Mattingly: For 60 years, 'This is the Vol Network'

Bill Anderson, left, and John Ward, right, smile with former Tennessee star Carl Johnson during a break while conducting their last “Kickoff Call-In Show” before the Vols’ home finale with Kentucky in 1998.

Photo by Michael Patrick

Bill Anderson, left, and John Ward, right, smile with former Tennessee star Carl Johnson during a break while conducting their last “Kickoff Call-In Show” before the Vols’ home finale with Kentucky in 1998.

Bill Anderson, left, and John Ward, right, smile with former Tennessee star Carl Johnson during a break while conducting their last “Kickoff Call-In Show” before the Vols’ home finale with Kentucky in 1998.

Photo by Michael Patrick // Buy this photo

Bill Anderson, left, and John Ward, right, smile with former Tennessee star Carl Johnson during a break while conducting their last “Kickoff Call-In Show” before the Vols’ home finale with Kentucky in 1998.

Former Tennessee broadcaster Lindsey Nelson, middle, shakes hands with then-UT captain Mike Lucci as coach Bowden Wyatt watches in 1961.

Photo by News Sentinel

Former Tennessee broadcaster Lindsey Nelson, middle, shakes hands with then-UT captain Mike Lucci as coach Bowden Wyatt watches in 1961.

George Mooney served as Tennessee play-by-play man from 1952-67.

Photo by News Sentinel

George Mooney served as Tennessee play-by-play man from 1952-67.

Press Box at Neyland Stadium, as three influential Tennessee broadcasters - George Mooney (1952-67). John Ward (1968-98), and Bob Kesling (1999-present) - were there, greeted warmly by all who knew them.

Each of them contributed mightily to the legend of Tennessee football during his time behind the Vol Network microphone, at Shields-Watkins Field, Neyland Stadium, or wherever else the Vols might play, from the earliest, primitive press boxes, to the larger, more expansive broadcast areas on college campuses today.

They join Lindsey Nelson (1949-50), Alan Stout (late 1930s and early 1940s and 1951) and Joe Epstein (1946-48) as the "Voices of the Vols," telling the story of Tennessee football all across Big Orange Country.

In the history of every organization, there are visionaries who dream great dreams and are fortunate enough to see their dreams reach fruition. There are those whose actions 30, 40, 50, or even 60 years ago or longer, live on and help shape the landscape we know today.

To fully understand their impact, it's back to the beginning, back to the late 1940s. Aspiring broadcaster Lindsey Nelson and a Knoxville ad executive named Edwin Court Huster Sr., barnstormed the state to begin a radio network for University of Tennessee football. In later years, the same concept would be applied to basketball.

It was Nelson's and Huster's dream, one they lived to see become reality.

When Lindsey left Tennessee in early 1951 to go to the Liberty Broadcasting System and then to the major networks, Huster picked up the cudgels and continued the process of building the network.

In 1970, Huster passed the torch to son Edwin Huster Jr., who took it and led the network to many of its finest hours. For 34 years, he continued the family influence on the Vol Network and Tennessee athletics. Both Husters were indeed something special.

When Edwin Huster Jr. died suddenly in 2004, Steve Early picked up and hasn't missed a beat. There was a hard moment that first game night in 2004, when there wasn't a Huster in the booth, for the first time since 1949.

Here's how the Vol Network came about, thanks to Nelson's recollections.

"I thought we should call it the 'Volunteer Network,' " Lindsey wrote. "I sat in the living room of my home on Valley View Drive and practiced. 'We pause for station identification. This is the Volunteer Network.' I thought it sounded beautiful.

"I went to (UT coach Gen. Bob) Neyland and said, 'General, I have a great name for our network. Let's call it the Volunteer Network.' "

Neyland, always an innovator himself, had other ideas.

"Let's call it the Vol Network," he said.

Nelson knew the drill. Neyland sat in the big chair and had the ultimate veto power, "announcer approval" as Nelson would learn later in his career.

"Yes sir. Let's call it the Vol Network. We pause for station identification. 'This is the Vol Network.' "

Then there was the very important matter of an announcer and remuneration for the games.

"The referee gets a hundred dollars per game," Neyland said. "Do you work as hard as the referee?"

"Harder," Nelson said.

With that, Nelson had a brand new job with the Vol Network.

Today, the Vol Network stands in tribute to men's hopes and aspirations and a great deal of a lot of hard work, evolving into one of the nation's finest.

Fans listen to the games, and it all sounds so seamless and well done. It's a product of leadership from the top, from both Husters, from Nelson to Stout to Mooney to Ward, and now to Kesling and Early.

No one really knows the preparation and concentration it takes to produce a day's worth of Vol Network programming each Saturday and into Sunday morning, through the taping and video uplink of the coaches' show, particularly when the game might be a time zone or to from Knoxville.

It's been nearly 60 years since those first tentative steps were taken in establishing the Vol Network. History will record that Edwin Huster Sr., and Nelson helped build a product that has caught the imagination of the Vol fans, wherever they are. It's an indispensable part of life as we know it. The younger Huster likewise carried that torch.

The technology of sports broadcasting may have changed over the years, but one thing remains the same from the infancy of the Vol Network. Simply put, it's a persistent insistence on quality and excellence that is as real today as it was in the early days.

The Vol Network booth was a model of professionalism then, as it is now.

Those were the conclusions I drew after seeing much of the history of the Vol Network stand front and center on a Saturday afternoon, Sept. 13, 2008.

Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), to be published in second edition in 2009, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). He was part of the Vol Network as "road spotter," from 1987 to 1998. He may be reached at tjmshm@comcast.net. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian."

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Comments » 5

chbradshaw writes:

I'm sure you were trying to be polite but please do not lump Bob Kesling with the great Tennessee broadcasters of the past.

Lindsey Nelson, George Mooney and John Ward were the sound of Tennessee football for many generations prior to all games being televised.

Kesling is simply a background radio voice in a television era. If we were still in a primarily radio era, we would demand someone much better and much, much more humble.

To almost all Tennessee fans, the Vol Network came to an end on January 4, 1999.

volunteer_cowboy writes:

The way tennessee played today, i wish that there was only radio.......... AWEFUL!!! FIRE EVERYBODY

utclassof1992 writes:

Please leave Vanilla Bob out of that list. He sounds like he takes a double dose of Valium before every game.

bigorange98#214217 writes:

Great article. I love college broadcasters, and miss hearing John Ward so much. News that Larry Munson is also retiring makes this even more timely.

For what it's worth, here are some of my thoughts on college announcers and their place in the history of college football:
http://gate21.net/2008/02/14/the-voic...

volboy81 writes:

we, as UT fans, dont know how lucky we are to have had George Mooney & John Ward. Im even getting used to Bob!
In the 80s, I lived in SC, and would drive up to Knoxville for every home game. If Georgia played during my drive up or back, I could usually pick up Larry Munson's play by play. I would try my best to be for Georgia, if their winning didnt hurt Tennessee, especially if they were playing a non SEC school. By the time I would listen to him for 15-20 minutes, I would turn into the biggest fan the OTHER team had! He was so irritating and was SUCH a homer, always using "WE" and "THEY" (...something the Vol Network doesnt do, thankfully!) Its been great listening to quality broadcasts the last 45 years!!! Thanks, Vol Network.

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