Neyland to Nelson: You won’t be here very long

Marvin Westwestwords

Never let it be said that Robert R. Neyland didn’t know a winner when he saw one.

We left Lindsey Nelson yesterday, conveniently forgiven by the coach, tutoring Tennessee Volunteers in English and other mysteries of academic growth and Southeastern Conference eligibility.

This was a spectacular time in what became Big Orange Country. The Volunteers went three years without losing a regular-season game. They played 17 consecutive games without giving up a point.

This was Bob Suffridge, George Cafego, Bob Foxx, Bowden Wyatt, Ed Cifers, Abe Shires, Leonard Coffman, Ed Molinski – some of the best ever. They all, even those who could read and write and didn’t need a tutor, knew Lindsey Nelson.

He was around. Everywhere. He was spotter and tag-along assistant for Jack Joyner, publicity director and public address announcer. Lindsey was in Miami for the 1939 Orange Bowl. He hitched a ride, ran errands and was available to assist the working press – without pay.

Lindsey Nelson with UT coach Robert Neyland. (UT Athletics)

He got his big break into broadcasting at a Tennessee-Vanderbilt game. The radio booth was stacked on top of the dinky press box at Shields-Watkins Field. You had to climb a ladder to get up there – and carefully work your way down that same ladder and walk half a mile to the nearest restroom.

WSM announcer Jack Harris needed to go at halftime. He left Lindsey to read first-half statistics. There was a long line. Harris was late getting back. Because of a second cup of coffee, Lindsey Nelson was on the air.

Lindsey made it to Pasadena for the 1940 Rose Bowl. He caught a ride with a Sevierville brick mason driving out to visit his parents. He found the Coliseum, ran up and down the aisles in the empty stadium and wondered how you could even see a game from the top row.

He tagged along to a Tennessee party at the home of famous director Clarence Brown. He met Tom Mix and Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Better yet, he met Lana Turner. She mistook him for a skinny, little player, hugged him and gave her autograph with this little message: “Do it for me, Lindsey.”

That slip of paper went everywhere with Lindsey’s wallet.

Lindsey Nelson did whatever he could find to do around and about the Volunteers. He was Lowell Blanchard’s assistant for WNOX broadcasts. He earned $25 as Bill Stern’s helper for a national game. Once when the team, on a road trip, was stranded in a dry county, he made a whiskey run for Neyland. The then-major needed an occasional nip – for medicinal purposes.

Along came World War II. Nelson’s ROTC studies earned him a military commission. He logged five years on active duty, assigned to the 9th Infantry Division, mostly in Europe and North Africa, almost all as a public relations officer and gentleman.

He became a captain and got close enough to danger zones to earn a Bronze Star and seven battle campaign markers.

Lindsey, never a braggart (he did show some people Lana’s note), made a point of saying he was not a combat solider, that his most distinguished military service was play by play of 13 Army-Navy football games.

Lindsey was close with war correspondents Ernie Pyle and Don Whitehead and knew generals George Patton and George Marshall, maybe better than they knew him. General William Westmoreland, who turned into U.S. Army Chief of Staff, spoke at Nelson’s New York TV retirement dinner – but that’s another story.

Nelson made it back from the war in time for the 1945 Tennessee-Villanova game. He married Mickie Lambert and rescued her from the University of Alabama. He applied for the public address job at UT and didn’t get it. In 1947, he became promotion manager for the News-Sentinel. In 1948, he moved to WKGN radio.

Big break. Alcoa owned the rights to Tennessee football broadcasts and, for some strange reason, moved the show to that station. Lindsey described all the action for $25 per Saturday.

Neyland somehow linked football broadcasts with ice cream. In both cases, he preferred vanilla. Lindsey was descriptive, even colorful, without yelling and screaming. Just about right, said the General.

Lindsey hit a home run in November 1950. He sold the Tennessee-Kentucky game to Liberty Broadcasting System and, for the first time, his words went coast to coast. Hank Lauricella fired a touchdown pass to Bert Rechichar and telegrams of praise poured in from all over the country, listeners and station managers saying Lindsey made them feel like they were there.

Neyland got other positive feedback and had a brainstorm, tying together radio broadcasting and publicity direction. He offered the job to Lindsey and said not to tell assistant coaches how much he would be earning.

Lindsey and Knoxville businessman Edwin Huster lined up four stations that would carry football broadcasts. Neyland approved. This was the start of the magnificent Vol Network.

The General was intuitive. He told Lindsey that he wouldn’t last long at Tennessee, that if he continued describing football games as he had been doing, “one of those big networks will snap you up.”

Tomorrow: Lindsey Nelson flies away, adopts wild colors, captures the heart of the sports world and comes home to Tennessee.

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