KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – One of the longest-running voices in college sports was silenced on Wednesday morning. Bobby Denton, the voice of Neyland Stadium since 1967, passed away after a short battle with cancer. He was 73.
A Knoxville native, Denton and his signature catchphrases and gentlemanly southern style provided the perfect backdrop to the game-day atmosphere at Tennessee.
"Bobby Denton's voice echoing throughout our iconic stadium will be forever etched in our fans' minds," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said.
"For decades, he was a key component of the tradition within Neyland Stadium. He will be greatly missed by all."
He was known first in the area as a radio disc jockey and his voice and business acumen helped build WIVK into one of the most successful country radio stations in the county. He retired to Florida after 36 years with WIVK, but returned to Knoxville each fall for Saturdays behind the microphone at Neyland Stadium.
His tenure, the longest in college football, was defined by many phrases, but the two most famous would come in the first 15 minutes he spent on the mic each Saturday. Denton opened his mic by proclaiming "It's Football Time in Tennessee!" with an extra emphasis on the "sseeeeeee." The message was clear, if you were in the stadium, it was time to focus on the field. If you were still outside, you were missing out.
A few moments later, Denton would remind fans that the concession prices were listed in the souvenir program before proclaiming "We urge you to pay these prices and please pay no more!" The line dates to when it followed a public listing of the prices, serving as an exclamation point on the read. When the prices were added to the program, it served as an extra reminder to fans to not fall victim to enterprising concession stand managers looking to make an extra profit based on demand in the 1970's. Though not an issue at the stands in later years, the line endured as a Tennessee tradition.
"Bobby Denton is a true treasure of Tennessee football," Vols coach Butch Jones said. "Hearing him say, `It's football time in Tennessee' is one of the greatest traditions in the history of college football. His voice is as synonymous with Neyland Stadium as the checkerboard end zones, and everyone in the Tennessee family will miss him greatly."
Denton occasionally worked in quips to his regular announcements of down and distance. Facing a long fourth down, he proclaimed South Carolina was facing "4th and the River." A pass overthrown to the Vol bench in more recent years was announced as completed to the head coach, who had made the catch on the errant throw. Until the LED boards were installed, Denton announced out-of-town scores with a dramatic pause that often led to either cheers or boos from the fans.
Longtime head coach Johnny Majors remembers Denton as both the voice from the booth and a longtime friend.
"It's a very sad day as Bobby Denton is no longer with us," Majors said. "When I think about Bobby, it brings a smile to my face, or a big laugh. He's one of a kind. Bobby was beloved by the community. He was a leader in the radio industry and very well thought of. It will be very different at Neyland Stadium to not hear that Hollywood voice of his and his East Tennessee accent when he would say `It's Football Time in Tennessee' and `Pay these prices and pay no more.'
"I had so many great times with Bobby, he had so many great friends. He's a great guy, who was well-loved and appreciated in this community. It's a sad time in East Tennessee, but we have great memories of the one of the best friends I have ever had."
John Ward, the legendary radio voice of Tennessee football, preceded Denton on the mic at Neyland Stadium and left the job in the capable hands of his friend with whom he carried on a long relationship as Vol Network broadcasts originated with Denton's WIVK.
"Bobby Denton was a true radio professional in every way," Ward said. "He had a great hobby like I had, and his was the PA at Neyland Stadium. But he was first and foremost a true professional radio man. He was an on-the-air radio personality before getting into management and sales, and he understood what you had to do to answer to the audience.
"His PA effectiveness came in measure from the fact that he had been a radio, on-the-air personality, and he could anticipate what people in the stadium wanted to hear. His timing was done so that he would set the stadium crowd up, and then when they were collectively saying, `he's going to say it,' he said it, and they reacted. He was very, very effective, no question."
Denton's tenure saw men whose names he once read in the starting lineup for the Volunteers rise to potions in the booth and down on the sidelines.
"Bobby was a great friend to all Volunteers," said Phillip Fulmer, who played and later coached the Vols from 1992-2008. "My relationship with him goes back all the way to college when he was just a local DJ. I remember doing a couple of remotes in 1971 with Joe Thompson, Bobby Scott, and Tim Priest. He had a fabulous personality and loved the Vols and loved all people, and his voice and personality made him legendary. We have lost a piece of Volunteer history today."
Priest had fond memories himself.
