In a 1969 article in Sports Illustrated, Lon Shelton Varnell was described as being a “coach, Methodist Minister, coal mine operator, car dealer, political campaign manager, hardware store proprietor and promoter of high-class entertainment in 49 states and Canada. As a sign that Lon Varnell was destined to be a big person in life, his birth weight was 13 pounds which was recognized in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as a record.
Born in Adamsville, Tennessee, Varnell was a three-sport letterman in high school and college at Freed-Hardeman College and Bethel College in West Tennessee before entering the coaching field.
He first coached basketball at Bethel, Southern Methodist University and the University of Kentucky under the famed Adolph Rupp before he migrated to the University of the South (Sewanee) in 1948 to be head coach. Varnell also officiated as a referee in basketball games and he worked a Kentucky versus Fort Knox game in 1943 and a Kentucky versus Vanderbilt game in 1946 which allowed him to get to know Coach Rupp that blossomed into a personal relationship.
Although he learned the use of a tight man-to-man defense from Rupp, during his 22 years of heading the Sewanee Tigers he primarily employed a zone defense. Being ordained as a Methodist minister, Varnell would sometimes display the use of some salty and explicit language against referees that he thought were mistreating his players. Sewanee, being a non-athletic scholarship school, required Varnell to recruit players with excellent academic records who could qualify for financial aid or young men from prominent families that could pay for their son to attend Sewanee.
During his tenure at Sewanee his teams established a commendable record against teams with athletic scholarship players. Playing against taller and more talented squads the Tigers defeated Georgia Tech, Florida State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and others.
In 1951 he took his team to Europe and North Africa during the summer tour and won 53 of 57 games played. This tour was a first in American intercollegiate sports and concluded with Sewanee winning the World Tournament in Geneva, Switzerland. The Sewanee team toured with the Harlem Globetrotters on part of the trip.
Varnell developed a relationship with Abe Saperstein, founder and coach of the Harlem Globetrotters, which resulted in the squad in 1949 being the first all-black squad to play in the South at an engagement in Chattanooga, which continues on a yearly basis today.
Varnell would later form the Harlem Magicians in 1953 using former Globetrotter stars such as the famed dribbler Marquis Haynes and the popular Goose Tatum among others. His 1955 Magicians would play in front of the first integrated audience in Atlanta. The competition with the Globetrotters led to Varnell’s friend Saperstein in late 1961 filing a lawsuit in federal court in New York against Lon for alleged violation of Harlem Globetrotters registered trademarks “Harlem Globetrotters,” and “Magicians of Basketball by promoting Harlem Magicians.” In 1964 the lawsuit was settled with a consent decree agreed to by the former business associates.
During his coaching career Varnell compiled a record of 215 wins against 98 losses with one Collegiate Athletic Conference (CAC) championship in 1966. He remains Sewanee’s all-time leader in basketball wins (215) as a head coach and was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1973.
In the field of baseball, he set up a fall tour in the mid 1950’s with two teams of black major leaguers who barnstormed throughout the South that included Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Don Newcombe, Joe Black, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, etc.
After retiring from coaching in 1970 he started Varnell Enterprises and established himself as a leading promoter in entertainment events that included stars such as Bill Cosby, Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Elton John, Sonny & Cher, the Oak Ridge Boys, Elvis Presley, Lawrence Welk and Liberace.
His record at Sewanee is perpetuated each year with the Lon Varnell Classic that opens the season for the Tigers. When he died of cancer in 1991 at the age of 77, he was survived by his wife Kathryn, three sons and a daughter.
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