Vanatta's spirit defied his age
About six weeks ago, the family and I went to a Lebanon restaurant for an after-church lunch.
Wilson Central basketball coach Troy Bond, wife Ginny and stepson Jon Rosshirt were also there. There was also an older gentleman in a light-colored suit whom I didn't recognize.
I sat down with my family with the Bond clan behind and across the aisle from me. A couple of moments later, I heard a familiar voice.
"That was Randy Vanatta," I thought. And then it hit me who the voice was coming from.
Though I had run into Randy Vanatta on occasion through the years and spent an evening with him and his old Cumberland basketball teammates at a reunion a couple of years ago, this was probably the first time I had seen him in a coat and tie since he coached basketball as Campbell Brandon's assistant at Lebanon in the 1980s. His hair was also grayer that I had ever seen it.
If you've read this newspaper this week or heard the chatter around town, you probably know we lost Randy in a tragic car accident a week ago today at the too-young age of 58. As columnist Jack Leftwich eloquently pointed out earlier this week, Randy suffered from neuropathy, a painful, progressive and debilitating disease which occasionally left him homebound.
His body may have been failing him in recent years, but his spirit was the same life-loving, adventurous, mischievous self it had been all his life. He wore his hair a little longer than most, even after it went out of style [a young Peter Fonda comes to mind]. He may or may not have been rebellious, but he was going for that look. He may have been growing older, but he was determined not to live like it.
Randy was in the early years of his 30-year teaching/coaching career at LHS when I was a student there. When I began covering sports for this newspaper in the mid-1980s, Watertown's girls' basketball coach was Ryan Vanatta. I knew Ryan for probably a year before Randy told me they were brothers. They didn't look alike, and aside from both being high school teachers and coaches, didn't [Ryan is six years older] seem to have much in common.
Both made their marks on LHS athletics. Ryan was a linebacker who played a key role in the Blue Devils' victory in the first game played at what is now Nokes-Lasater Field in 1965. Randy was a basketball and baseball star who played both sports at what was then Cumberland Junior College and baseball at Middle Tennessee State before being hired at LHS upon his graduation in 1976.
Randy told me just a couple of years ago he was proud of having played on some of the best Blue Devil basketball and baseball teams ever. Cumberland's 1974 baseball team, Randy's sophomore year in college, was the first to win 20 games, a big accomplishment during the pre-Mickey Englett/Woody Hunt era.
But it was his basketball season during that sophomore year which really lives on in Cumberland lore. Coached by future Division I coach Cliff Ellis, the Bulldogs went 34-2, the best mark ever for the school as a two- or four-year institution. Ellis told my by phone Thursday Randy is the fourth player from the '74 team, and fifth from the coach's three-year tenure on Cumberland Square, to have passed away.
"It's been a tough time," Ellis said. "It was great group. It's been tough to see that happen."
To Ellis, Randy was a smiling assassin.
"He always had a smile, but within that smile was a lot of competition," said Ellis, now the coach at Coastal Carolina following stops at Clemson and Auburn. "He always wanted to win. Whether it was badminton or checkers, he wanted to beat you."
Ellis recalled a game in which Randy scored 18 points against Roane State.
"He was tickled to death," Ellis said. "He had the game of his life, and he thought he would get that every game. But he was playing behind Charles Fishback, who was probably the greatest player to ever play at Cumberland.
"He came off the bench. He made our team better."
Randy went on to assist the legendary Brandon during the heyday of Devilette basketball. He was there when Lebanon lost the 1982 state final to Smyrna and had a front-row seat to the '83-84 team which won its first 29 games, was ranked No. 1 in the state and ranked nationally in the relatively new USA Today poll until a region upset loss to Shelbyville at the buzzer.
While Brandon built a reputation as an in-your-face coach, Randy was the counter-balance good cop.
"One of his biggest assets was his rapport he had with the players," said Brandon, who served as a pall bearer. "His presence is going to be greatly missed by a lot of people in different walks of life.
"I'm not going to have anybody to argue with anymore on things other than basketball. We agreed on basketball more than we agreed on anything."
Brandon knew Randy long before he became the assistant, having had him in class as well.
"He was kind of close to our program because he used to date Brenda Arnold," said Brandon, referring to the star of his 1971 state championship team.
About the time of the '82 runner-up season, 12-year-old Troy Bond came into Randy's life as he was dating Troy's mother and eventually married her. When Bond, who struggled to even make the basketball team in middle school, was on the verge of stardom at LHS, Vanatta told me Troy was like a son to him. There was no "step" in their relationship, which outlasted the marriage.
"I can't ever remember a time when he introduced me other than that way," said Bond, now the longtime boys' coach at Wilson Central. "He had a huge influence on me career-wise.
"He's the guy who taught me to play basketball… He said, 'If you want to be a basketball player, this is what you have to do…' I took it literally… I fell in love with basketball through Randy. It got me through college [basketball scholarships at Columbia State Community College and Tennessee State]. It turned out to be a career for myself.
"Twenty years of coaching high school basketball, first at Lebanon as an assistant and now at Wilson Central. It all goes back to Randy. Randy taught me a whole lot of different things about life, being a good person, working hard."
Randy didn't just set Troy up for his professional life, but his personal one as well.
"I met my wife through him in 2009," Bond said. "Without him there, what do I end up doing?
"I feel blessed with the opportunity to be with him. He touched a lot of people through golf [over 20 years coaching the LHS team] or basketball. He quit helping with the girls to watch me."
Randy was part of the old guard of LHS athletics - Brandon, Hester Gibbs, Bruce Skeen, Larry Grissim, etc. He was the one who told me about playing Rotisserie-league baseball, now commonly called fantasy baseball, back in the '80s.
If Randy wasn't playing or coaching sports, he was a fan. Anything he felt a hankering to get involved with, he did so with gusto. He even dabbled in local politics successfully enough to be elected to the Wilson County Commission.
"He was a happy-go-lucky guy," Ellis said. "If you didn't like Randy Vanatta, there was something wrong with you."