Kenny Dyer Talks About Playing In An Innocuous Fundraiser That Led To McCallie Forfeiting A Chance At A State Tournament Run

Sunday, March 23, 2014 - by John Shearer
Kenny Dyer
Kenny Dyer
- photo by John Shearer

Since not long after finishing at UTC in the late 1970s, Kenny Dyer III has enjoyed a banking career in Chattanooga that has included holding several executive positions.

But part of his biography for longtime sports fans in Chattanooga will always be that he was the McCallie School basketball player who unknowingly broke a TSSAA rule in 1974 by playing in a charity tournament.

As a result, that outstanding Blue Tornado team had to forfeit its postseason run in what was perhaps one of the most famous rules violation cases ever involving a Chattanooga school.

A recent profile story on that team’s star player, Greg Keith, now of Charlotte, N.C., mentioned some detail about the team and its unfortunate disqualification, but it did not have Mr. Dyer’s perspective of that long ago time.

However, in one of the rare times he has talked about it publicly, Mr. Dyer recently agreed to look back on what transpired 40 years ago this month, saying part of that time is almost a mental blank.

“It was obviously a very emotional time,” he recalled last week from his first-floor office at the downtown CapitalMark Bank, where he serves as banking group president. “It was difficult.”

“People still ask me about it today. They say it was so unfair.”

Although a more natural baseball player who went on to be a standout for the UTC Mocs, Mr. Dyer tried to play basketball for McCallie that year simply because he loved the game and enjoyed competition. For most of the year, he had played sparingly as a reserve.

Besides Mr. Dyer and Mr. Keith, who signed with Georgia and later transferred to Wake Forest, the team under coach Bill Eskridge and assistant Bill Eiselstein also included Carl McPhail, Will Fanjoy, Preston Smith, Bobby Goodrich and top reserve Jack Webb, among other players.

“I wasn’t a great basketball player,” said Mr. Dyer in an easily approachable manner more typical of a bank assistant branch manager than a top executive. “If I had to go in for Greg or Carl or Will Fanjoy, it was because one of them was in foul trouble. But I loved the sport and I loved the game.”

He added that the team had great chemistry, and that each player knew his role.

“Everybody was very smart, and coach Eskridge would come out with new plays for us to use the day before a game,” he said. “He was on top of his game, and that team really fit him well.”

The weekend before McCallie was going to play in the “Large” division of the region tournament, the McCallie Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter hosted a marathon fundraising tournament for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

As the grandson of furniture store owner and well-known local athletic official Cooper Dyer, Mr. Dyer agreed to serve as an official for some of the games. The fact that his grandfather had also worked with the TSSAA so closely would become ironic in the coming days.

When a team from Tyner showed up with only four players while he was there, he agreed to be the fifth player for them. The opponent was a makeshift team from Soddy-Daisy, the same school McCallie would face in the first round of the region tournament the following Monday, March 4.

Although he said he knew that players on a high school team could not also play in other leagues, such as a church league, he never thought anything about playing in this game, since it was so informal and was a one-time fundraiser.

“I never thought this was any issue,” Mr. Dyer recalled.

However, as he and numerous others would soon find out, it was.

Knowing he was going to officiate multiple games during the marathon charity, Mr. Dyer remembered not really even trying or moving a whole lot during the game he played to save his energy.

That weekend quickly moved into the past as Mr. Dyer and his McCallie teammates easily defeated Soddy-Daisy in the first round of the region tournament. Mr. Dyer was able to see some action and scored.

However, somehow word got back to Soddy-Daisy coach Charles “Burr” Elliott that one of McCallie’s players had played in the fundraising game. As a result, the TSSAA was contacted Tuesday morning.

That Tuesday at school, Mr. Dyer remembered that athletic director Bill Cherry came up to him and asked him if he had played in a charity game. He said he had, and coach Cherry did not push him much more about it. As a result, Mr. Dyer did not think much else about it that day.

But the next morning at school, the crisis exploded.

“I was in a carpool, and I remembered getting out of the car and there were all these newspaper reporters and TV people,” Mr. Dyer said. “Bill Cherry grabbed me and took me to the Millis-Evans Room.”

Once there, Mr. Dyer realized that TSSAA executive director Gil Gideon and some other officials were conducting a fact-gathering session. Also attending were representatives of Soddy-Daisy and even the local Multiple Sclerosis Society chapter. Mr. Dyer had to give his side of what transpired, still not thinking he had broken any rules.

As a result, the team continued to focus on playing Tullahoma that night in the next round of the region tournament at Maclellan Gymnasium.

They had to make a very quick decision,” remembered Mr. Dyer. “We had a walk-through that day at lunch time. I still didn’t think anything would happen.

“But coach Cherry came in and told us we were disqualified and that they were going to let Soddy-Daisy advance. That was extremely disappointing.”