"Bobby Denton was a true Volunteer," Priest, the former Vol safety and current analyst on the Vol Network said. "He was the stadium announcer when I was playing in the `60s. He obviously loved Tennessee sports and Tennessee football. Bobby had that distinct voice that all Tennessee fans will remember, and he was one of the nicest guys you've ever met in your life. Besides Tennessee football, he knew the radio business and country music like nobody else, and got a lot of stars started on their way in that field, too. Bobby was a great personal friend and always very good to me."
Priest's Vol Network partner, Bob Kesling said that Denton's voice added the perfect background to a football Saturday that came through on the broadcast.
"Bobby was just an unbelievable salesman and a marketing genius, and he brought that same passion to the public address at Neyland Stadium," Kesling said. "He was unique and distinctive and made Neyland Stadium a special place to be on a Saturday afternoon because of both his passion and enthusiasm for college football and his love for the Tennessee Volunteers."
The voice left an impression on some of the greats to take the field in the orange and white as well.
"Bobby Denton's voice and expressions were an integral part of Tennessee football," Peyton Manning said. "A couple of things I could always count on a Tennessee football Saturday as a player were the Vol Walk to the stadium, running out through the T, the band singing Rocky Top, and Bobby Denton right during pre-game warm-ups coming on the loudspeaker and saying `It's football time in Tennessee.' Every time I heard that, I knew kickoff was near and it was always kind of an exciting moment. The crowd and the players would get excited, and of course, he would go on to echo his other famous expression, `Pay these prices and please pay no more.'
"Bobby was a friend. He was nice to my parents and my family during my time there in Knoxville, and he will be missed by many. My thoughts and prayers are with his family."
Vol legend and current Assistant Athletic Director Condredge Holloway echoed Manning's sentiment.
"My interaction with Bobby was always very positive and enlightening for me, and I didn't view him as just an announcer or a media guy," Holloway said. "The way we had conversations were more on a personal level about everything that was going on in the world, and maybe football occasionally. I got to know him a little better when I did some sideline commentating for UT. It was always fun interviewing the players and getting tips from Bobby about what to ask and how to make the player feel the most comfortable. He always wanted to be player-friendly. We've lost a great one, and hearing the news on Bobby today is very sad."
Legendary Vol signal caller, Heath Shuler, had fond memories of Denton spanning his career in Orange and White to his post-playing days.
"It is just devastating news," said Shuler. "Thinking back to those Saturday games and you could hear Bobby's voice echo throughout Neyland Stadium. Not only are we going to miss how he announced the game, but we are going to miss his character. I consider him a close and dear friend.
"I got to know Bobby in a personal relationship and he would always do that game introduction voice when I entered the room. That would put a smile on your face and he would give you a big hug. It would just give you chill bumps. He will be missed."
Denton started his public address career at a Maryville dragstrip after the regular guy failed to show and continued the association with motorsports all the way to its highest level, where he served as announcer at Talladega Superspeedway for over 15 years for a variety of events, including the annual Winston Cup dates. His style never changed, as those that sat in the public address booth with him were quite familiar.
"Over years and years, it was a pleasure working with him," former Associate Athletic Director Gary Wyant said. "He was probably the ultimate Tennessee fan. I've seen him get so excited and fired up when Tennessee was rolling, and then I've seen him get upset with the opponents and see him yell at the opposing coaches in the booth next door.
"You never knew what you were going to get. It was always an exciting day when you were up there with Bobby."
"Bobby was a legend in every respect and he certainly earned that status, but working with him was like working with your best buddy," said UT Broadcasting's Barry Rice. "There was never any ego, but every now and then you'd pinch yourself and say, `Wow, this is Bobby Denton!" And could that guy tell a story!
"I have to share my fondest image of Bobby. We would sit basically side-by-side in the AV Booth at the stadium. His position was down the row to my left about ten feet and we were separated by glass. The JumboTron was to our right. When a feature Bobby liked would run, I would turn my head from the screen to Bobby and he'd be there with his thumb up. That's when I knew I did a good job. And when I turned my head and Bobby was gazing away to the North end zone, I knew I was in trouble!"
Wherever he traveled to work or stay, his heart was at Neyland Stadium, a place that saw many changes during his time on the mic. The seating capacity changed through renovation or expansion seven times. He announced the names of seven Tennessee head coaches from booths in three press boxes. Though all of it, the same comforting voice welcomed fans each Saturday. The last change will be the hardest to make.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)