Fascinating Interviews

By Tom Mattingly

Who might be among the most fascinating people you have interviewed or written about during your professional writing career? That question has been raised more than once in a number of forums.

Col. Tom Elam, the self-described “shade tree attorney” from Union City, was a “one question interview” in June 1988 about his time with Gen. Neyland in his days as a student on the Hill and his lifetime of involvement with the University of Tennessee and its athletic program.

That interview went on for hours on a Friday morning and afternoon and really could have lasted longer. He settled two legal cases over the phone while we were talking.

Knoxville’s Stuart Worden was the president of the U.T. Pep Club in 1953 and led the search for a school mascot that year, the one known as Smokey I. A Blue Tick Coon Hound was selected at a contest at halftime of the season opener against Mississippi State on Sept. 26 and was formally introduced at the Duke game a week later. According to a brief story in the Knoxville News-Sentinel the next day, the dog would be known as “Smokey.”

With few exceptions, there has been a Smokey on the sidelines ever since. That whole process led to a Smokey bio published in 2012, “Smokey: The True Stories behind the University of Tennessee’s Beloved Mascot,” with co-author Dr. Earl C. Hudson, Smokey’s owner at the time.

Marvin West is a treasure trove of information about Vol athletics and a good friend. He has a seemingly unlimited supply of stories at the ready from years of sports coverage.

He was present under the upper deck at Candlestick Park in San Francisco in an auxiliary press box during the 1989 World Series earthquake (Oct. 17, 1989, at 5:04 p.m.). That experience led to a column (“an unusual one,” he termed it) titled, “What a Man Thinks When He Thinks He Is Going to Die.”

John Ward was equally delightful. That famed voice was always in full flower. Over the years, listeners heard Ward’s calls of the great plays in Tennessee football and basketball, peppered by such famous phrases as “Bottom!” “Give it to him!” “Did he make it?” [Pause for effect] “He made it!” and “Give him six!”

There were many magic moments on the gridiron, such as in the 1985 Alabama game (“Shula back to throw, left-handed, out into the flat… Broken up… Was that intercepted in mid-air? Ladies and gentlemen, what a play by Dale Jones!”), the 1986 Sugar Bowl (“Powell just came roaring down the greensward…”), the 1995 Alabama game (“80 yards, Joey Kent… Touchdown… on Play… No. 1”) and many, many others.

One night in early 1977 at Rupp Arena, when Bernard King was at his best, Ward uttered these memorable words: “We don’t editorialize much, but this young man can play this game.”

It wasn’t really part of an interview, but working as a spotter for NBC’s Tom Hammond (at Notre Dame in 2001) and Charley Jones (against Penn State in the 1992 Fiesta Bowl) was definitely an education.

Jones was demanding. He was professional. He didn’t suffer fools lightly. When you spotted for him, whichever way your team was going was where you sat. If they were going right to left, you sat on his left side. Left to right, you sat on his right side. That necessitated some scrambling between quarters in a tight booth.

Woe be unto the spotter who blew an identification. The media timeouts were an occasion for review and evaluation. You were expected to know your own team. Period. Once the “lesson” was over, it was over.

I never met Jim McKay of ABC Sports, but he is deserving of special mention. Seeing him on ABC sports programming over the years elicits memories that span the generations.

His legacy begins with a one-of-a-kind lead-in to memorable Saturday afternoon television programming. “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat… the human drama of athletic competition… This is ABC’s Wide World of Sports!”

Described as “understated, dignified and with a clear eye for detail”, McKay covered 12 Olympics, but none with more historic import than the 1972 Summer Games in Munich.

McKay never embodied those characteristics more than in early September, covering the terrorist attacks at the Olympic Village. Published reports said he had been on the air 14 straight hours.

“It was the loss of whatever innocence there was in the world,” he later wrote.

After Black September terrorists had kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes, McKay went into the annals of broadcast journalism as he announced their deaths after a failed rescue attempt. Never have three words had more power, more emotion.

“They’re all gone.”

That was Jim McKay (Sept. 24, 1921- June 7, 2008).

These were some initial answers to questions posed over the years.