By Trey Williams
Wise decisions produced victories year-round for Science Hill athletics in the mid-1970s.
Before he became a three-year starter at tight end for Ole Miss, Billy Wise was a three-sport starter at Science Hill. He played quarterback for Snake Evans, in the frontcourt for Elvin Little and pitched and played first base at an all-conference level for Dennis Greenwell.
“I loved playing for Science Hill,” said Wise, who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he’s an investment manager. “Growing up in Johnson City was great. I actually worked with (fellow Science Hill Hall of Famer) Ferrell Bowman one or two summers when I’d come home after the spring semester. … Ferrell worked for the city and I worked with him taking care of Cardinal Park and a lot of different parks around the city as well. He’s a great guy.”
Wise had size and speed in an era when players more frequently had one or the other. He was 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds, and he ran a sub-4.7 40.
“He seriously was the Jason Witten type,” Science Hill teammate Mark Fox said.
Wise went to Ole Miss in 1976 to focus on baseball, but his stature and speed had him limited to football before his freshman year was finished. It paid off. He started three years for the Rebels and caught 43 passes for 423 yards back when SEC tight ends were usually little more than skinnier tackles.
Wise was a capable blocker. Former Ole Miss fullback Kinny Hooper, who was recruited by Johnny Majors, Bear Bryant and Vince Dooley while playing for Bradley Central, vividly recalls a crunching block Wise delivered to Georgia safety Jeff Hipp on a screen pass.
“Billy came across and just killed the Georgia safety,” Hooper said. “Billy nearly cut him in half. There was a picture of that block on the bulletin board the whole year.
“He was renowned down there for his blocking. Billy was the nicest guy in the world but he was sort of a headhunter as a blocker.”
Ole Miss went 3-2 against Tennessee while Wise was in Oxford, including his red-shirt season. Ole Miss won in Memphis in 1977 (43-14) and ’80 (20-9) and defeated the Vols 44-20 in Jackson in ’79.
Wise’s performance in his lone appearance in Neyland Stadium was regrettable.
“It was my first year starting and going back up there and playing,” he said. “It seemed like everybody I knew was in Neyland Stadium. And I remember the first pass that was thrown to me — I dropped it.
“If I’d had a knife in my sock I would’ve cut a hole in the earth and crawled in it. I was open on a 12- or 14-yard curl route and I got hit right in the hands. The next thing you know I’m standing there looking at the ball lying on the turf.”
If you think of Ole Miss at Tennessee these days, you might picture a golf ball on the field. And water bottles.
Tennessee fans, irate with the officials, blew a gasket in a home loss to Lane Kiffin-coached Mississippi last year.
Wise, of course, doesn’t mind the controversial Kiffin, who angered UT fans when he left after one season in 2009, making his Rebels relevant.
“Kiffin appears to be moving the program in the right direction,” Wise said. “He stepped into a tough situation and then produced a 10-win season in his second year. That was pretty phenomenal.
“As far as the game in Knoxville last year, college football fans are very passionate, and Tennessee fans are some of the most passionate in the country. They love their Vols.”
Kiffin probably would have loved Wise’s quarterback, John Fourcade. Indeed, the colorful Fourcade, who once visited Johnson City and was eating at Perkins around closing time, might have stolen the spotlight from Kiffin.
“Fourcade could really rifle the ball, even on the dump passes when Billy would release (when a blitz was on),” Hooper said. “Billy had really good hands and he was big for a college tight end, especially at that time. He had speed, hands and good feet.”
Ken Cooper was the Ole Miss coach during Wise’s first two seasons. Steve Sloan coached three seasons when Wise was a starter (1978-80).
Former Tennessee High coach John Cropp was the offensive coordinator, and with the strong-armed Fourcade, his Rebels were productive on offense.
Wise was 2-1 against Tennessee as a starter. He caught two passes in each of the 1979 and ’80 victories against the Vols.
Hooper said Wise was an excellent leader, especially when Steve Sloan took over. Hooper was part of a touted recruiting class which Sloan signed his first year.
“There was a little resentment when my class came in,” Hooper said. “Steve Sloan was there and going to turn the world around, and we were a highly publicized class.”
Hard feelings between veterans and the hyped newcomers began taking root in preseason camp.
“And Billy just spoke up in a meeting and said it was time they (veterans) accepted it,” Hooper said. “He said ‘Guys, they’re going to make us better. We’ve got to pull together.’
“It didn’t take him long to say it, but everybody there knew exactly what he said. It sure made the freshmen feel better, because you could tell he was respected.”
Wise credits his experiences at Science Hill with helping make him the player he was at Ole Miss.
“I feel very fortunate to have played for my coaches in all three sports at Science Hill,” he said. “They taught me a strong work ethic that carried on to Ole Miss. I will always be thankful to them for that.”
Hilltoppers teammates such as Van Williams, Gary Carter, Ronnie Garland and Marvin Christman quickly roll off the tongue, as do assistant coaches such as Keith Lyle, Mike Voitlein, Tony Farace, Ray Judy and Bob May.
Wise chuckled while describing a game-winning 50-yard screen pass to Williams on the last play of the game against Morristown East in ‘75.
“Coach Evans called a screen to Van and I think Van probably ran 150 yards to score the winning touchdown on the last play of the game,” Wise said. “I mean it was just one of the most unbelievable runs.”
Wise went 8-0 on the mound as a senior, helping Science Hill go 24-5. It was the program’s most victories since ’64. He pitched a two-hitter, striking out 13, in a postseason win. He also batted approximately .350 and hit an inside-the-park home run at Elizabethton.
Mississippi baseball coach Jake Gibbs was sold on Wise, but the burden of playing two sports quickly became unmanageable during the spring, especially when Wise was converting to tight end after his redshirt freshman season.
“I played baseball a little bit,” Wise said. “That spring my freshman year I’d do baseball from one ’til three and then go to football practice.”
Wise continued to swing a bat for Sinking Creek Baptist Church’s softball team with the likes of Fox, Mickey Leonard and Derek Carrier when he’d return to Johnson City in the summer.
Leonard and Fox attended Mississippi’s game against Florida in Oxford during Wise’s senior season.
“Mickey and I knew Wise could play, but it was something being there in person watching him dominate — right from the first snap — against SEC athletes,” Fox said. “He made a couple of good catches and blocked like a fiend. He wore out that one defensive end, absolutely wore him out. Billy was a good one – and probably a little bit ahead of his time.”