This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly series written by RTI columnist Lexie Little
Last week, the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences announced fall sports will plan for in-conference only schedules. With the Southeastern Conference likely to follow suit, fans wonder about possibilities for national rankings and postseasons. However, fall sports remain largely in question on the whole as COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the country.
Knox County gained national attention as a pandemic hot spot when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and Department of Health and Human Services evaluated community case numbers and hospitalizations. With the virus’ increased presence around Rocky Top, health officials stress the importance of wearing masks and continuing social distancing measures. So, if Tennessee fans want any semblance of sporting activity in the fall, they’ll need to bear a torch for others by mitigating risks. Otherwise, bad news for Vol fans might hit the headlines.
Good news, however, came last week for former Lady Vol basketball star Kara Lawson. Lawson, who most recently worked on the Boston Celtics coaching staff, will take over as the women’s basketball head coach at Duke University. The WNBA champion point guard played for Tennessee from 1999 to 2003.
Lawson joins the ranks of several Vol greats turned head coaches, including Tennessee coach Kellie Harper. As these women continue to make history, check out other moments in the Vol annals, in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
July 15, 1951
With the recent decisions by some conferences to only play member teams, conference-less schools like Notre Dame face the possibility of no opponents for the fall. But in 1951, Tennessee B team coach Ike Peel reported the young Vol squad would face the Fighting Irish on Nov. 10 of that year. Freshmen, at the time, could not play varsity sports and instead played on a “B team” squad.
Peel had played for head coach Gen. Robert Neyland on the 1939 varsity team, which went undefeated and unscored on in the regular season, and on the 1940 national championship team. He became an assistant freshman coach in 1942 and returned to Tennessee as a backfield coach following World War II. Peel had stormed the beaches of France on D-Day as a U.S. Army infantryman.
Rejoining Volunteer ranks, Peel served the General on the football field as an assistant coach during Neyland’s final season in 1952. But from 1949 until 1951, he helmed his own men on the B team. An expert opponent scout, Peel’s work with the freshmen provided a crucial base to coach up potential stars. Tennessee’s varsity squad notably beat Texas by a touchdown in the 1950 Cotton Bowl before winning the national championship in 1951.
But while the 1951 team prepped for the title run, Peel worked to schedule games. He needed to work around the primary Tennessee schedule to find time on Shields-Watkins Field. On July 15th, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported the match-up with Notre Dame and the date.
“Since the Tennessee Vols will be playing Washington & Lee at Shields-Watkins Field, Nov. 10, the site for the Vol-Irish B game is not definitely decided on,” the News-Sentinel noted. “There is a possibility that it may be played in Memphis.”
Other opponents for the freshmen included Kentucky and Vanderbilt’s B teams. That season marked the last for a freshman-only squad. Southeastern Conference rules allowed freshmen to play varsity ball beginning in 1952. That’s when Peel returned to the varsity coaching staff.
Peel, a native of Dyersburg, Tennessee, died at age 91 in 2010. He was the last surviving member of Neyland’s final coaching staff.
July 14, 2005
Though football remains on the minds of many SEC fans, the absence of baseball this summer leaves many missing Major League Baseball. Around this time, fans would enjoy the All-Star break festivities and college players would win awards. Fifteen years ago, Tennessee pitcher Luke Hochevar won the Roger Clemens Award, an honor bestowed on the top collegiate pitcher.
Traveling to Houston, Hochevar joined TCU’s Lance Broadway and Miami’s Cesar Carrillo at the Marriott Westchase Hotel for the ceremony presented by the Greater Houston Baseball Association. All Division I head baseball coaches, select national college baseball media, and the winners and prior three finalists of the award voted to select a winner.
Majority vote: Hochevar.
A first-team All-American, the Tennessee hurler earned accolades including SEC Pitcher of the Year. His 15 wins tied the NCAA best for the 2005 season as he led his team to the NCAA College World Series. In 2006, Kansas City selected Hochevar first overall in the MLB Draft. He became the first Vol ever taken at No. 1 overall in baseball.
July 14, 2006
One year after the Vol baseball pitcher took top honors, another Tennessee star made headlines on the mound. Softball Lady Vol Monica Abbott, one of only two college athletes on the U.S. National Team, worked for three perfect innings against Great Britain in the World Cup of Softball II. Six strikeouts capped the frames for Abbott at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City.
Playing alongside Alicia Hollowell and legend Jennie Finch, the three combined for a shutout win in five innings. Former Stanford standout Jessica Mendoza paved the way on offense, hitting two homers and chalking up five RBI. Final score: 14-0.
Eight members of the Red, White & Blue earned at least one base hit. The U.S. hit total stood at 16 at game’s end. Abbott set the tone for the game defensively as starting pitcher, immediately retiring three in the top of the first.
Abbott’s combined professional and collegiate careers make her one of the most decorated players in history. A world-class athlete, the left-handed pitcher became the first female athlete to sign a $1 million contract in 2016 as a testament to her career.
In 2008, she pitched the first perfect game in Olympic history as she led the U.S. to a silver medal in Beijing. The three-time World Champion gold medalist also holds four NCAA records. Abbott holds the record for career strikeouts with 2,440. She became the first D1 pitcher to earn 500 strikeouts all four seasons of collegiate play. Her single-season record for strikeouts stands at 724. Abbott also holds the records for victories (189) and shutouts (112).
The University of Tennessee inducted Abbott into its Hall of Fame in 2018.