By Jimmy Hyams
As I visited with Gus Manning years ago at the Little Creek nursing home off Northshore Drive, I asked him a simple question.
“How did you get the name, Gus?’’
He said he was named after Saint Augustus. He was raised a Catholic.
I told him I also was raised a Catholic and served for many years as an altar boy.
Gus said he served as an altar for many years – until he got fired.
“How do you get fired as an altar boy?’’ I wondered.
Gus explained. During a service, he was supposed to ring the chimes. He rang the big bells, the loud bells, the bells that usually dismiss you from Mass.
A Nun fired him, he said.
“My Mother never got over that,’’ he said.
We both broke out in laughter.
I rarely visited Gus Manning when we didn’t have a hearty laugh.
Unfortunately, we have shared our last laugh together.
Gus died Sunday night, Super Bowl night. He was 99. He was born July 8, 1923.
He was a legend in Tennessee athletics. He served as a sports information director, administrative assistant to the athletic director, ticket manager and jack-of-all trades. He worked for Gen. Robert Neyland through Doug Dickey, from 1951 to 2000.
He once attended 608 consecutive Tennessee football games, from 1951 to 2003. The streak ended when he suffered an ankle injury the week of a road game at Kentucky. He attended home football games from 1946-2017.
I had the honor, the privilege of sitting next to Manning at home Tennessee football games for years. I think UT’s sports information staff knew the relationship we had and the respect I had for Gus.
“Just about anything you could think of, Gus was the go-to guy during that time for a number of years,’’ Bud Ford, a longtime UT sports information director and close friend of Manning, said in an interview with The Torchbearer in 2020.
“He was at the center of nearly everything that happened in the athletics department, and there was nobody more respected.’’
Manning, a native of Knoxville, attended Rule High School, where he was voted Best All-Around Athlete. He was a walk-on for the UT football team and lettered in baseball.
He served in the Marine Corps during World War II. He graduated from UT in 1950 and was hired as the SID by Neyland. He worked with 11 football coaches and eight athletic directors.
When he was admitted to the Little Creek facility, I was able to make almost weekly visits, since it was a mile from my house. I usually went in the afternoon, so we could watch a sporting event together.
The visits became less frequent due to Covid and me moving to East Knoxville.
His room was adorned by pictures of former Tennessee coaches and athletes and colleagues, and, of course, cheerleaders.
We talked about sports. We talked about life. His memory was remarkable. He could not only tell you every cut Johnny Butler made on a famous run against Alabama, but he kept up with current UT events as well.
He once told me how Johnny Majors scolded him for allowing Paul Horning to win the 1956 Heisman Trophy while Horning played on a 2-8 Notre Dame team and Tennessee was a contender for the national championship.
“I had to work like hell to get you second,’’ Manning told Majors.
Manning also reminded Majors than Horning always bought Gus a mint julip at the Kentucky Derby.
Often times at Little Creek, other guests would frequent while I was visiting Gus. There was no shortage of friends and family and admirers. And you could hardly find a place to park when Little Creek held a birthday party for Gus Manning.
Gus always thanked his visitors and demanded they sign his guest book, a book that was filled with names of well-known figures.
The last time I went to see Gus was Jan. 30.
It was mid-morning. He was asleep. I tried to wake him. Couldn’t do it. I felt guilty for tapping him on his shoulder multiple times. A nurse came by. She couldn’t wake him either.
I decided to leave him at rest.
Two weeks later, he is at rest with other UT legends like Haywood Harris, John Ward and Bill Anderson.
I will always cherish the time I spent with Gus Manning. The laughs. The stories. The bonding. The friendship.
Rest in peace, my friend.