Since the MS Society said the charity tournament was an advertised and sanctioned event, the TSSAA decided that McCallie had broken the rules by later playing Mr. Dyer against Soddy-Daisy.

The McCallie student body was told of the disappointing news in a hastily called special chapel gathering early that afternoon. However, after the news was broken, the student body gave the meeting a silver lining by turning it into an impromptu salute to the team.

And before it was over, a tearful Mr. Dyer was given a standing ovation by the students, as Roy Exum of the then-Chattanooga News-Free Press documented in one of his more memorable columns from that time period.

The students simply wanted to let him know they appreciated him, regardless of whether he had unknowingly violated TSSAA rules.

It was a moment that could not be forgotten by those who were there. The only one who did not have a vivid memory of it immediately afterward was Mr. Dyer, who was still almost in shock from what had transpired.

“I was such an emotional wreck that part of that went blank,” he recalled. “But it was very nice for everybody to do that. I felt horrible what my actions had done for the team and student body.”

That night, he went with his grandfather to Maclellan Gymnasium to watch the Soddy-Daisy game against Tullahoma, a memorable one that Tullahoma won in two overtimes after Soddy-Daisy’s players voted to play. Somewhat surprisingly, a number of McCallie students were also there.

Mr. Dyer said he cannot remember why he decided to go, but a few minutes before the game, he found himself walking with his grandfather along the sidelines where Soddy-Daisy coach Elliott was standing.

“I walked through the press side and walked by Burr Elliott and shook his hand and told him good luck,” Mr. Dyer remembered.

Observing the scene was Chattanooga Times sports writer Wirt Gammon Jr., who mentioned it in an article on the front page of the next day’s sports page under the headline, “Center of Controversy Extends Hand To Trojans’ Elliott.”

While the local headlines about the unusual disqualification pretty much died down after that, Mr. Dyer said it actually picked up steam in other parts of the state, with headlines in all the major newspapers.

“After that my parents got lots of calls from radio stations and newspapers, who wanted to do interviews,” he said. “But I never did any with anybody.”

He also learned that a number of papers had written editorials, some positive and some negative. However, he did not get to see them because his parents hid the paper from him for a while.

Mr. Dyer thinks some of the attention was due to the growing friction between private and public schools, a friction that eventually led to two different divisions more than 20 years later.

The event, in turn, left him feeling divisive with himself over what had taken place.

“What really upset me is that I wasn’t one of the stars of the team, but I was the one who ended the season,” he said, saying no one will ever know whether McCallie could have advanced to the state tournament as a result.

After the story died down, even if the hurt did not, Mr. Dyer went back to normal life and eventually got his name in the sports page simply for playing ball. In 1978, he was the co-captain of the Mocs baseball team just a few years before the sport was discontinued to make room for women’s sports under the Title IX mandates.

And then, in contrast to the nightmare that was McCallie’s basketball post-season four years earlier, his initial post-college life came easier than expected.

About the time he was finishing at UTC, he was in downtown Chattanooga and ran into fellow McCallie alumnus George Clark Jr. of Pioneer Bank. The gregarious Mr. Clark called him into his office, asked him what his plans were after college and gave him an impromptu interview, even though Mr. Dyer was just in blue jeans.

He would soon learn his wardrobe would be changing to suits.

“They called me the next day and offered me a job,” Mr. Dyer said.

He started as an assistant branch manager with Pioneer and eventually worked his way up to president when it was sold. Through various mergers, sales and new job offerings, he continued to hold executive positions with such banks as First American, AmSouth, Frontier, Regions and currently CapitalMark, with offices in the mid-century Pioneer Building.

Today, he still enjoys much about being a banker. “You deal with people,” he said. “And you enjoy the finance part and you enjoy helping customers succeed. We love to see our customers succeed.”

In his current position, he is in charge of all the bankers and travels as far as Knoxville and Oak Ridge about once a week.

Besides his working career, he also went on to raise a family, seeing son K.C. become a standout baseball player at McCallie and Vanderbilt, and daughter Katie at Baylor and Samford.

And, even though his unfortunate actions ended up keeping McCallie out of a possible state tournament appearance, he actually reached the state championship four times himself – as a referee.

Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, he served as an official for a number of years and was selected to referee in the big games by TSSAA executive director Ronnie Carter.

As a result, he came full circle with the TSSAA.

He has admittedly had some personal closure as well, saying the incident of 40 years ago did have some positives that did not become apparent until years later.

“It is still a sad time, but at the same time, it taught you a lot of lessons – how to overcome adversity, how to handle tough situations,” he said.

“And in the end, the support you got from your teammates and classmates is something you’ll never forget.”

(To see the earlier posted story on Greg Keith and the 1973-74 McCallie basketball team, click here:   

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