Ole Miss’ Pavilion needs some Tad Pad magic
The haze could get so thick in the rafters that sitting in the upper rows of Tad Smith Coliseum made basketball games looked like a fog machine was running.
These were the days when smoking was still allowed in the hallways that encircled the Tad Pad, and with the portals opened during games, smoke rushed back inside the arena and up to the rafters. It didn’t impact many fans, unless Ole Miss was playing Kentucky or Mississippi State, most seats were empty.
Only children who thought sitting up high was fun or teens trying to mingle with the opposite sex sat in the top rows with the hazy view.
Ole Miss had never been very competitive in basketball, yet Oxford residents developed a personal relationship with teams and players. It was their winter entertainment, a venue to see the great stars of the SEC, while pulling for local favorites like rebounder Walter Actwood or point guard Sean Touhy.
Looking around you knew where every Oxford family sat at Rebel games. The Bakers were there. The Lamars were there. The Threadgills were just above them. The Hendersons. The Dyes, the Fairs and so on. There were not more than 1,000 season ticket holders in total, with most being from Oxford, while others from Memphis, Batesville, and Senatobia filled in.
Tickets were so hard to sell in the mid-70s that star football player “Gentle” Ben Williams wrestled a bear at halftime of a weeknight game to stir interest. Williams was the first African American player on the Ole Miss football team and a star on and off the field. He was named after the Gentle Ben bear character from a TV program, so marketing types thought fans would be entertained by the halftime charade.
We were, which doesn’t say much for the basketball in those days.
Since starting competition in 1908, Ole Miss did not make it to the postseason all the way through the 1970s. Not one, single post-season appearance spanning seven decades, and most seasons in that era were losing seasons.
That’s why those first seasons that Ole Miss basketball became respected and competitive might as well have resulted in national championships they felt so good to fans who had endured so much.
It started when Ole Miss hired an assistant from Indiana, who had worked under Bob Knight. Bob Weltlich vowed to run a “poor man’s Indiana” offense, and he did, installing a cut-screen-cut-screen-cut offense that ran the clock and paired with an aggressive man-to-man defense to make a less talented team more competitive.
New Albany native John Stroud had led the SEC in scoring his junior year, 1979, but it was his senior year the Rebels got a first taste of winning.
With hard-nosed point guard Touhy dishing the ball to Stroud and a junior forward named Elston Turner, Ole Miss scrapped its way in 1980 to a winning season, earning its first-ever postseason bid and routinely filling a turned-rowdy Tad Pad to the rafters.
The NIT, which paired the Rebels in a first-round game against Grambling, was no NCAA Tournament, yet the first postseason game for the Rebels after seven decades of trying sold out in hours. Never mind that it was during Ole Miss’ spring break.
The Rebels won a close game with Grambling but lost a road game in the second round to a Minnesota team led by a player named Kevin McHale.
Didn’t matter, since Rebel basketball had finally arrived.
There was a lot of good in the years after, with players like Carlos Clark, Keith Carter and Michael White making basketball games must-see events in Oxford. Ole Miss even found its way to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 one season and the Tad Pad shed its haze, emerging as one of the more difficult arenas for visiting teams in the country.
We have a new arena now that’s among the best in college basketball from an aesthetics standpoint. But it hasn’t yet found that Tad Pad magic.
However, another season is just around the corner with the Rebels tipping off at home on Nov. 10.
David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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