Bud Ford began publicizing University of Tennessee athletics as a part-time job. He turned it into a 45-year career that's not done yet.
UT's longtime media relations director has announced his retirement, effective this December. Then, he will take on a new challenge, in the part-time position as UT's athletic department historian, beginning Jan. 1 of next year.
Ford, 66, has experienced much of that history firsthand since he joined the sports information office as a student worker his junior year at UT. You can't fully appreciate his length of service without noting all the coaches who have come and gone while he has been on the job. Doug Dickey was the coach in football and Ray Mears was the coach in basketball when Ford signed on with the UT sports information office.
His list of top athletes and UT favorites also reflects how long he has been on the job. The list ranges from all-around athlete Ron Widby in the 1960s to All-America quarterback Peyton Manning in the late 1990s.
For Ford, it all started with a paper route.
One of his customers was former UT sports information director Gus Manning. Ford was working part-time at Kroger when Manning happened to see him in the store.
Manning suggested he apply for a job in the sports information office. Ford took the job for a whopping $75 a month and never left.
The Heisman That Got Away
One Manning helped put him in the business. Another Manning gave him more business than any other athlete.
Asked to list his top athletes and UT favorites, Ford put Peyton Manning at the top.
"Best in all areas," Ford said. "Field, classroom, leadership, community and media."
Manning wasn't just Ford's favorite. He also led to his greatest career disappointment.
Ford wanted Manning to win the Heisman Trophy as much as anyone. And he probably agonized over it more than anyone else.
When we played Kentucky and weren't on TV, Peyton threw for 525 yards and five touchdowns. Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown (on national television against Ohio State). That blew us out of the water.
Ford on Peyton Manning's run for the Heisman
"I talked to Peyton after the (SEC) championship game in Atlanta," said Ford, who was obviously worried about the late-season surge of eventual Heisman winner Charles Woodson, a cornerback from Michigan. " 'Bud, quit worrying about this,' Peyton told me. "'We're going to New York and have a good time.
" 'It's not about the Heisman Trophy. It's about the championship we just won.'
"I think that was the first championship he ever won."
A week later, Woodson won the award, but that didn't stop the UT contingent from celebrating.
"After the Heisman (ceremony), we went out to a celebratory dinner," Ford said. "It was over. (Manning) never said a word about it. He never looked back."
Ford couldn't help but look back, though.
"If you're a preseason favorite (as Manning was), it's a real bad position to be in," he said. "But Peyton kind of answered all the charges. He had good games when (the other candidates) had good games.
"Then came a kind of challenge you could not deal with, because you couldn't approach it statistically. . . . When we played Kentucky and weren't on TV, Peyton threw for 525 yards and five touchdowns. Woodson returned a punt for a touchdown (on national television against Ohio State). That blew us out of the water."
Finishing second didn't change Manning's opinion of his UT publicist.
"Bud is simply the best in the business," Manning said. "I will always be indebted to Bud Ford and I am honored to call him my friend."
An AD With A Coach's Heart
Ford worked for Dickey twice, first when Dickey was UT's football coach in the 1960s and later when Dickey served as athletic director. Ford believed one position helped prepare Dickey for the other.
"Coach Dickey, in my mind, was a great athletic director for a couple of reasons," Ford said. "He could make a decision and stick by it. He was quick to move forward and never look back. He was good at that."
Dickey's experience as a coach made him more empathetic to the coaches who worked for him, according to Ford.
"He had a good feel for the coach," Ford said. "A decision wasn't always based on financial reasons.
"As a coach, he presented an air about him that you knew he was a head coach. When he walked in, he could take over a room."
A Coach With An Eye For Copy
Derek Dooley, UT's current football coach, served as both athletic director and football coach at Louisiana Tech before taking the Tennessee job in 2010. And that's reflected in the way he does business, Ford pointed out.
"He has a pretty good understanding of all facets of the program," Ford said. "I think he has a grasp maybe beyond what coaches have."
