A couple of months back Marty Darnell, Charlie Patterson and Jack Darke made an impromptu trip to visit their high school basketball coach.
Looking back, it proved to be a memorable and irreplaceable trip for the three former Clarksville High teammates.
The visit was with legendary basketball coach Ben Fendley, and it was a afternoon of reminiscing about two of Clarksville High’s most memorable seasons, including a state runner-up finish in 1964.
Fendley, who coached Clarksville High’s boys basketball team to 621 wins over a 34-year career, died Sunday morning. He was 84.
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“We had made some CDs of some of our games and he got a chance to listen to some of those old games,” said Darnell, who was part of Clarksville High’s state tournament teams during the 1962 and 1963 seasons. “I’m really glad we made the trip, it was an enjoyable time. … We respected him. He was a hard working coach and he cared for us. His family is so sweet, I know them all.”
Fendley coached Clarksville High’s boys basketball team from 1958 through the 1992 season. He directed the Wildcats to five state tournament appearances, with his last great team coming during the 1988-89 season.
Led by Kentucky commitment Henry Thomas, the Wildcats reached the sectionals where they lost to Whites Creek, finishing the season at 27-5.
“The way he cared for his players — he wanted the best for his players — that’s kind of what sticks out in my mind,” Thomas said. “Of course, for me personally, just having the confidence in me as a sophomore to throw me in during the middle of the season and moving me into a starting position and having the confidence that I could help the team out — that really helped me confidence-wise and propelled me to the player that I was.”
Thomas was part of a storied list of Clarksville High basketball greats to play for Fendley, including current Clarksville High boys basketball coach Ted Young.
Young’s first encounter with Fendley didn’t occur on a basketball court. Instead it came in middle school and in the car of all places. Young said he was riding with his brother when they came up on Fendley driving in his convertible.
Young was told by his brother that Fendley was going to be his basketball coach when he was in high school.
Young rolled down the car window to say hello to his future coach, and was surprised to learn Fendley not only answered, but knew his first name.
“He said, ‘Hey Ted, how are you?'” Young said. “I knew right there I was going to have a good relationship together.”
When he arrived at CHS, it was rare sophomores played varsity basketball. However, Young proved to be the exception when Fendley saw him dunk on five consecutive layup drills.
Young graduated from Clarksville High in 1979 and when he arrived at Vanderbilt that fall, he quickly discovered the Commodores were running many of the same drills Fendley had implemented into the Wildcats program years before. Young played professionally in Japan and later returned to Japan, the Philippines and Australia to conduct basketball clinics, running the same drills Fendley routinely ran in practice.
Young has continued the basketball tradition at CHS, leading the Wildcats to four state tournament appearances and one state runner-up finish, but no one worked closer, or knew Fendley better, than Richard Hopper, who spent 19 years as an assistant coach to Fendley.
“He was one of my dearest friends and we trusted each other explicitly,” Hopper said. “He was my mentor in basketball. He had a knack for getting a feel for the game and knowing what kind of changes needed to be made during the course of a game. But I guess more than anything is he was able to get players to play a style together as a team and the way they wanted to play.”
Hopper took over the CHS program when Fendley retired in 1992, twice leading the Wildcats to the state tournament when future NBA stars Trenton Hassell and Shawn Marion played for CHS. Hopper stepped down in 1997, turning the program over to Young.
“I can say this without a doubt that the presence of Ben Fendley in Clarksville changed the face of basketball in this community,” Hopper said. “Anytime somebody brings a high level of competition to a league, the league improves.”
Long before he started a coaching career that spanned five decades, Fendley, who grew up in Dora, Ala., had his sights set on professional baseball. He came close to signing a professional contract out of high school, but a bus trip to Austin Peay with a teammate changed his fortunes.
Blakey Bradley, who played basketball for Fendley at CHS and later was the girls varsity basketball coach at CHS, said Fendley took a bus trip to Austin Peay with a hometown friend, Melton Self, who had signed to play football for Austin Peay.
Bradley, who is also a local historian and has written books on CHS athletics and Austin Peay football, said Fendley took in a practice, then called his mom in Alabama and asked her to send his clothes.
Austin Peay quickly benefited from Fendley’s decision to stick around.
Fendley played football at Austin Peay from 1947 through 1950 and at one time held 18 Austin Peay records; one of his records still stands.
Fendley was inducted into the Austin Peay Athletics Hall of Fame in 1979.
Fendley served in the Marines during the Korean War and was promoted to captain when he was in the Marine reserves.
His coaching career started in 1954 when he was the boys and girls varsity basketball coach at Dover, now Stewart County High. He coached three seasons before moving to Clarksville High prior to the 1957 season.
In his first year at CHS, Fendley was an assistant football and basketball coach and the head baseball coach. In 1958, Fendley coached the Wildcats to their first state baseball tournament.
Fendley was named the boys varsity basketball coach prior to the 1958-59 season and built the Wildcats into a state powerhouse overnight.
With a team that included Darnell, Patterson, Darke, Doug Jolly and Tommy Head, the Wildcats reached the state championship game in 1964 where they lost to Donelson.
Darnell remembered one game during the Wildcats’ consecutive state tournament runs when they trailed Gallatin by a point with seconds remaining.
Fendley called timeout to set up a play where Darnell would take a last-second shot. Darnell’s shot left his fingers fractions of a second before the horn sounded and went in giving Clarksville High the last-second win.
“I told coach Fendley, ‘You’re a fine fellow and I admire you, but that was a lot of pressure to put on me in that type of situation and it scared me,'” Darnell said. “He said. “I knew you could do it.'”
Under Fendley, the Wildcats didn’t have a losing record in his first 11 seasons. The Wildcats went 12-14 during the 1969-70 season, but rebounded to finish 28-5 a year later.
“He really worked us in the fundamentals of the game, what you needed to be successful,” said John Carney Jr., who played for Fendley in the late 1960s.
In practice Fendley addressed the fundamentals, but during a game the Auburn Shuffle often became a framework of his offense.
“I had never heard of the Auburn Shuffle, but that is what we ran and it was a very complex offense that he taught,” Carney said. “You had to do a lot of passing in that offense and there was constant movement within that offense.”
Carney said there were picks constantly being created within the offense and it proved to be a successful offense in Fendley’s system.
“If you’re going to be a champion, one thing coach Fendley taught us, you had to be a champion every day,” Carney said.