Vol Network brings back big games 

Marvin Westwestwords

The Vol Network has been relatively quiet for several weeks but it has made a comeback.

Radio repeats of special games is a great idea, a perfect pacifier for impatient fans anxiously awaiting word about the 2020 season. It sure was good to hear John Ward and Bill Anderson again. Knowing who is in control, Steve Early and Glenn Thackston, we won’t get stuck with any hurtful disappointments.

Knoxville broadcasts of football and basketball are on WNML AM 900, FM 99.1, on Saturdays at noon. Showtime varies elsewhere.

The network, blessed with a procession of talented people, has a rich and colorful history of delivering the Volunteers to millions. Strange that radio coverage really took off 70 years ago with a New York touch, high-tech for the time, innovative, cutting edge.

Do you remember … oh well, probably not.

Lindsey Nelson

“Hello everybody, I’m Lindsey Nelson. … You’re listening to the Vol Network. Stand by for the kickoff.”

The Vols were on the air in Knoxville before there was a network. Long before he was a broadcast star, Nelson was all-everything as a UT student. He stayed as close to the team as he could. He was an academic tutor. He helped with promotions. He hitched rides to bowl games and served as press box spotter for celebrities. He assisted Lowell Blanchard with broadcasts for WNOX.

Nelson went off to war, stayed five years and returned in search of a way to earn a living. Among several minor adventures, he described a 1947 high school game for WKGN radio.

As luck would have it, Tennessee football broadcasts moved to that station the next year. Lindsey had connections.

On opening Saturday of the 1948 season, Nelson was behind the mic for Tennessee versus Mississippi State at Shields-Watkins Field. His pay was $25.

Nelson was smart. He concluded that others outside Knoxville liked the Volunteers. He figured that if he had a larger audience, he might get paid more. Coach Robert R. Neyland listened to Lindsey’s proposal to create a network of stations.

Neyland was smart. One of his bridge-playing buddies at Cherokee Country Club was Edwin C. Huster, a transfer from New York who brought his advertising agency with him.

Neyland told Huster he was thinking about expanding radio presentation of the Volunteers. Huster said he might be able to help. One of his clients was Texaco.

Nelson and Huster hustled up four stations to carry UT football in 1949. Greatness was born. Texaco was a sponsor.

Neyland, being smart, knew Nelson was good at what he did. He told the young announcer he would not be long in Knoxville, that some big group would soon buy his services.

In 1951, Lindsey went with Liberty Broadcasting System. From there, he went on to the moon, with a closet full of spectacular sports coats as his colorful trademark.

Alan Stout did play-by-play for Tennessee in 1951. During a visit in Memphis, Neyland asked another friend, station owner George Mooney, voice of Arkansas football, about switching loyalties for 1952.

The General helped Mooney find ex-Vol Bob Foxx as analyst. They worked well together through 1967. Strange that Mooney is identified with creation of the Vol Navy rather than what he said about football.

John Ward

Ward was next and the rest is modern history. He and Edwin Court Huster Junior built the Vol Network into one of the strongest in the country, 140 affiliates. The network had Husters for 55 years. After Ed Junior died suddenly in 2004, Early and Thackston became the certified leaders.

Early says Ward was the main man. He had a law degree to go with his great personality and his advertising agency. He negotiated with sponsors. Have you heard the virtues of natural gas?

Ward dropped in for a cup of coffee with station owners. After that, he invented “It’s football time in Tennessee” and “Give him six!”

With the help of others (Mark Dyer is a magic name), the network expanded from radio and television into home videos and other communication and marketing outlets. The Best of the Big Orange video series was among the highlights. Credit Early.

Rumor has it that Ward endured only one real shock. Doug Dickey, as athletics director, told John that the network needed to generate more money. Host Communications had offered to double the take.

Ward rejected the personal risks of Dickey’s proposal and moved down from heart-and-soul to employee. Only his love of the university and the Vols kept him in Knoxville. How much did he care? In time, he gave back millions of what he had earned.

Perhaps you recall that Ward added life to coaches’ playback shows. He made Dickey almost warm and fuzzy. He helped John Majors stay on track. The coach had the natural ability to switch, in an instant, from a discussion of the wishbone to his personal philosophy of “marrying up.”

Ward added sparkle to Phillip Fulmer shows. Fulmer had and has great football knowledge but was guarded in what he said. He has developed as a personality.

Bob Kesling has been the radio play-by-play voice of the Vols for 21 years. Tim Priest is the astute analyst.

Kesling is adaptive. Consider how different, one from another, are the football and basketball coaches scattered across Bob’s career – Fulmer, Lane Kiffin, Derek Dooley, Butch Jones, Jeremy Pruitt, Jerry Green, Buzz Peterson, Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, Donnie Tyndall and Rick Barnes.

Through it all, the Vol Network has flourished. Reruns will be fun.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com

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