Dooley's hands-on approach and his attention to detail have benefited the sports information office. When the coach takes on a media release or publication, he's not casual about it.
Instead, his inner lawyer comes out.
"As a lawyer, he can read copy," Ford said. "He can pick out grammatical errors. He can catch a typo in a heartbeat.
"He's a great proof reader."
The Agony Of Coaching Changes
The death of a student-athlete is the hardest thing Ford has had to deal with in his job. Second toughest: The coaching changes. And there have been plenty of those.
"They always hurt," Ford said. "When you're in sports information, you're basically part of that coaching staff. You're there every day in practice.
"My feeling has always been that I work for the university, and I will help the coach."
Ford regards many of UT's former coaches as friends. Johnny Majors still calls him regularly. And while the differences between Majors and his successor, Phillip Fulmer, are well documented, both find common ground when it comes to Ford.
Said Fulmer: "Bud Ford loves Tennessee with a passion that shows through in the way he does his job. He was always helpful to me as a player, assistant, and especially as a head coach."
And Majors: "Bud Ford is one of the most valuable people to an athletics department I have ever known. I've worked with some mighty good people, and Bud Ford is as good as they come."
Photo by J. Miles Cary // Buy this photo
The Kiffin Farewell Fiasco
Ford was right in the middle of former UT football coach Lane Kiffin's controversial goodbye news conference in which he announced he was leaving the Vols for the head-coaching job at Southern California. Ford still second-guesses himself for the way it was handled.
"I was just coming out of a Wednesday night church meeting when I got a call from (fellow UT publicist) Tiffany (Carpenter) that I needed to come to the office," Ford said. " 'It looks like Coach Kiffin is leaving,' she said."
When Kiffin met with a team of publicists, he already had formulated his game plan.
"I think he first wanted to explain why he was making the move without cameras, then he would address it on television," Ford said. "In reality, it couldn't work. There were so many different folks."
And the folks weren't happy, particularly when the television media learned from Ford that Kiffin wouldn't be camera friendly. The ensuing chaos provided a YouTube moment.
"The video got out there and made us all look kind of stupid," Ford said. "It was a moment when I didn't represent the university as well as I should have."
Ford said it might have gone differently if his relationship had been different with Kiffin, and the coach would have been more apt to take his advice.
"He had a little bit closer relationship with Tiffany," Ford said. "He had been leaning on her to do a lot of public-relations things because of the amount of things happening off the field.
"I could have said to Coach Majors or Coach Fulmer, 'You can't do that.' "
Mears Basketball Not For Newlyweds
Ford worked more closely with basketball when he first joined sports information. That gave him a front-row seat for Mears' glory days.
It also gave him insight into why Mears was so successful.
Ford and his wife, Sandy, had just gotten married, and she joined him on a basketball road trip to California.
When Ford saw the rooming list, he noticed he and his wife were on separate floors.
That was standard procedure for Mears at the time. He wanted the team and staff all on one floor and families on another.
But when the newly married Ford protested, Mears made an exception.
"Coach Mears was such a great motivator, no question about it," Ford said. "He had some unique traits to motivate a team.
"He didn't want anything to separate his coaching and his ability to motivate a team. Then, once the game was finished, he would spend time with his family."
A UT Family History
Ford's fascination with UT sports history extends to his own office. The succession from one publicist to the next is a source of pride.
"Since 1950, the job of the sports information director has been held by a graduate of the University of Tennessee," he said. "Lindsey Nelson, 1950; Gus Manning, 1951-60; Haywood Harris, 1961-2000. That is a total of 61 years (including Ford) at one school by alumni who dedicated themselves to the university in every way."
Ford worked side-by-side with Harris for decades. His mentor and friend died last summer after serving in the historian's role that Ford will assume in January.
"Haywood and I were a real good combination," Ford said.
"Haywood was such a gifted writer, and I was good at getting things produced. It was a good combination for both of us for about 35 years."
The combination is another part of UT sports history worth remembering.
John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.