Mattingly: Nothing got past Byrd's coverage

Ben Byrd, right rear, in the Knoxville Journal sports department with Haywood Harris, from left, Russ Bebb and Raymond Edmunds.

Photo by Special to the News Sentinel

Ben Byrd, right rear, in the Knoxville Journal sports department with Haywood Harris, from left, Russ Bebb and Raymond Edmunds.

Ben Byrd, right rear, in the Knoxville Journal sports department with Haywood Harris, from left, Russ Bebb and Raymond Edmunds.

When Emmett Byrd, director of marketing and operations for Kyle Busch Motorsports, spoke at the Knoxville Downtown Sertoma Club last Wednesday, there was a special journalist in the audience.

Ben Byrd, accompanied by wife, Jo, was there for the festivities, not as a journalist, with notebook, pen, and on deadline, but as a proud father.

Byrd's career with the Knoxville Journal stamped him as a legend in Knoxville journalism. He covered the basketball Vols in his first assignment in 1947 and didn't miss very many games thereafter. His history of the Tennessee basketball program, titled "The Basketball Vols," came out in 1974.

In 1986, he coauthored "You Can Go Home Again" with Johnny Majors, a story tracing Majors earliest days in Moore County through the excitement of the 1986 Sugar Bowl.

Byrd covered many of the greatest moments in Tennessee sports history from the primitive press boxes and arenas of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, through the newer structures of later years.

His coverage of the 1956 Georgia Tech game was honored as one of the best sports stories that year. It covered 25 paragraphs without a coach or player quote to be found.

Here's how he set the stage.

"GRANT FIELD, Atlanta, November 10 - The greatest football game I have ever seen, Tennessee 6, Georgia Tech 0, has been over 15 minutes now. The slate gray horseshoe stadium is almost cleared of fans now, except for a bright orange patch across the field in the east stands, where the Tennessee band continues to blare out, piping hot in concert with the hand-clapping and foot-stomping jubilance of Volunteer fans."

You want a snappy line that fully explained what was happening on the field?

Consider that the situation was fourth-and-2 for the Yellow Jackets at the Vols 34.

"They went for it this time and made it, Ken Owen ripping to the 29. Stan Flowers followed that up with an eight-yard charge, and the Tennessee situation was not exactly peachy. But then Owen, exploding off tackle, fumbled, and Jim Smelcher was on it like a third-rate vaudeville dancer grabbing coins tossed up on the stage."

Then came the conclusion, his tribute to an epic contest, a nearly poetic ending you're not likely to see in a game story today.

"Twice the Vols came up with clutch interceptions, one by Bubba Howe at midfield, and the last by (Tommy) Bronson, retreating with his man deep into Tennessee territory. He planted Tennessee's flag there on the nine-yard line, and a vast silence fell on the Tech side of the stands. While down the line, the Tennessee crowd chanted … four … three … two … one. Hallelujah, praise the Lord."

Byrd's daily columns, titled "Byrd's Eye View," were incisive, even if they might have led to an unintended consequence on one occasion.

Byrd had a Saturday game day feature titled "Free Thought Association," purporting to pick the winners of that day's games by what litany of seemingly random comments.

When Tennessee played Rutgers on Nov. 3, 1979, on Homecoming Day, the Vols were a prohibitive favorite.

"What are rutgers?" he wrote.

"One housewife told me she bought a pound of them at the supermarket last week for 59 cents, but they must have been on sale because she normally pays 89 cents a pound.

"This one man who's been up East told me he doesn't exactly know what rutgers are, but he's pretty sure they are a lot like yonkers. Now if I just knew what yonkers were."

Rutgers got the last laugh, winning 13-7, with the column supposedly on display prominently in the Scarlet Knights dressing room.

"Incidentally," colleague Marvin West wrote, "that column was more fun on Saturday morning than Saturday night."

When Tennessee squared off against Belmont in basketball in December 2008, son Rick led the Belmont squad into battle.

