SI Vault
Harold Peterson
February 24, 1969
That is the cry at Sewanee, where Southern gentlemen and Coach Lon Varnell sometimes even win a game
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 24, 1969

Down With The Heathen

That is the cry at Sewanee, where Southern gentlemen and Coach Lon Varnell sometimes even win a game

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

For the South, the proper vacation of a university is the winter," announced an 1858 prospectus for the newly founded University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., "...when the cheerful Christmas fire is burning on the hearth, and mothers and sisters and servants can restore that holy domestic feeling which may have decayed amid the scholastic isolation of a college, when the student can engage in the sports which make him a true Southern man, hunting, shooting, riding; when he can mingle freely with the slaves who are in the future to be placed under his management."

The University of the South did indeed have winter vacation instead of summer up to 1908, by which time certain social changes seemed to have somewhat weakened the obvious arguments against summer recess. Fortunately. Had winter vacation continued much longer, untrue Southern men wishing to play basketball would have been severely disadvantaged.

Lord knows, Coach Lon Varnell has problems enough already. "Sewanee," in the Shawnee language, means either "foggy" or "lost." Come fall, the mists close in, seldom departing until springtime. And the university, in Franklin County high on the Cumberland Plateau, 54 winding mountain miles west of Chattanooga, is so far from any women's college that students can scarcely name one. The only time a girl is seen on campus is during one of the three party weekends. This has tended to affect recruiting adversely.

(In September the citadel will fall at last. Sewanee will go coed. Varnell feels fewer misgivings than the alumni: the university athletic fortunes have slipped the last couple of years. "You can't take calico and make silk," he says. "But now maybe I can recruit a few cheerleaders and their boyfriends will tag along.")

Luckily, Varnell has some sizable advantages, too. Sewanee represents the best of the South with a spacious graciousness that charms potential recruits. Better yet, he has Coach Varnell himself. Coach Varnell is the sincerest man you or your Methodist minister will ever meet. In fact, Coach Varnell is a Methodist minister.

He is also a coal-mine operator, a car dealer, a political campaign manager, a hardware-store proprietor, an agent for the Fabulous Harlem Magicians and a promoter of scores of entertainers from Lawrence Welk to The Supremes. He has been a Honduras mahogany dealer and is now an owner of beauty parlors, apartment houses and grocery stores from wherever to Texas. He also has sold popcorn at home basketball games.

An archetypal West Tennesseean with a Walter Matthau nose and blue-green eyes he squinches together to emphasize particularly sincere points, Varnell has been coaching basketball for 32 years, 21 at Sewanee. "I b'lieve I've seen the ball bounce more times than anyone else," he drawls. "Lawdy murder, I remember when we had to pump up the bladder, put the stem inside and tie up the laces. I remember when the ball had seams sewn on the outside. Why, I even remember when they put up nets. I was the one who held the ladder when Naismith nailed up the peach baskets."

Two of those 32 years were spent as an assistant to Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, who touted Varnell to U. of the S. inquirers as "next to me, the best coach I know." Varnell is a sound basketball man and, like Rupp, has a liking for fundamentals and an absolute obsession for the game. That obsession, like his 14-to-18-hour workday, is the mark of a tightly wound man, driven, in large measure, by fear of poverty and obscurity.

Getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to fire a furnace, working his way through high school in a drugstore, selling neckties to attend college—those are memories Varnell retains vividly. "The way you grow up determines what you are," he says, not entirely happily. "I had it real hard—worked for 25� a day. When your schoolmates have loose-leaf notebooks you can't afford, you never forget it.

"I grew up in Adamsville, Tenn., an amazing little town for the caliber of its people—high-type people with real character and honesty. My family there at one time owned a good part of town. My father—he ran the general store and a gin, brought in the first case of Coke, bought possum and squirrel furs to sell—had a warmth that made him a fine businessman, but he let the juice get to him. Going broke on blue cotton—he bought at 36� a pound and sold for 4�—didn't help either. I swore never to touch whiskey or politics. I still don't drink."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6