together such good game plans for two unexpected opponents with such a short turnaround. We never went into a game unprepared. Nothing was ever a surprise for us, because our practices were set that way.
“The first three and a half hours of practice were torture, you just wanted to survive. But the last 30 or 40 minutes when we did game prep, it’s what gave us an edge. It was as good as anything I’ve ever prepared for in my life. He taught me that you could prepare better than someone else. We all willingly followed his game plans, because they were correct.”
Throughout the years, Sean has hung on to that memory of Weltlich. It helps him balance the fact that he thought Weltlich drove them all too hard.
In fact, on Jan. 15 when the Dallas Mavericks were in Memphis for an NBA game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Sean, one of the Grizzlies’ TV analysts and Mavs assistant and former Ole Miss teammate Turner, were laughing about today’s NCAA rules restricting athletes to 20 hours per week practicing and playing their sport. Rules also require an athlete must have one day off per week away from his sport.
“Elston and I remember we had like one day off in four years at Ole Miss,” Sean says. “And when we had that day off, we all sat there and said, `This is the worst thing that could have happened, because he’s going to kill us tomorrow.’
“Elston and I agreed that Coach would have ignored today’s rule about taking off a day. He’d just say, `No, we’re not going to do that.’ We would have gone through the 20-hour rule in four days.”
But again for better or for worse, that was Weltlich’s way, and it might have seemed extreme. However, Ole Miss, which started its basketball program in 1909, had never played in the NCAA tournament or the National Invitation Tournament until Weltlich’s last three Rebels’ team did it. They had NIT appearances in Sean’s sophomore and senior seasons, and got in the NCAA tourney his junior year by winning the SEC tourney and the automatic NCAA invite.
“Once the whistle blew to start a game, Coach was one of the easiest guys to play for,” Sean says. “He was so good to me in games that you would have thought we ate dinner every night together.
“You knew what he wanted you to do. There was no gray area. All you had to do was your job, because it was so well-defined. If you didn’t do your job, it was the player’s fault.
“Sometimes, we would grab one of our guys who was screwing up and say, `Look dude, if you keep doing that, you’re going to sit.’ ”
Sean never sat. He was an extension of Weltlich on the floor, making sure the machinery hummed. And playing with such talent as smooth-shooting 6-7 forward Stroud, the 6-5 versatile Turner and the athletic 6-4 Clark – all smart, efficient scorers – it’s no wonder why Sean set assists records that have stood the test of college basketball rules designed to promote more offense.
“It didn’t take any of those guys long to realize that if they did what they were supposed to do, there’s a good chance they were going to get a bucket,” Sean says.
“It’s like telling a wide receiver that if they run the perfect route, they would get the ball thrown to them every single route. That’s the way it was with John, Elston and Carlos.
“John was a scoring machine (who twice led the SEC in scoring averaging 26.3 and 25.2). Elston saw what John did, and he did it. And it was easy for Carlos, because he’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever met. He was virtually unstoppable.”
By Sean’s senior season in 1981-82, coming off the previous season’s SEC tourney title, the battled-tested Rebels were better equipped to handle the SEC’s regular season.
They finally beat Kentucky. They beat LSU, a team coming off a 1981 Final Four appearance, twice in a 10-day span at the end of the year. They went 14-1 at home, often playing to sellout crowds. They won seven of their last nine regular-season SEC games, eventually finishing 18-12 in the SEC and 11-7 in the SEC, tying the Rebels for fourth with LSU.
Sean would like to say he enjoyed his Senior Day ceremony at his last home game, but there wasn’t any ceremony. Weltlich, a hard-liner to the end, didn’t believe in them.
“We’d see all these other schools have Senior Days,” Sean says, “but he had no interest in having a Senior Day. Somebody asked him about a Senior Day one time and he said, `It takes away from the game.’ He told me, `I’d have a Senior Day for you, but I’m afraid they’d boo you.’ ”
In the end, though, Sean prefers to remember the best moments, like 30 years ago this year when a 13-13 Ole Miss team marched into Birmingham to play the third SEC tourney since the re-start of the tournament in 1979 after almost a three-decade absence.
