KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The University of Tennessee men's basketball team is obviously on a roll. The team's current 12-game winning streak ties a school record set in the 1976-77 season and the Vols are the top-ranked team in the AP poll for only the second time in history.
Beyond the statistical accomplishments, the squad's likability factor is through the rafters. When they're not helping fans change flat tires, they are flattening opponents.
"What people like is the way this team plays. This team has very good chemistry. They're willing to share the ball. They really buy into the system and respect Coach Barnes," said Bud Ford, the former longtime sports information director who came out of retirement in October to serve as the athletic department's historian. "Right now, the people in Knoxville are in love with it, no doubt about it."
Ford has seen his share of historic Tennessee basketball teams. He started working for UT in 1967, traveled with the basketball team for 24 years, and retired in 2011. He watched UT's first SEC championship team in the 1960s and then witnessed what is likely the most popular squad in the history Tennessee hoops in the mid-1970s."
"The 12-game winning streak, the '77 team did that with Bernie and Ernie and there were fewer games back then," said Ford. "Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King were both repeat first-team All-American players. The team played an exciting style of fast break basketball, and they sold out Stokely (Athletic Center) on a nightly basis. Stokely only held 12,700 and that team's success in the 1970s built the foundation to build Thompson-Boling Arena where this current team is selling out more than 21,000 seats."
The current crop of Vols have plenty of talent and teamwork, but fall short of the overwhelming star power of the 1970s teams. King and Grunfeld were featured together on the cover of Sports Illustrated and the duo averaged nearly 50 points per game. King declared for the NBA draft after his junior season and was selected seventh overall. Senior Ernie Grunfeld was chosen four picks later at the 11 spot by the Milwaukee Bucks.
"Some people believe Bernard King might have been one of the best players ever to play in the SEC. I think he definitely was. Ernie Grunfeld was a compliment to him and had great skill. The way the team played together is what made it unique," said Ford. "One time, Mike Jackson on that team scored 30 points and he was the third-leading scorer. Can you imagine scoring 30 in a college basketball game and two teammates had more points? That's how explosive the team was and there was no three-point line."
The highest the "Bernie and Ernie Show" climbed in the AP poll was 7th. They made it to the NCAA tournament twice, losing both times in the first round. However, the field was only 32 teams in those days. Tennessee's top players were also bitten by the injury bug come tournament time, notably a hand injury that hampered King in the postseason.
Ford says if the 2019 Volunteers can remain healthy, focused, and avoid settling for jump-shots, the team has an opportunity to live long in the memory of Tennessee basketball fans.
"This is a very exciting team. They have Knoxville excited. This team has a chance to be very successful. How people remember them and stack them up against the other great teams will be determined by how they finish the season," said Ford.