John Wilkerson would be ripe for the pickin’

By Steve Williams

Who would you like to see become the next Voice of the Vols?

I’m referring to the positions Bob Kesling has now with the University of Tennessee football and men’s basketball programs.

I’m not trying to push Kesling out the door. We’ve known each other for years. He came to Tennessee from Ohio and played fullback on the freshman team in 1972. I was a freshman at UT in 1970 and working as a student assistant in the Sports Information Department.

Bob, who was inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame this past April, is nearing 70 years old, if not already there. This coming fall will be his 26th season as play-by-play announcer for the football Vols and 25th in basketball.

Kesling had the proverbial tough act of following the legendary John Ward. Bob had a different style than Ward, but I have enjoyed his broadcasts over the years.

I won’t be surprised though if this year is his last.

In the 2023-24 school year I thought Kesling did OK behind the mic in football and basketball, but his enthusiasm didn’t seem to me to be moving the needle. That’s natural when you’ve been doing something that long and didn’t take over for Ward until your mid-40s.

But getting back to my leadoff question – Who would you like to see become the Voice of the Vols, I think the answer is a no-brainer! It definitely would be John Wilkerson.

If you got to hear some of his calls during the Vols’ recent run to the College World Series championship at Omaha, you know what I mean.

When it comes to Tennessee baseball and the Vols are winning, Wilkerson is passionate, loud and clever with his calls and not afraid to turn it loose. He also does a great job of describing the action to his listeners and instantly updating the players’ stats and team totals.

In past years, when Tennessee baseball struggled to even qualify for the SEC post-season tournament, Wilkerson’s talents as a sportscaster were masked by the Vols’ losing seasons.

But John hung in there.

Being about 10 years younger than Kesling, I can see Wilkerson replacing Bob when he retires and filling his current title as Director of Broadcasting for UT and becoming the Vols’ play-by-play guy in football and men’s basketball.

The only negative to such a move would probably require John to give up the baseball gig. College baseball starts in February and basketball is not over until March Madness ends in early April.

I believe Wilkerson would equal the popularity that Ward had with the UT fan base from the mid-1960s through 1999.

Like Ward, Wilkerson is a Knoxville product and a graduate of Bearden High (1982) and UT (1988). He’s been working on the local radio sports scene for 35 or so years and is a longtime co-host of Sports Talk on the Sports Animal.

Wilkerson also matches Ward’s preparation for the games he covered.

Although John has much more experience in baseball play-by-play, he has filled in for UT basketball games over the years. And as far as football, Wilkerson has been calling the Knoxville Catholic High football games for several years.

Wilkerson’s play-by-play assistant in baseball, Vince Ferrara, also has multiple years of experience doing high school football play-by-play in the Knoxville area. They work good together and I could see them teaming up in both UT football and basketball coverage in the future.

Last week, after Tony Vitello’s baseball Vols pulled out dramatic victories en route to the national title, UT fans not only cheered the team on, but there were several comments on social media complimenting Wilkerson’s super broadcasts throughout the tournament.

And there were Tennessee fans that called in to the Sports Talk show the morning after the Vols had held off Texas A&M 6-5 in the winner-take-all game the night before to compliment John’s calls.

Mark begged: “John please, please keep playing those replays from some of your calls. I just get goose bumps every time I hear them and they never get old.”

Dean texted: “Thank you John Wilkerson for an amazing year. Every single game was called with absolute perfection. We cannot ask for a better call.”

With the roar of Vol fans in the background, Wilkerson’s call at the end of the game went like this:

“Tennessee, the climb is complete! They have reached the summit. The Volunteers are the very best in college baseball and the championship flag has been planted on Rocky Top. For the 60th and final time this season, Tennessee says, ‘Hello, win column!’ and ‘Hello, national championship!’ Everybody in Vol Nation can stand and repeat or say with me: The national champion is clad in Big Orange! It’s Tennessee over Texas A&M. The final score: Vols 6, Aggies 5. The dream has come true. THIS is Tennessee baseball!”


On a personal note …


By Steve Williams

In the summer of 1970 before my freshman year at the University of Tennessee, I happened to walk into Stokely Athletics Center one hot afternoon and found people in the Sports Information Department stuffing Tennessee football brochures into big envelopes to be mailed out.

SID Haywood Harris and his assistant Bud Ford asked me if I would like a job stuffing brochures. I said sure, and that’s how I became the first student assistant in the UT Sports Information Department.

That led to a lot of things I would never have dreamed of and one was meeting John Ward, who often came by the SID office.

At Clinton High School, I wrote a sports column in the Dragons’ Tale and also worked for my hometown newspaper, the Clinton Courier-News, covering the Dragons my last two years in high school.

But at that time, I really wanted to be a sports broadcaster more than a sportswriter. And I would take my tape recorder to high school basketball games and sit by myself in the stands and do the play-by-play.

When I got to UT and met Ward, he asked me if I would like to assist him when he broadcast the Vols’ games. So for a couple of seasons I sat beside him in the broadcast area that was high above the court. I would do a running score of the game, keep unofficial stats and take notes. Every now and then I would write down a note of something special about the game and hand it to Ward and he would read it verbatim on the air.

I never got on the air myself, but now and then Ward would say something to me during the broadcast and mention my name. I remember getting to be more popular out in Clinton after that.

Later on in my junior year at UT and majoring in journalism, I got two job offers, but neither was in sports broadcasting. One was an offer to be the SID at Abilene Christian College in Texas. The other offer was from Knoxville Journal Sports Editor Ben Byrd to fill the prep editor position, which I accepted.