Battle-charmed, Ward-warned

Concord’s own ‘Voice of the Vols,’ Kesling recalls football, broadcasting starts at UT

Never under-estimate first impressions — it probably explains why Concord resident Bob Kesling is entering his fourth decade as “Voice of the Vols” for University of Tennessee Football and Men’s Basketball radio broadcasts.

Meanwhile, a little direct advice from his mentor would alter Kesling’s sports broadcasting career path.

Beginning his love for all things Vols “as a walk-on fullback on the freshman team” from Kettering, Ohio, in 1972, Kesling told The Rotary Club of Farragut members joining his address via Zoom about “a pretty interesting story” on how he become connected with UT Football, which came during a recent RCF early Wednesday afternoon meeting.

Underscoring the kindness shown to him by then UT head coach Bill Battle as an unknown 18-year-old, “I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve wanted to stay in Knoxville this whole time, just from the way I was treated,” said Kesling, who began as Voice of the Vols in 1999.

Describing himself as an “OK high school football player from outside of Dayton,” Kesling said he got a few small college scholarship offers.

However, “I had a buddy whose dad knew Ray Mears (then highly successful UT Men’s Basketball head coach),” he added.

With the father and Kesling’s buddy, Jeff, traveling to Knoxville “to see if Jeff could come down here and maybe be a manager or get involved in the basketball program,” Kesling said he was asked, “‘Do you want to go?’ And I said, ‘Sure,’ I had nothing else to do.”

While Jeff and his dad visited Mears, Kesling recalled thinking, “‘Well, I’ll just walk down to the football office.’”

Saying he asked Battle’s secretary about the process of becoming a walk-on football player, “She said, ‘I don’t know; would you like to talk to coach Battle?’

“Next thing you know I’m in coach Battle’s office,” he added. “So we were talking a little bit, then he sent me down to the freshman running back room,” where coaches “put on some film and started showing me how the fullback worked in their offense.

“I was just amazed I was getting this type of treatment,” he added.

Upon walking back to Battle’s office, “He handed me a workout sheet, and he said, ‘… If you get into school we’d love to have you as a Tennessee Volunteer,’” Kesling said.

“I couldn’t image being treated like that if I just cold-called Woody Hayes or Bo Schembechler or Bear Bryant (legendary college head coaches),” he added. “But coach Battle was so gracious and kind and nice.

“Next thing I know, I’m on the Tennessee Football team.”

Referencing freshman team opponents “Alabama and Notre Dame and Georgia Tech and Kentucky,” Kesling added, “I did carry the ball nine times for 40 yards.”

About enrolling at UT, “What a great move it was for me,” Kesling said. “I would never trade that one year of wearing the Orange jersey and playing in Neyland Stadium.

“It was a great experience.”

Ward’s warning as a broadcaster

As for kicking off his sports broadcasting career, “I got involved at WIVK when I was in school, and I started calling Lady Vols Basketball,” said Kesling, then named WIVK sport director who would become a long-time sports anchor at WBIR-TV, which started in 1980 and ran roughly two decades.

A piece of advice from then Voice of the Vols John Ward would serve as a career turning point.

Anxious to accept “a weekend sports anchor” job offered him at a station in Lexington, Kentucky, which came as he neared his senior year at UT in 1976, Kesling said his girlfriend — and eventual wife, Tami Kesling — told Bob “‘you need to go talk to John Ward.’”

Thinking Mr. Ward (recently deceased) would rubber stamp the move “as a great idea,” Kesling visited Ward’s Fox Den home beside the Country Club golf course’s No. 1 hole.

Mr. Ward “looked up at me and he goes, ‘Are you crazy, are you absolutely out of your mind,’” said Kesling, who for years would serve as a spotter for Ward during UT Football broadcasts. “He said, ‘That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard in my life.’”

Kesling said Mr. Ward told him he would “‘get so involved in your work that you’re not going to concentrate on your schooling, and you’re not going to get your degree’” as a transfer to the University of Kentucky, which Kesling said he planned to do.

“‘Enjoy your senior year. If you’re any good, you’ll be able to find a job when you graduate next year,’” he added about Mr. Ward’s advice.

Graduating from UT in 1977, “I’ve never really had any ideas of leaving” after the Lexington offer, Kesling said.

Also the TV play-by-play voice for Jefferson Pilot’s SEC Football Game of the Week for years, “I’ve been so blessed that I’ve been able to do so many different things,” said Kesling, who will begin his 22nd season on the Vol Network working alongside color analyst Tim Priest this Saturday, Sept. 26.

He and Priest will be in the Palmetto State, as the Vols open the 2020 football season at South Carolina (opening kickoff 7:30 p.m., on Vol Network, radio, and SEC Network, TV).

Beginning in late November, as currently scheduled, Kesling will do double duty on the Vol Network, calling UT Men’s Basketball games alongside analyst Bert Bertelkamp, former Bearden High School star (Class of 1976) and Vols standout guard (Class of 1980).