Lon Shelton Varnell was born on a December Friday the 13th in 1913, 13 minutes before noon, and weighed exactly 13 pounds. That was in Ripley's Believe It or Not. You can look it up, Varnell says proudly.
"I thank that every person wants recognition," he says. "The town I grew up in, the people who were recognized were those that had money or those who excelled in athletics or maybe education. Most of them were beyond me. Athletics, maybe it wasn't.
"When I grew up, a coach was considered the outstanding person in the community. Everybody looked up to him. Maybe I grew up just seeing this happen and thought this was what I wanted.
"You may wonder, having the love for the game that I do, why I haven't gone big time. Well, I had three pro offers—two from the NBA and one from the new league—and many from colleges, but the big reason for my staying at Sewanee is giving my family this type of college environment. Like I told Mr. Welk—he's a farm boy from North Dakota himself—it's not where you are but how far you've come."
Varnell's oldest son, Larry, who was valedictorian and captain of the basketball team at Sewanee, and a Fulbright scholar, is now getting a doctorate in nuclear physics at Cal Tech. Gilbert, a basketball player at Texas Tech, has a doctorate in physics. Jimmy, who "tore the basket up" at Sewanee, has a master's in English and is now in law school at the University of Washington. Daughter Lynda will graduate from SMU in June.
"I'm just a country boy and all, I don't come on very strong," Varnell says apologetically. "I just work real hard. I believe in repaying tenfold for anything I've ever gotten. People may think that with so many hats I may be shirking something, but I work real diligently to give people value for their dollar."
Work he does. "Lon is a most unusual person," SEC Publicist Elmore (Scoop) Hudgins says. "He beats SEC schools once in a while, and he always scares 'em to death. If he's got one player, he can play you. Vandy would have terrific contests with Sewanee when Sewanee didn't have a single player who could make Vanderbilt's squad."
Four years ago the University of the South beat a good Mississippi team twice in one year. Ole Miss has stopped playing Sewanee—"even though they like to play us because we're white meat." Varnell's 32-year record is approximately 500-200, exactly 254-181 at U. of the S.
See Varnell at a game and you know why. Passion practically comes through the pores. Puddles and pools of it. "Lon has the strangest voice when he gets excited," a friend says. "Kind of a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice. And you know how other coaches scream and yell at officials? Lon kinda petitions 'em. It gets to where the referees feel sorry for him."
Varnell has written often about basketball. One of his articles, Developing a Hardwood Giant, led to an invitation to take his team on a 1951 tour of Europe and North Africa, and that led to a letter from J. Kwei Fynn of Accra, Ghana. "I have," wrote J. Kwei Fynn, "at last a moment to myself and making the most of it by writing to you this my humble missive. I am in good condition of health and hope you are also the same. Please, I am learning to play Basketball.... One day I came across your pointres.... As God Almighty have given you to me, I hope also that you will help me from this time and forever. Sir, I needed some of the Basketball materials—such as canvas sizes eight, socks, pant and jerseys or you could give. I know that you will give a kind consideration to this my humble words and grant unto me that I have stated above, and give me a book that covers basketball from A to Z.... [I am] also asking for a vacancy in your school. I am a lad of 16 years and attending James Town Academy, my height is 5'1" and weight 112 lbs."