Think of him as a fan who loves UT basketball with March Madness enthusiasm year-round. “I may have more University of Tennessee official items than UT currently has,” says Larry Smith, a 1976 graduate of UT’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources.
Smith is referring to his collection of UT men’s basketball memorabilia… And what a collection it is! This isn’t a handful of old programs or a signed ball or two; this is a veritable museum of UT’s century of basketball history, carefully organized and catalogued for the ages.
Smith began his collection barely 10 years ago, somewhat on a whim. His son collected NBA basketball cards, and a couple of former Vols showed up in a pack. Smith’s son gave the cards to his father, and a passion for preservation was ignited. What began with a player’s card has grown over the course of a decade into a massive collection chronicling the history of the UT men’s basketball program.
The collection is wide-ranging. Smith has thousands of ticket stubs from every home and away game going back to 1932; for more than 1,000 of those games he also has the programs. The collection boasts photos of every team since 1909, full newspaper accounts of games as far back as the 1930s, an original jersey from 1922… And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Every UT player since 1948 has his own personal file in Smith’s collection. (He’s currently working on getting 1909-1947 in order.) Smith carefully cross-references his collection to ensure that both the individual players’ files and the files for each year’s team as a whole are catalogued accurately. He tries to acquire duplicates of materials that include individual players’ photos or stories: one for the team file, one for that player’s file.
Far beyond a hobby, Smith’s commitment to the collection is truly about preserving history. In fact, he’s started a nonprofit organization—University of Tennessee Men’s Basketball HOOPS Inc. “HOOPS” stands for “History of Our Players.” Smith often attends former teams’ reunions and brings the parts of his collection that apply to those players. “They love going through the scrapbooks,” he says. Smith says former players’ children and grandchildren also are touched by his collection. In the past he has given former players and their families items of special significance to them.
Likewise, much of his collection has been acquired from players. Many items have been donated to him over the years. “I also check eBay every night,” he admits.
Among the more unique items in his collection, Smith owns the old Alumni Gym locker room bench and door. He also purchased the old gym floor. He’s broken it up; he gives pieces to the former players who donned the Orange and White there.
Whether it’s a program from a team dinner, an old warm-up suit, a letter sweater, or items from the Ray Mears era, Smith’s collection impresses. He maintains it all on his own, privately. “I could use a full-time assistant,” he says, “and more space.” He is open to the idea, someday, of having an open-to-the-public museum where all Vols fans can enjoy the basketball history he’s collected.
In the meantime, he’s at every game, cheering on this year’s Vols and collecting items to update his files on Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism, and Bobby Maze—just as he has for 100 years of UT basketball Vols.