SEC Traditions - Ron Widby - A man of four seasons for simple reasons
The unique thing about great athletes, especially when they excel at several sports, is they never think it’s a big deal.Not only do they make it look easy, they make it sound like a breeze.“When it was fall, it was football time,” Ron Widby says. “When it was winter, it was basketball time. When it was spring and summer, it was baseball time. And I was pretty decent in all of them.”
The SEC has had a plethora of good multi-sport athletes through the years, but fewer in the last two decades, because sports has become so specialized. But over the years, the gold standard of being a man for all seasons has been Tennessee’s Ron Widby, a 6-4, 210-pound ironman.
Now, I realize the younger demographic of fans don’t believe sports, especially on the college level, began until Sept. 7, 1979. That’s the first day ESPN went on the air. Contrary to such belief, there were plenty of outstanding multi-sport performers before that, and in the SEC that man was Ron Widby, a Knoxville native now 66 years old and semi-retired in Wichita Falls, Texas. Consider how much he packed into an 11-year career from 1963-73 – four at Tennessee, one in pro basketball and six in the NFL – before a career-ending injury forced retirement before age 30:
*Ron was the last four-sport letterman at Tennessee, with three varsity letters in football, three in basketball, and one each in baseball and golf.
*In football, he led the Vols twice in punting and was an All-American as a senior when he set a school record when he led the nation in punting.
*In basketball, he was a two-time All-SEC selection, and the league’s Player of the Year and an all-American as a senior when the Vols won the league championship in 1966-67. He left UT as the school's second all-time leading scorer (1,432 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 played one year of varsity baseball, hit more than .300 and led the team in hits and doubles.
*He was drafted by three pro leagues in two sports. He played one year of pro basketball in the ABA on a team that lost in the league championship series. Then, he played in two Super Bowls, winning one of them, and was an All-Pro punter.
So Ron, you were pretty decent?
“Maybe I was a bit better in football, because I was outside punting all the time, I really enjoyed that,” Ron says. “I was a good baseball player, because I had decent hand-eye coordination. But basketball was my sport. “I grew up with the idea I was going to win a scholarship to the University of Tennessee.”
And so Ron did. As a quarterback/safety/punter at Knoxville’s Fulton High, he impressed the UT coaches enough to get a free ride. But he was also a standout basketball player, who on the side, dabbled in baseball and began playing golf in high school.
Marvin West, former sports editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, recalled officiating biddy basketball games involving a 10-year-Ron playing for a team called the Baby Falcons. “I remember he was good for his age,” West recalls about Ron. “Every step of the way in his career, he was smooth for his age.” During Ron’s senior football season at Fulton in 1962, he broke his arm and shoulder in his second to last high school game.
“I signed to play football at Tennessee, but I wasn’t going to play because of the arm and shoulder,” Ron says. “And when everything healed and I had a good senior year of basketball in high school, I pretty much decided I was going to play just basketball in college. “But the Tennessee football coaches kept me on scholarship just in case. I didn’t report to fall or spring football practice as a freshman, but the football coaches went to (basketball) Coach (Ray) Mears. They told him the freshman team needed a punter and asked if I would punt for them, because they had seen me punt in high school. They knew I was one of the better punters in the area. “Coach Mears had no problem with it, and neither did I, because I always enjoyed punting a football.”
Back then, freshmen weren’t eligible to play on the varsity team. So Ron played three games on the freshman football team in 1963 and a full slate of contests with the freshman basketball team that lost but a couple of games.
By the time Ron was eligible to play on the varsity as a sophomore in 1964-65, he’d won starting jobs in football and basketball. As a punter on Vols’ football coach Doug Dickey’s first team at Tennessee, he averaged 41.1 yards and as a basketball forward he averaged 14.5 points and 8.3 rebounds on a 20-5 team that finished second in the SEC.
After all that, you’d think Ron would like to rest in the spring. Not a chance.
When Ron signed with the Vols in football, the coach who signed him was Bill Wright, who also happened to be the baseball coach. “Out of respect for him, I played baseball on the freshman team and then on the varsity as a sophomore,” Ron recalls. “I was a first baseman.” He wasn’t just a big target for his infielders. He tore it up at the plate. He batted around .400 as a freshman and then a little more than .300 as a sophomore. “But baseball was fairly slow and to me it was kind of boring,” Ron says. “That’s when I met (Tennessee golf) Coach (Lloyd) Foree. He asked me if I wanted to try out for the golf team. So I did that. I played golf out at the country club where Coach Foree was the pro, so he saw me get better before asking me. I thought it would fun.” So Ron played golf in the spring of his junior year and enjoyed it so much that he would have played in his senior season had he not been involved in contract negotiations with the NFL.