At one critical juncture in the contest, the CSS camera focused on Ben, watching intently from press row at the east end of Thompson-Boling Arena near the Belmont bench.

He had to have had mixed emotions, given that he had seen a number of these down-to-the-last-minute games during his time covering the Vols. That was old hat for him.

You couldn't blame him for harboring the hope that Rick and Belmont could pull off an upset. You could only imagine what was going through his head as the final seconds ticked down.

It might have been the same feeling he had on March 6, 1967, as he watched an improbable victory at Mississippi State that gave the Vols the SEC title.

The next day, Byrd's game story dubbed the 1966-67 Ray Mears-coached SEC title team the "Fearless Five."

When someone writes the authoritative history of Tennessee sports, particularly for football and basketball, Byrd's craftsmanship in reporting and commenting on the games of his era will have to be one of the primary sources.

Tom Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), now available in second edition at fine bookstores everywhere, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). He grew up reading game stories and columns penned by Ben Byrd, Marvin West, and many others. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian." Send comments to tjmshm@comcast.net.

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Comments » 14

TXVol76 writes:

I miss the days of "just tell the story of the game". Give the ones who might not remember the details a reminder and tell the ones not able to watch or listen the story line. Oh yes, if you can't support the local school at least don't tear it down. Give me Siler, Bird and Mattingly anyday!

volfan73120#211815 writes:

The Journal had a better sports page in those days. Tom Anderson was one of my favorite writers. I lived in a house next door to him for 2 years when I was at UT. I used to love hearing him talk about Tennessee sports. I would like to see an article about Tom sometime.

ClockworkOrange writes:

Look, I am a UT alum, a student of history, and even though I'm only thirty, I have a deep-seeded appreciation for the genises and origins of all of the trads and folks that add to the hallowed lore of ol' Rocky Top.

BUT ENOUGH OF THESE YARNS GRANDPA!!! Let's remember, we didn't have a very diverse group of atheletes back then. I mean, have you looked at a team (any sport) from say, 1969 or before. Yawn... Hey, I haven't listened to a UT game on the radio since John and Bill left, but these stories are tedious, boring and irrelevant to today's headlines (ie; Sweet 16 Lady Vols, ).

TommyJack writes:

in response to ClockworkOrange:

Look, I am a UT alum, a student of history, and even though I'm only thirty, I have a deep-seeded appreciation for the genises and origins of all of the trads and folks that add to the hallowed lore of ol' Rocky Top.

BUT ENOUGH OF THESE YARNS GRANDPA!!! Let's remember, we didn't have a very diverse group of atheletes back then. I mean, have you looked at a team (any sport) from say, 1969 or before. Yawn... Hey, I haven't listened to a UT game on the radio since John and Bill left, but these stories are tedious, boring and irrelevant to today's headlines (ie; Sweet 16 Lady Vols, ).

Each time I think I've seen the most asinine post ever on here, someone comes along and retakes the crown. Take a bow, Clock.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to ClockworkOrange:

Look, I am a UT alum, a student of history, and even though I'm only thirty, I have a deep-seeded appreciation for the genises and origins of all of the trads and folks that add to the hallowed lore of ol' Rocky Top.

BUT ENOUGH OF THESE YARNS GRANDPA!!! Let's remember, we didn't have a very diverse group of atheletes back then. I mean, have you looked at a team (any sport) from say, 1969 or before. Yawn... Hey, I haven't listened to a UT game on the radio since John and Bill left, but these stories are tedious, boring and irrelevant to today's headlines (ie; Sweet 16 Lady Vols, ).

A question and a comment

What does a diverse group of athletes have to do with the skill of a writer?

If you don't want to read the article then don
t. But fortunately you are not a trend setter. So love yourself hard

ClockworkOrange writes:

in response to TommyJack:

Each time I think I've seen the most asinine post ever on here, someone comes along and retakes the crown. Take a bow, Clock.

