Attending Tennessee’s 1966 basketball finale against top-ranked and unbeaten Kentucky, heralded prospect Bobby Ferguson was understandably proud when his introduction at Stokely Athletics Center brought a roar from 13,000 Vol fans and an intrigued stare from legendary Big Blue coach Adolph Rupp.
“They invited me to attend the Kentucky game that winter,” Ferguson would recall 47 years later, “and introduced me as ‘the greatest junior college player in the nation.’
“That was a line, of course, but I’ll never forget how Coach Rupp leaned over and looked at me. There was a lot of cheering and, of course, I ate it up. I had chills running all over me.”
Hyperbole aside, Ferguson probably was the greatest junior college player in the nation that year. He averaged 25 points per game in two years at Hiwassee College, then tore his right ACL but still made the U.S. Pan-American team. In between, he signed a scholarship with Ray Mears’ Vols that he never got to honor.
Tennessee had no married-student housing in those days, and Ferguson was unwilling to live in a dormitory apart from his wife. Having grown up in a broken home – reared in a housing project by his mom after his parents divorced – he was determined not to create another one.
“I was from a dysfunctional family, and I didn’t really work at school,” he recalled. “If it hadn’t been for sports, I wouldn’t even have stayed in school.”
Though lacking the grades to enroll at a major college, the 6-foot-5 Ferguson was such a standout basketball player at Chattanooga’s Kirkman High School that Hiwassee’s Dwain Farmer signed him to a junior-college scholarship. Dr. James Amburgey, dean of students at Hiwassee, was skeptical.
“When Coach Farmer signed me, Dr. Amburgey, said, ‘If that boy graduates from this college I’ll eat it written on paper,’” Ferguson recalled. “I actually studied hard and graduated with a B average. So, two years later Coach Farmer wrote it down on a piece of paper, handed it to Amburgey and said, ‘Eat it.’
“And he did.”
While proving to be a solid student, Ferguson proved to be the greatest basketball player in Hiwassee’s history. He made Junior College All-America, saw his jersey retired and had his name inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. Forty-seven years after graduating he still ranks as the program’s all-time leading scorer. He also parlayed his toughness and athleticism into an average of close to 20 rebounds per game.
“This white boy could jump,” Ferguson says with a laugh. “I played power forward and spent some time in the post.”
As fate would have it, one of his best performances at Hiwassee came in a 1966 outing against the Vols’ freshmen. He lit them up for 35 points.
“Mears really went after me because I really did good in a game against Tennessee’s freshmen,” Ferguson recalled. “I got four or five offers a week from good schools. I had 39 points and 34 or 35 rebounds in one game. Afterwards, Clem Haskins of Western Kentucky told me ‘The way you played tonight you could play for anybody in the country.’ (Vol assistant) Stu Aberdeen told Coach Mears, ‘You’ve got to have that boy. He can play right now.”
Ferguson grew up a Vol fan, so convincing him to sign with Tennessee wasn’t too difficult. Getting him onto the basketball court was another matter. The prospect simply was unwilling to reside in a dorm without his wife. Out of respect for the player’s talent, Mears tried hard to solve the problem.
“A lawyer let us live in the service quarters behind his home in Fountain City for a while,” Ferguson said. “I took care of the pool and yard work to cover the rent. When the brother-in-law of this lawyer came back from overseas, though, the lawyer told Coach Mears I couldn’t stay there any longer.”
Ferguson and his wife lived in a Neyland Stadium apartment for a while but that proved to be another short-term fix.
“Coach Mears tried to work things out,” Ferguson said. “In the end, though, I would’ve had to move into a dorm, and I wasn’t going to do that because my wife couldn’t live there with me.”
Ultimately, Tennessee’s lack of married-student housing may have cost the Vols a Final Four appearance. Even without Ferguson, a 1966-67 Vol squad led by All-American Ron Widby, 7-footer Tom Boerwinkle, Bill Justus, Tom Hendrix and Bill Hann swept Kentucky, went 21-6 in the regular season, won the SEC title and made the 23-team NCAA Tournament field. As fate would have it, Tennessee suffered a one-point first-round loss to a Dayton squad that ultimately fell to John Wooden, Lew Alcindor and UCLA in the national championship game.
With the versatile Ferguson on its roster, Tennessee might have reached the title game instead of Dayton. In retrospect, he admits that “what might have been” is an intriguing topic.
“I would love to have played for Tennessee,” he said, “but I knew our marriage would not work with us being apart.”
Determined to find a school that would allow him to share living quarters with his wife, Ferguson contacted Dwain Farmer, his former coach at Hiwassee who was now calling the shots for Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens.
“Coach Farmer already had a full roster but he found a way to get me on the team,” Ferguson said. “He also got me a place to live and a bunch of other stuff. There was no rule against that kind of thing back then.”
Despite a significant knee injury that first year at Wesleyan, he led the Bulldogs to a 30-5 record – still the best in program history – and the Final Eight of the NAIA nationals. Next he competed against the best of the NCAA, the NAIA, the AAU and the Armed Forces to earn a berth on the U.S. Pan-American team.
Occasionally, Ferguson and his Wesleyan teammates would hitch-hike the 40 miles from Athens to Knoxville to play pickup games against Tennessee’s players. He completed his college career in 1967-68 by averaging 18 points and a school-record 13.0 rebounds per game en route to earning All-Volunteer State Athletic Conference recognition for a second year in succession.
With college ball behind him, Ferguson was surprised to receive invitations to a pair of pro training camps. One offer came from the NBA’s New York Knicks; the other from the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.
