Memories of influential Volunteers from over the years
By Tom Mattingly
“Who might be among the most fascinating personages in all of Tennessee athletics?” was the question raised at a recent civic club speech.
Most recently, I remembered a phone call from John Majors two or three weeks before he died. He was headed to Nashville and was somewhere on I-40 between Crossville and Cookeville. It was on a Sunday afternoon, and I could hear the trucks whizzing by. It was a fascinating discussion and was the last time I had the opportunity to talk with him.
Where Majors was concerned, I remember several of us standing with him in the north end zone at Notre Dame Stadium on a Friday afternoon in early November 1991 listening to his remembrances of games with the Fighting Irish while he was at Pittsburgh. He once said that the grass at the stadium “reminds me of a Kansas wheat field.”
None of us present could have imagined that, less than 24 hours later, the Vols would capture a win for the ages. The Vols dug themselves into a 31-14 halftime deficit, yet rallied for a 35-34 win in the 300th game at the famed arena.
I’ll also remember Majors “working the crowd” in the rear of the charter flight home from the Memphis State game in November 1992, sharing special thoughts with each staff member in a style no one else could duplicate.
Colonel Tom Elam was a “one question interview” in June 1988 about his time with Gen. Bob Neyland in his days as a student in the Hill and his lifetime of involvement with U.T. as a trustee and athletics board member. He settled two legal cases on the phone while we were talking.
Walking with Elam in downtown Union City was nothing short of amazing. Everybody seemed to know him, and he seemed to delight in speaking to each one he met along the way.
Lindsey Nelson was something special, recounting all kinds of stories not only about his time at Tennessee, but about the whole world of sports as well.
At Lindsey’s funeral, there was a poignant moment just before the service when 1956 Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung walked down the aisle to visit with the family. Hornung had been Lindsey’s partner on the syndicated Notre Dame replay.
Marvin West is equally a treasure trove of information. He has a seemingly unlimited supply of stories at the ready from years of sports coverage. He covered the Tennessee scene for years and didn’t miss much during that time. He is still writing and was recently inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame for Lifetime Achievement.
There was a series of special moments at Stokely Center during the Ray Mears years. Many times, there were discussions at the scorer’s table with the officials, coaches, timer Sid Hankins, and official scorer Russ Bebb. When that happened, Marvin quietly left his seat on press row and stood behind the confab, notepad at the ready.
Bebb was a sports writer for the Knoxville Journal, and Marvin, then with the Knoxville News-Sentinel, wasn’t about to let Russ get any type of edge on what was happening in those moments when every eye in the arena was focused on the conversation at the table.
John Ward was always delightful. That famed voice was always in full flower, recounting the famous moments in Vol football and basketball history. There is a fond remembrance of a trip after a hoops game at Vanderbilt with Ward, Bob Gilbert, and driver Ed Balloff. It was fascinating time, with Ward counting down the miles to the Watt Road interchange in deep West Knox County near the Ward home.
There was a quick stop at the Waffle House in Cookeville, with Ward letting everyone know that the travel party would be there exactly “18 minutes.” They had made this trip many times before, and Ward knew the drill. In fact, we were there almost exactly 18 minutes.
Former Vol fullback Andy Kozar wrote two noteworthy books, one on the sculptor R. Tait McKenzie and the other on Neyland’s journals that were assembled over the course of his Tennessee coaching career. He was a major influence on my “Tennessee Football Vault’s” development, and we discussed the craft of getting words on the computer screen on more than one occasion.
It wasn’t really part of an interview, but working with Ward and Bill Anderson on the Vol Network, Tom Hammond (Notre Dame 2001) and Charley Jones (Penn State 1992) on NBC, and Bob Bell and Randy Smith on the Comcast replay, was definitely an education.
They’re all good guys who made life with the Vols exciting and fulfilling.