By Tom Mattingly
Sometimes the greatest moments in sports commentary come when you least expect them. You can often experience some amazing nuggets of eternal truths that will stick with you forever.
“You can hear a lot by listening,” Yogi Berra once said. Lindsey Nelson once opined that Yogi never said everything attributed to him. He had to have had a publicist who worked overtime to share his insights on life’s eternal verities.
There’s no sense, however, in letting the facts get in the way of a good story, particularly the inspiring ones.
Despite an occasional bump in the road every now and then, there is always another game, another weekend, for football fans. And the weekday talk shows add to the excitement.
Gen. Bob Neyland also knew this fact of life well, even without the free advice given to coaches on a daily basis over the years. Fans were as direct in Neyland’s day as they are today.
When things were going bad in November 1947, a year after Neyland’s return from World War II, a Vol fan on the elevator at the Chisca Hotel in Memphis said some disparaging things about the General after a lopsided loss (43-13) to Ole Miss at Crump Stadium. Two weeks later, after a win at Kentucky (13-6), the same fan is alleged to have said, “There’s the greatest coach in the country.”
Neyland, who had overheard both conversations, said, “That’s not what you were saying two weeks ago.” He always had a way to punctuate the moment and bring context to the conversation.
At former University of Tennessee athletics director Bob Woodruff’s memorial service on Nov. 6, 2001, the Rev. John E. Pennington, Jr., then pastor of West Knoxville Baptist Church, said that Bob had an amazing sense of perspective, a sense of balance in his life.
Pennington noted that there were times Bob’s son, Joe, might be agonizing, as youngsters often do, over a game that had gotten away. Woodruff’s response was to the point. “There’s always another game.”
When Joe was excited after a big win, Woodruff’s response was, again, “There’s always another game.”
The late Bob Bell, the famed Nashville sports announcer, was known to smoke a great deal in the press box and nearly everywhere else in the days that type of behavior was tolerated. (When smoking was prohibited in the press box at sporting events, he snuck into a nearby bathroom for a quick puff or two during media timeouts.)
Bell had the delayed broadcast call of the 2001 Florida game for Comcast, with his broadcast location next to CBS and separated by a curtain. The smoke was so bad that CBS’s Verne Lundquist had a staff minion thrust a note through the curtain. “Get rid of the damn cigarette” was the message.
One other memorable moment came in the 1999 Alabama game when the Vol punt coverage team downed a David Leaverton punt inside the 1. That’s not considered a good field position for the offense.
Bell received a note from his spotter, saying that just a week before, Alabama had had a 99-yard drive for a touchdown against Ole Miss. Bell, acting as if Moses had just handed him the Ten Commandments, told his audience, “Our spotter just informed me Alabama had a 99-yard drive against Ole Miss last week.” What happened next? Alabama did likewise against the Vols. Fortunately, the Vols won 21-7.
The Vol Network’s Steve Early has always talked about a mid-1960s Colts-Packers game decided in the Packers’ favor by a Don Chandler field goal. Whatever replay was in vogue in those days seemed to show the kick was wide of the mark.
Former Vol Network analyst Bill Anderson was on that Packer team, maybe even on the field goal team. Bill had been called back to Green Bay in 1965 after being on Doug Dickey’s staff a year earlier.
In the ensuing years, Steve would ask Bill if that field goal had really gone through the uprights. Without fail, Anderson would hold up his right hand and say, “I’m wearing a dang ring aren’t I?” That settled that. At least until the next time Steve asked.
Finally, the story is told of a rookie sportswriter, in search of an angle for a story. He pointed in the direction of the setting sun from the press box at the Polo Grounds and posed the following question to sportswriter Grantland Rice, a native of Murfreesboro.
“Is that west?”
Rice thought for a moment and said: “If it isn’t, son, you have a heck of a story.”