By Tom Mattingly
It was quite a history lesson on Sept. 13, 2008, in the Tom Elam Press Box at Neyland Stadium, as three Tennessee play-by-play broadcasters — George Mooney (1952-67), John Ward (1968-98), and Bob Kesling (1999-present) — were present, greeted warmly by all who knew them. They join Lindsey Nelson (1949-50) and Alan Stout (1951) as the “Voices of the Vols,” telling the story of Tennessee football across Big Orange Country.
Each of them contributed mightily to the legend of Tennessee football during their time behind the Vol Network microphone. They spanned the years from the earliest, primitive press boxes, to the larger, more expansive broadcast areas on college campuses today.
In the history of every organization, there are visionaries who dream great dreams and are able see their dreams reach fruition. There are those whose actions and influence helped shape the collegiate landscape we know today.
To fully understand their impact, it’s back to the beginning, back to the late 1940s. Nelson and a Knoxville ad executive 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, Sr. picked up the cudgels and continued the process of building the network.
In 1970, Huster, Sr. passed the torch to son Edwin, 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.
When the younger Huster died, suddenly, in 2004, Steve Early picked up where Edwin had left off and the network 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. The show went on, but there were precious few dry eyes,
Here’s how it all came about, thanks to Lindsey’s recollections.
“I thought we should call it the ‘Volunteer Network,’” Lindsey wrote in his autobiography. “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 Neyland and said, ‘General, I have a great name for our network. Let’s call it the Volunteer Network.’”
Bob Neyland, always an innovator himself, had other ideas.
“Let’s call it the Vol Network,” he said.
Lindsey knew the drill. Neyland sat in the big chair and had the ultimate veto power, “announcer approval,” as Lindsey would experience 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,” Lindsey said.
With that, Lindsey 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 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 Mooney to Ward, and now to Kesling and Early.
No one knows the preparation and concentration it takes to produce a day’s worth of Vol Network programming each Saturday and many times well into Sunday morning. It goes through the game broadcast, the post-game show, and the taping and video uplink of the coaches’ show, wherever and whenever the game might have been played. It’s been an article of faith that the coaches’ show starts and finishes on time. Sunday afternoons and evenings wouldn’t be the same without the show on stations across the state and well beyond.
The technology of sports broadcasting may have changed over the years, but one thing remains the same. It’s a persistent insistence on quality and excellence that has spanned the years. The Vol Network booth was a model of professionalism then, as it is now.
It’s been more than 70 years since those first tentative steps were taken in establishing the Vol Network. History records that the senior Huster and Lindsey 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.