As the Vols’ football team improved, it presented some logistical problems for Ron. When Tennessee went to bowl games in Ron’s junior and senior seasons, basketball season was already underway. Dickey wanted Ron as his punter. Mears wanted his sharpshooting forward. They both got want they wanted.
For instance, in December 1965, Ron helped the basketball Vols to a 71-55 over Louisiana Tech in the Gulf South Classic in Shreveport. The next day in the afternoon, he punted six times for a 42.8 average in Tennessee’s 27-6 victory over Tulsa in the Bluebonnet Bowl in Houston, then immediately flew back to Shreveport where he helped UT to a 49-43 victory over Centenary in the Gulf South Classic championship game.
The next season as a senior, he flew from New Orleans where the basketball Vols suffered their first two losses in what turned to be a great season, and flew to Jacksonville to punt three times for 43 yards in his last college football game, an 18-12 victory over Syracuse in the Gator Bowl.
“That was a lot of fun doing that,” Ron says, “especially the Shreveport to Houston, flying into Houston at midnight after that first basketball game, getting up the next morning and playing football, then flying back to Shreveport just in time to play that second basketball game that night. "It wasn’t tiring, because I was young and in good shape. Both teams and the coaches understood my situation, going to different cities and putting on different uniforms."
Few athletes in SEC history enjoyed a better senior year in 1966-67 than Ron in both football and basketball. In football, he led the nation in punting averaging 43.8 yards and was named a first-team all-American for an 8-3 team. And in basketball, he was a first-team all-American and the SEC’s Player of the Year, averaging 22.1 points and 8.7 rebounds for a 21-7 team that won the conference championship for the first time in more than 20 years.
The basketball Vols had been picked in preseason as a middle of the pack team in the SEC race. But with Tennessee moving into new Stokley Athletics Center that year, Ron looked around his locker room and saw a team full of talent ready to play their roles. Ron, the team captain, was joined in the starting lineup by juniors Tom Boerwinkle at center and Tom Hendrix at forward, and sophomore guards Bill Justus and Bill Hann. Hendrix and Boerwinkle had come in with Widby in 1963-64, but were redshirted and played sparingly in 1965-66.
“Nobody expected us to do that well and I don’t think Coach Mears even thought we were a championship team, but I thought we had a good team,” Ron says. “Coach Mears gave us all a role to play and everything fell in place. “Boerwinkle matured late and he really improved, just controlled the boards. Bill Hahn ran the team like he was a coach. Bill Justus was a defensive guru. Nobody thought Tom Hendrix was a player, but let me tell you, he could play basketball.”
But Ron was the star attraction who simply knew how to put the ball in the hoop. “He was too slow to be a great guard and too small to be a great forward,” West says of Ron. “But he was a tweener that was a good shooter and a good passer who saw the floor. He wasn’t a great leaper and he wasn’t fleet of foot, but he had courage and touch. He could play the game.” It was West who had written all season he just didn’t think Tennessee had the goods to win the league. Yet the Vols came through, going 15-3, and still having to win their last two conference games to clinch the title. Those wins over LSU and Mississippi State turned out to be two of Ron’s best performances ever.
First, he scored a school-record 50 points in an 87-60 win over LSU in the last home game of his college career. Once his teammates knew Ron was on fire early, they just kept shipping the ball his way. “I knew we needed to win that game to get a share of the title,” Ron says. “I started off fairly hot, scoring well. We got a comfortable lead and it was like, `Ron, just go ahead and take it over. We don’t need to shoot. We’re going to let everybody else watch you play for awhile.’ “My teammates gave up their shots to pass to me. The crowd starting getting into it. The bench got into it. It was a true honor for me for my teammates to respect me like that to give me a chance to break the school scoring record (47 points by Carl Widseth at Auburn in 1956).”
It wasn’t until 1987 that Ron’s record was broken when Tony White scored 51 for the Vols against Auburn. But White also had the benefit of playing in the era of having a three-point shot, something that wasn’t part of the game when Ron was at UT.
As great as White’s game was, he didn’t do something that Ron did. In the game following his even 50 points, which at the time was tied for the fourth most in SEC history, he scored 35 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a dramatic 78-76 triple overtime win at Mississippi State in the old McCarthy Gym. Ron had 10 points 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 to clinch the league title solely for the Vols. "That was a game to remember,” Ron says. “Three of us, and I was one of them, played every minute of that game. When you play in something so exciting, you never think about getting tired or the pressure when I was shooting. I was just trying to focus to get the ball in the hole to win a championship.” West says he’ll never forget that night in Starkville for two reasons. “Whatever Mississippi State did, Widby answered,” West recalls. “It was uncanny. He refused to lose the game. “He also was one of the players who threw me in the shower fully clothed after the game. I had written all year I didn’t think they could win the SEC championship. “So after the game, the players waited until I wrote my story and filed it. Then about three or four of them waited out at press row to baptize me for not having enough faith in them. Widby, more than once, told me they were going to win that sucker and I don’t see how they could. But they did and they dumped me in the shower in my best K-Mart suit. I rode all the way back to Knoxville in somebody’s warmup clothes.”