Just a little tired of hearing "yarns" about some broadcaster or SID from the 40s 50's or 60's. That's all. How is my opinion asinine. It's completely relevant to me and most of the people that visit this site. No one really reads or comments about these articles until we've exhausted all other links. I get it-the Vols have had some real class acts, Nelson Ward etc; but I've read about football from the freakin leatherhead days here. And it is boring. Just like most of these stories, which are asinine, like your comment.

ClockworkOrange writes:

in response to budd#207344:

A question and a comment

What does a diverse group of athletes have to do with the skill of a writer?

If you don't want to read the article then don
t. But fortunately you are not a trend setter. So love yourself hard

We all know what that means-all white, duh. A guy from my hometown, who stands about 5'11 and weighs 200 pounds dripping wet was a LINEMAN back then. I mean get over it. Watch a game from 1954 and then one from 1998 and tell me what's more exciting and relevant.
Other than major league baseball, which peaked in the 50's thru early 80's, all of sports were so lame back during segregation. I mean, punters were hyped as exciting players in the early days of football. The "forward pass" was like a comet-rarely seen. Just old boring stories, that's all.

TommyJack writes:

in response to ClockworkOrange:

We all know what that means-all white, duh. A guy from my hometown, who stands about 5'11 and weighs 200 pounds dripping wet was a LINEMAN back then. I mean get over it. Watch a game from 1954 and then one from 1998 and tell me what's more exciting and relevant.
Other than major league baseball, which peaked in the 50's thru early 80's, all of sports were so lame back during segregation. I mean, punters were hyped as exciting players in the early days of football. The "forward pass" was like a comet-rarely seen. Just old boring stories, that's all.

How utterly sad for you.

ClockworkOrange writes:

in response to TommyJack:

How utterly sad for you.

Naw man, I feel fine. No sadness at all. Not sure why u are all torn up over this, that's probably more sad that your best days are behind you and you realize they weren't that great. I was in Neyland in 98 for Florida and at TB in Jan for Kansas and am looking forward to future events in the modern sports world.

riversetvol writes:

What exactly is the Vol historian supposed to write about, what is going to happen 20 years in the future.
I was in the stands for the 98 Florida game and the 59 LSU game when we upset the undefeated, defending NC and #1 ranked Tigers. I found both games equally exciting.

As for Ben Byrd, if you look up the word, "shill," in the dictionary it says Ben Byrd. What kind of journalist is on the payroll of the same organization, UTAD, that he is supposed to be objectively covering? How is he going to be critical of Ray Mears when he does his TV show with him?
Marvin West ran rings around Byrd as a true journalist.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to ClockworkOrange:

We all know what that means-all white, duh. A guy from my hometown, who stands about 5'11 and weighs 200 pounds dripping wet was a LINEMAN back then. I mean get over it. Watch a game from 1954 and then one from 1998 and tell me what's more exciting and relevant.
Other than major league baseball, which peaked in the 50's thru early 80's, all of sports were so lame back during segregation. I mean, punters were hyped as exciting players in the early days of football. The "forward pass" was like a comet-rarely seen. Just old boring stories, that's all.

duh,so again what does that have to do with the skill of a writer?
and speaking of old and silly, did your mommy give you that screenname?

ClockworkOrange writes:

in response to budd#207344:

duh,so again what does that have to do with the skill of a writer?
and speaking of old and silly, did your mommy give you that screenname?

You probably don't even know what Clockwork Orange is. My mother passed away in 2003. But thank you for reminding me about her.

My comments had nothing to do with writer skill, but his boring irrelevant stories.

budd#207344 writes:

in response to ClockworkOrange:

You probably don't even know what Clockwork Orange is. My mother passed away in 2003. But thank you for reminding me about her.

My comments had nothing to do with writer skill, but his boring irrelevant stories.

That's what's great about America. If you don't want to read his stories then don't. But those of us who do would appreciate not having to listen to your whines.

Ralph_Crampton writes:

Vol stories from the past are "TRADITION" ever heard the word " Enough of the talk let's take a look at the record." Past Vol feats keeps guys like us reading and talking about sports in the first place.

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