By Steve Williams
There seemed to be more laughter than sadness when family, friends and fans of Bobby Denton reacted to the passing of the popular and longtime University of Tennessee football public address announcer last week.
From the many stories I’ve read and heard, Denton, the Voice of Neyland Stadium, obviously lived a fun-filled life and his personality, practical jokes and stories also brought joy and chuckles to others, some who knew him well and others who just knew of him.
There were thousands of the latter on any Game Day in the fall who would listen for Denton’s trademark pregame announcement about concession prices at Neyland Stadium – “We urge you to pay these prices and please pay no more” – even though having heard it many times before.
Like checkerboard end zones, running through the T and a $4 box of popcorn, those words became a tradition.
UT fans also got a kick out of Denton’s down-and-distance call in the 2001 game against Lou Holtz’ struggling South Carolina Gamecocks.
Trying to move the ball from north to south on Shields-Watkins Field, the Gamecocks were flagged for several penalties and thrown for a couple of losses, leaving them facing third down and a very long situation.
Denton’s call: “It’s third down and the river.”
“Well, I don’t know how quick I went down there,” recalled Bud Ford, then UT’s Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations, “but I went to the PA booth and I said, Bobby you can’t be making that kind of remark.
“He just stood there and laughed about it.”
Many still laugh about it.
Denton, 73, who died last Wednesday (April 9) of cancer, had been Tennessee’s PA announcer for 47 seasons.
The story I heard last week, however, was Denton told Gus Manning he wasn’t sure he was interested in the job when Manning suggested he apply for it in 1967. A couple of days later, Gus told Denton, to his surprise, he’d been hired.
Ford said he couldn’t confirm the story, but “that sounds like Gus.”
“Bobby had a very distinctive voice and a voice that carried well. It can be difficult to announce with that echo in the stadium. It was a wise decision to hire him.”
Ford pointed out Denton actually got his start as a public address announcer at a Maryville drag strip, then moved to Smoky Mountain Raceway with Don Naman.
“Naman started the Talladega (NASCAR) track and that’s how Bobby started doing the Talladega races for 16 years.”
John Ward had been the PA announcer for UT football, but in 1967 he started doing “voice over” for the film on The Doug Dickey Show, said Ford, and it had to be done while the game was going on. Ward began doing UT football play-by-play on the Vol Network in 1968.
By the way, who started the famous introduction “It’s football time in Tennessee!” – Denton or Ward?
Both men could give Vol fans goose bumps with those words. Both said it a little differently, too. “It’s football time in Tenne…sseeeeee.” Yep, that was Denton’s version.
Denton became the longest running PA announcer in the nation.
“He missed a couple of Orange and White games when he moved to Naples, Florida, but I don’t think he ever missed a varsity game,” said Ford, who was hired by UT in 1966 as Assistant SID to Haywood Harris.
Haywood and Gus had their radio show, The Locker Room, back then on WIVK, where Denton was an on-air personality before climbing to VP and General Manager of the station.
“There was a lot of involvement between WIVK and the athletic department at that time,” recalled Ford. “Haywood and Bobby got along real well together.”
There was more to the PA job than just announcing who carried the ball and who made the tackle.
“Bobby was a consummate person, who was concerned about pronunciation,” said Ford. “Every now and then we would have some crazy pronunciation. Bobby and his spotters put a lot of work in to be prepared to do the best job they could do from the vantage point they had.”
Harris would provide Denton with “a series of scripts” to follow for each game, said Ford. “Then with the Jumbotron later added, marketing people got involved.”
Former UT coach and athletic director Doug Dickey remembers Denton being “the cement” at Neyland Stadium on Game Day, holding everything together despite so much going on before and during the game.
“The one thing about Bobby, he thought it was a privilege to be the PA announcer,” summed up Ford, who worked in UT’s sports information office for 45½ years before retiring in December of 2011. “He thought he had a responsibility to do that.
“A lot of people recognized him by his voice, because his name was never called on the air.
“He would be in public places talking, and somebody would hear that voice, and they’d say, ‘Hey, you’re that Tennessee (announcer), oh you’re Bobby Denton.
“He thought it was an honor to do the PA.”
Of course, Bobby had to have some fun with it.