Without realizing it, Ferguson had been tabbed by the Knicks in Round 16 of the 1968 NBA Draft. That was a big deal for an undersized post player from Tennessee Wesleyan with a bad knee.
“It was exciting,” he recalled. “About the same time I got an offer to try out with the Dallas Cowboys. Dallas had recruited me because I was rough; I’d knock your head off. Dallas sent me a letter asking me to come and try out but I threw it away because I’d gotten a letter from the Knicks telling me they had drafted me. When my wife asked me about the offer from the Cowboys I said, ‘Man, I’m not a football player.’”
Hoping to make a living playing basketball, Ferguson attended the Knicks’ training camp in Farmingdale, Long Island. It was an experience he’ll never forget.
“It was exciting but rough,” he recalled. “One day in practice Phil Jackson knocked me on my back. I looked at (head coach) Red Holzman to see why he didn’t call a foul, and he gave me a look you wouldn’t see in Sunday School.”
Although the Knicks featured such standouts as Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Walt Bellamy and Cazzie Russell, Ferguson held his own in camp, especially as a rebounder.
“I’ve got big hands. I can palm the ball and I played rough,” he said. “I went after the ball on the boards. From the time the opening tip went up till the buzzer sounded the end of the game my heart was in it.”
Ferguson’s gimpy knee collapsed one day in practice, however, and his chances of making the Knicks’ roster collapsed with it.
“It wasn’t a bad injury but it was enough that the Knicks could see I wasn’t the same,” he recalled. “I rebounded good and I could guard Bill Bradley. But when I tried to guard Walt Frazier ... well, my cutting and lateral movement had been affected.”
Cut by the Knicks, Ferguson returned to East Tennessee and found a job as a teacher. To his surprise, he got an invitation from yet another pro franchise. The NBA’s Chicago Bulls invited him to join their organization.
“I could’ve gone to Scranton, Pennsylvania, and played for the farm club there,” he said. “The Bulls didn’t have much back then but it was an honor and I would’ve been paid a pretty good salary in the farm league. I knew my knee wouldn’t hold up, though, so I moved back from Athens to Chattanooga and taught school for six years.”
His colorful life underwent a radical change at this point. Instead of teaching, Ferguson found himself called into preaching.
“After six years of teaching I surrendered to preach,” he recalled. “The Lord called me to preach, and I’ve pastored seven churches since then. My testimony is called ‘From The Court to Christ,’ and it covers my childhood, my career and my conversion.”
Ferguson’s new calling took him to Magnolia, Arkansas, then Henderson, Texas, then Greenfield, Indiana. At the latter he served as assistant pastor/basketball coach/assistant administrator for a Christian school. His ministry kept him moving but he never lost touch with Vol basketball and football, passionately following those programs via TV, radio and newspaper.
“Wherever I was,” he says, “I always remained true to Tennessee.”
Now pastoring Gunnings Baptist Church in Blountville, Tenn., Ferguson’s passion for Vol athletics is at an all-time high. His grandson, Riley, signed a football scholarship with Tennessee last February and will compete for the Vols’ first-team quarterback job in August. No one was happier when Riley signed his letter of intent than his paternal grandfather.
“I pushed this,” Bobby Ferguson admits. “I talked to Donnie (his son, Riley’s dad). I prayed about it and everything else. I thought Riley was going to end up at Alabama. They came by two weeks before the national title. Notre Dame wanted him. I just said, ‘Riley, I’d love to see you in orange. I’m going to support you anywhere you go … but nothing would thrill me more than to see you at Tennessee.”
Even after Riley committed to the Vols, family members thought he might sign elsewhere. As Bobby recalls: “One time Donnie called me and said, ‘Alabama’s coming after him hard. You might want to start praying.’ I said, ‘I’ve been praying.’
“I thought sure Alabama would get Riley. They would not stop recruiting him. They thought they had him, too, after Dooley left.”
Ultimately, the firing of Derek Dooley as head coach and the subsequent hiring of Butch Jones did not change Riley’s determination to be a Vol. To say his grandfather was thrilled on National Signing Day might be the understatement of the year.
“Oh, my! I was just elated,” Bobby Ferguson recalled. “I just didn’t know what to expect after Dooley left. Charlie Strong called the day after Louisville beat Florida (in the Sugar Bowl) and said, ‘Riley we want you. Our program fits you.’”
Ultimately, young Ferguson stayed true to the Vols. With Tennessee’s quarterback situation muddled following the departure of three-year starter Tyler Bray, Ferguson and fellow incoming freshman Joshua Dobbs will get every opportunity to compete for the No. 1 job this August. Dobbs, like Ferguson, qualified for the prestigious Elite Eleven quarterback camp last summer.
“Riley understands that the best man is going to play,” Bobby Ferguson said. “(ESPN football analyst) Trent Dilfer described Riley as a fierce competitor, and he is that.
Riley has lost two games since seventh grade. Those were in 2011, when they didn’t win the state championship ring. He won three state championship rings, although one of them (freshman year) he was not the No. 1 quarterback.”
Because Neyland Stadium is just 90 minutes from his Blountville home, Rev. Ferguson says he’ll be visiting Knoxville a lot in the years ahead.
“I want to try to make every game I can,” he says.
Watching his grandson play quarterback for his favorite college team is sure to give Bobby Ferguson chills … much like that night in 1966 when his introduction at Stokely Athletics Center brought cheers from 13,000 Vol fans and an intrigued stare from Adolph Rupp.