Everything fell in place day-by-day. After a first-round bye, Ole Miss beat Tennessee, 81-72, on day two, and expected to play a 22-win Kentucky team. But the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt, 60-55.
In the semi-finals, the Rebels handled the Commodores, 71-51, then watched Georgia beat regular season SEC champ LSU, 68-60, in the other semi-finals.
And though Georgia had a nice collection of superior athletes, including future NBA Hall of Famer Dominique “The Human Highlight Film” Wilkins, Ole Miss certainly wasn’t intimidated by the championship game matchup. The Rebels had just edged the Bulldogs, 64-62, in the last game of the regular season.
In the finals, Ole Miss played poorly in the first half trying to force the issue instead of running the offense and forcing Wilkins to take outside shots instead of letting him fly to the goal.
“I think Georgia’s first five baskets of the game were dunks,” Sean says. “Then, we settled down at halftime and once we got the lead it was over. With no shot clock and no three-point line, we’d go to a zone defense. We were athletic, we were smart and you’d have to shoot 22-footers to beat us. We weren’t going to give you a 10-footer.”
With Ole Miss clinging to a late lead, Georgia called timeout and figured its best bet was to trap Sean, one of the league’s best and most experienced ballhandlers, near midcourt.
“I broke the trap near midcourt, hit Elston for a dunk and it was over,” Sean says. “I was kind of peeved, because I’m like, `You’re going to trap me?’ I was a cocky junior. My freshman year, I would have thrown it off somebody’s leg. But I was like, `Go trap someone else. Not me. This is what I do.’ ”
When it was over, Sean climbed on top of the basket, standing on the rim, holding an arm aloft with scissors in hand to cut down the net. He admits getting the best view of the celebration wasn’t planned, because honestly, he and the Rebels had never won anything so big. They didn’t understand postgame championship protocol.
“Kentucky had won so many, they knew what to do after a championship,” Sean says. “It would know what to do every 30 seconds. They probably practice cutting down nets.
“We won and we were lucky we didn’t run straight to the dressing room.”
Winning the SEC tourney may have been Sean’s greatest athletic achievement, but eventually translated his athletic competitiveness and smarts into being a successful owner of more than 80 fast food restaurants in the Memphis-area.
While he has always been known around the Mid-South for his radio and TV work, especially with the Grizzlies, the Tuohy name got taken nationally a couple of years ago after he and his wife Leigh Anne adopted a black child off the streets of Memphis. The homeless youngster, Michael Oher, became an all-American offensive tackle at Ole Miss and a first-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens.
Author Michael Lewis, a high school acquaintance of Sean, wrote about about Oher and the Tuohys in a book titled “The Blind Side.” It immediately became a best-seller, and was transformed into a movie with Sandra Bullock winning as Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne.
Buffed country singer Tim McGraw, who’s married in real-life to stunning country singer Faith Hill, played the role of Sean and perfectly nailed Sean’s sly, to-the-point observations and sense of humor.
“The only thing I asked director John Lee Hancock is if Tim could take off his shirt in a few scenes when playing me,” Sean says with a laugh.
“The Blind Side” suddenly plopped Sean and Leigh Anne in places they’d never thought they’d be, like on a movie set, the Academy Awards, a book tour and speaking engagements.
These days, Sean’s business interests are still going strong. Leigh Anne is now a designer on ABC’s Home Makeover. Their kids are happy and Sean is working half the Grizzlies’ TV games by design this season so he can watch almost every one of Sean Jr.’s Briarcrest High basketball games.
“And I’ll be at the Ole Miss game Saturday (against Tennessee),” Sean says. “No matter what, I still love that place. That’s my school.”