NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Those who followed Vanderbilt men’s basketball in the early 1970s knew that something special was brewing behind close doors.
Before true freshmen were eligible to play in the NCAA’s Division I at that time they began their college careers on freshmen or junior varsity teams. And at Vandy, that sort of team in those days featured a fearsome foursome that included Jan Van Breda Kolff.
“People saw these four play on the freshman team, and they were exciting,” van Breda Kolff told The Commodore yearbook in 1974. “They started talking about Jan’s passing, Terry’s unorthodox shots, Bill’s moves and Lee’s long jump shots. It was like a ray of hope.
“They began to establish a relationship with the community, and the season-ticket holders started coming back.”
As a captain of the 1972-73 and 1973-74 teams under head coach Ray Skinner, van Breda Kolff led the Commodores to a 43-11 record over those two seasons and to new heights. Vanderbilt went a combined 28-8 in SEC play, won the league’s regular-season title in 1974 and played in the NCAA Tournament.
The 6-foot-7 van Breda Kolff led the Commodores with 9.7 rebounds and five assists per game while scoring 10.6 points per contest in ’73-74. He was named SEC Player of the Year and second-team All-America by Converse Yearbook.
Along with the aforementioned Terry Compton, Bill Ligon and Lee Fowler, van Breda Kolff helped change the face of Vanderbilt basketball.
“Outside of going to school, you spent all your time with your teammates,” van Breda Kolff told VUCommodores.com this week. “That did a lot for our team – I know it did for me because we got to know each other very intimately and then each year we got better and then grew into that championship team in 1974.
“The bond we had, the closeness we had, the togetherness — we were the cardiac kids and we won every close game because nobody would let each other down.”
Van Breda Kolff still holds the Vandy record with 5.38 career assists per game. He remains the only player in school history to average more than five assists per game in three different seasons and his 430 total assists still ranks fifth all-time at Vanderbilt.
And he did all that during an era without the 3-point shot and when dunking was prohibited.
Van Breda Kolff went on to play seven seasons in the NBA and three in the ABA. He finished his professional career with 3,696 points, 2,572 rebounds, 1,178 assists and 468 blocks.
In 1993 the California native returned to Nashville to become Vanderbilt’s head coach. The Commodores won 104 games during his six-season tenure, made the National Invitational Tournament three times and the NCAA Tournament in 1997.
“I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed coaching in front of so many great fans and seeing the development of certain players,” van Breda Kolff said. “Not every player had the success they would liked to have had and, me as a coach, I would have liked to have developed them more, but we had some very great stories and some very great success stories. I enjoyed the fans and the players and the administration and everything.”
When Vanderbilt athletic director Candice Lee recently called van Breda Kolff one evening to inform him of his induction into the Vanderbilt Athletics Hall of Fame he said he was completely surprised and shocked. Her eloquence and passion, he said, as she spoke to him about his importance to the history of Vanderbilt basketball made the honor all that much more special.
Van Breda Kolff and 10 other Commodores will be recognized during ceremonies this weekend at Vanderbilt and the hoops legend knows much of his success was only made possible by the guiding hands he encountered as a kid from the West Coast looking to do great things in Nashville.
“(Assistant) coach (Ron) Bargatze, who was the coach who recruited me out of high school and then was our freshman coach, I think he did a lot to help my confidence and help me give me the platform as a freshman to try and become a better player and a better teammate. Then I think (head) coach (Roy) Skinner was just the right person at the right time for us,” van Breda Kolff said. “He gave us the right amount of freedom. Sometimes freedom works well and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes players can take advantage of that situation and we took complete advantage of it by working hard.
“He gave us an opportunity to do certain things and he wasn’t a guy that yelled and stayed on you all practice and you got nervous. He was great for our confidence and a perfect thing for me. The success we had had a lot to do with the way he handled us.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.