By Tom Mattingly
For those of us who traveled with the Vols over the years, Friday nights on the road were open for most of us, with Saturday’s evening events being scripted nearly to the last minute. Except the game, of course.
For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the trips was a long-time friendship with Vol Network stat guy Russ Bebb, whose association with the network dated to the days of George Mooney, Bob Foxx, Julian Andes, John Ward, Bill Anderson and the two Edwin Husters.
Away from his day job at the Knoxville Journal, where he served 38 years in the sports department before the paper closed down in later 1991, Russ served as spotter from 1958-67 and statistician from 1968 through the 2004 season.
Russ was always in the hotel room before I got there. We got off the bus and picked up our room keys at almost the same time, but Russ somehow made it to the room first. He had the television going, yet managed to maintain a running commentary about the art of putting words on paper and other similar subjects.
Just when I believed he wasn’t paying attention to something on television, someone (usually one of these “talking heads” on ESPN) would say something really stupid.
“That’s what’s wrong with the world today,” he would say. He then proceeded to tell me why. He was very convincing in his explanation.
Russ authored two books on Tennessee football. “The Big Orange,” a year-by-year history of Tennessee football, was published in 1973 and updated in 1979. “Vols: Three Decades of Big Orange Football, 1964-93,” came out in 1994.
Ward called him the “human adding machine.” Bob Keisling said, “Russ didn’t need a fancy computer, just a legal pad and pencil” to chart the game. He could calculate the distance on a punt an instant after the receiver caught it, and, in nearly the same motion, come up with the return yardage.
Thanks to the nearly invisible numbers on the road uniforms in the early 1990s, something about a light orange number on a white mesh jersey, things would often get confusing in the radio booth.
One year at Arkansas, two of the wide receivers were Marcus Nash, wearing No. 12, and Maurice Staley, wearing No. 21. It was a battle the whole day identifying the duo, for Russ as the statistician and me as the spotter.
Case in point, Ward had just come back on air 30 seconds or so before the red hat on the field signaled the ball ready to play. As Ward began to set the stage, Russ leaned behind him and looked questioningly in my direction.
It was nothing short of a stage whisper, accompanied by furtive hand signals.
“Was that Nash or Staley who caught that last pass?” Simultaneously, he made the numbers “12” and “21” with his fingers.
Ward shot a disapproving glance in both of our directions. I made the hand signal signifying No. 12 (Nash), and things went on as usual.
Russ also served as official scorer at Tennessee basketball games for more than 30 years. One of his most memorable moments was the 1974 Vol Classic championship game, when Temple held the ball for nearly the entire game, leaving Russ with precious little to do.
He also scored SEC Tournament games after the event was renewed in 1979.
He kept a precise official scorebook, with a system of circled dots telling him who was in the game. There were Xs for field goals and circled 3s for three-point goals. He learned that from his predecessor, Sam Venable Sr., and rarely was there a controversy with the scorebook.
With Russ, the goal was nothing short of perfection. More often than not, he succeeded.
He died Dec. 1, 2004, at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville at age 74. Haywood Harris, his long-time friend, had called me with the news. That was just days before the SEC Championship Game.
“Russ didn’t make it,” he said, the sadness from the loss of a good friend evident in his voice.
I remember checking in at the hotel that weekend and walking to the room by myself. I thought I’d be prepared when I opened the door.
No Russ, for the first time in nearly 17 years.
The memories are still fresh, still important. When someone on television says something stupid, I still remember how Russ would react. He might have been often in error, but he was never in doubt.