Once his college basketball career ended, Ron had numerous pro career options. He was chosen by the New Orleans Saints in the fourth round of the NFL draft. In basketball, he was taken in 12th round in both the NBA and ABA drafts by the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Bucs respectively.
He chose football, signed a contract, bought a new car and did something he had never done in college during the spring. “I just kind of relaxed,” Ron says. “But I didn’t realize how much work you needed to make the NFL. I wasn’t prepared to punt that much, my leg went dead, I got beat out my rookie year and I was placed on something that’s now like a scout team or injured reserve.
“I went back to Tennessee when (Bucs coach) Babe McCarthy called me. They needed an extra forward and he asked if I’d come play for him. I needed the money, so I played the last three-fourths of the season.” On a team in the fledgling ABA, Ron played in 22 games and averaged 2.9 points and 2.3 rebounds in 6.9 minutes. The reason he didn’t get more playing time was he was on a team of seasoned pros like league assists leader Larry Brown (yes that Larry Brown, who has coached all over the place in college and the pros) that won their division and lost the ABA championship series to Pittsburgh, 4 games to 3.
“We actually should have won the series,” Ron remembers. “We were up 3-2 and lost game six in New Orleans. But it was still a great experience. I enjoyed playing for Coach McCarthy. He wasn’t a real disciplinarian. I would have probably gone back for a second season had I not made the NFL on my second chance.”
Finally a one-sport athlete, Ron signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1968 and quickly became one of the NFL’s best field position changers. He had an 84-yard punt against the Saints, still among the top 15 longest punts in NFL history. By his second year, he was an All-Pro punter averaging 43.3 yards, second best in the league. He played in Super Bowls V and VI, winning a title in the latter, and then played in the 1971 Pro Bowl.
After four seasons with the Cowboys, he switched to the Packers where he spent two years before a freak injury ruptured a disc in his back that affected his sciatic nerve that weakened his (right) kicking leg. The injury ended his career, because he couldn’t pass the physical (“My right leg was smaller than my left leg,” Ron says) the following season after surgery. “In Green Bay, we had some wide receivers hurt and so I filled in,” Ron says. “One day, I ran a pattern, slipped on some ice and right when I slipped I got hit.
Despite his abbreviated career, he averaged 42 yards per game, ranked among the league’s top 10 punters every year and even completed 2-of-2 passes for 102 yards and one TD. “The passes happened at Green Bay,” Ron says. “The one that went for a TD against Houston was by design. One day in practice, I was throwing the ball around and our special teams coach noticed. I told him I had played quarterback in high school. So he says he’s going to put a fake punt play in for me and we practiced it a few times. “We only ran it against Houston because the Oilers liked to rush 10 people. When I saw they were rushing 10 men right before halftime, I audibled to the fake punt. Our receiver was wide open. I just had to throw it out there. It was a pretty easy completion, honestly.
“The other completion was interesting. I was the holder on a field goal, it got blocked, I picked it up and threw to Ray Nitchske (a linebacker). He ran down the sideline before he got tackled. I retired as a 100 percent passer and one of my receivers was a Hall of Fame linebacker.”
The way Ron’s career ended so suddenly at age 28 was tough to handle for someone so competitive. Eventually, when he was age eligible, he tried for two years to qualify for the PGA Seniors Tour. And darned if he almost didn’t make it.
“The second year, I played well three days and didn’t play well the fourth day, because I thought I needed to be aggressive,” Ron says. “I was five or six shots out of the lead, and I needed to get in the top 16. I got in some trouble and didn’t make it. “I came home, put my golf clubs up and I told my wife `That’s it.’ I didn’t play golf for a couple of years.”
The last few years, Ron has battled through back surgery, rotator cuff surgery and now has a couple of knees that may need to be replaced. “Yes, I’m having some physical problems now,” Ron says. “But it was a wonderful career that I chose, and it’s career I wouldn’t trade for anything. So many good things happened and I always had great teammates. Winning the Super Bowl was the ultimate knowing you’re on the best team in the world.
“But winning that SEC championship in basketball was an important thing to a Knoxville boy like me.”