What was supposed to simply be a brief stopover on the way to Disney World turned out to be much more for Jim Reynolds, one that would completely change the course of his life.
His roots were deeply planted in his home state of Illinois, and Reynolds had just completed a dream season at the ripe age of 24. He nabbed a one-year gig broadcasting University of Illinois basketball on a statewide network in the fall of 1979, a season that concluded with him calling games at New York’s fabled Madison Square Garden in the NIT tournament.
But the dominant radio station in Bloomington – a ratings behemoth compared to Reynolds’ employer in the same market - had acquired a property in Chattanooga along with the rights to broadcast University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. They asked Reynolds to interview for the job.
With a trip to Orlando already planned, Chattanooga was the midway point and a perfect place to spend the night on someone else’s dime. So Reynolds politely agreed to discuss a job he had no intention of accepting while passing through town.
Little did Reynolds realize how this detour would impact his career.
“I was never really serious about it,” Reynolds said. “I had interviewed for a couple of other jobs, but this wasn’t one I was dying to get.
“When I came in, I liked the city and I was impressed by the radio station. Don Newberg was the general manager and was the best in the world at what he did. I also immediately loved (UTC athletic director) Harold Wilkes. I was kind of taken aback, and then I thought maybe I would do this thing.”
This “thing” has evolved into a love affair with a city and a university that Reynolds could have never imagined. Nearing the completion of his 40th season as the play-by-play voice of UTC football and basketball (aired on WFLI 1070 AM/97.7 FM) as well as becoming a fixture each morning on WGOW 102.3 FM, Reynolds has become an icon in the Chattanooga radio scene.
Reynold’s accomplishments have landed him well-deserved recognition with a trio of notable inductions: UTC Athletics Hall of Fame (2001), Chattanooga Sports Hall of Fame (2006), and Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame (2017).
The Chicago native is among a handful of broadcasters – 11 in football, 10 in basketball - with more than 40 consecutive years behind the mic at one school. Only half of those announcers have pulled double-duty in both sports for this long.
Reynolds has done play-by-play at UTC for more than 1,680 games between football and basketball, his travels taking him to destinations such as Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico. By his own calculation, Reynolds has missed fewer than ten assignments when scheduling conflicts prevented him from calling games in both sports.
Reynolds’ odyssey is even more impressive considering the manner in which he was introduced to sports during the early years of his career.
“I was working as a news guy in central Illinois at a terrible radio station with lousy ratings, and a new group took over our station,” Reynolds said. “They knew we could draw listeners by doing high school sports play by play and they told me they could pay ten dollars a game. I’m like ‘Bam! I’m in for ten bucks a game!’ "
The opportunity became a crash course in broadcasting, and Reynolds quickly discovered a passion and ability doing live games.
“I was excited doing these games, and for two years I did like six or seven games a week,” Reynolds said. “I did high school, Illinois Wesleyan, Illinois State and the University of Illinois. We did every game in the state high school tournament, both boys and girls. I did like five years of games in one year, and became good at it.”
When he accepted the job in Chattanooga in 1980, he fully expected his stay here to be brief as a stepping stone to grander opportunities.
“I said I’d be here two years, then see what happens,” Reynolds said. “But being in Chattanooga was such a really good fit. The fans liked me, and I liked them. I enjoyed working with (UTC football coach) Bill Oliver and (Mocs basketball coach) Murray Arnold. This was a vibrant place to work, and we had a lot of energy at UTC.”
But the biggest draw for Reynolds in choosing to forego other offers that came along was the people of Chattanooga.
“The thing that struck me about Chattanooga is that people were so loyal,” Reynolds said. “I grew up in Chicago and then lived in Bloomington, and people are loyal there, too. But I’d never been in a place where people loved their town like here. That struck me at first. I don’t know what it was, but I immediately liked it here. It felt comfortable.”
For those who followed Mocs athletics, the feeling was mutual. He quickly served as a connection for listeners to one of the most glorious eras in the university’s sports history.
His first broadcast was a 16-13 win at Jacksonville State in Oliver’s first game as UTC posted an 8-3 record. The basketball Mocs won the Southern Conference tournament, falling to Maryland in the 1981 NCAA tournament opener his initial season.
“I came in with Willie White, Russ Schoene and Nick Morken,” Reynolds said. “I always said I was part of the greatest recruiting class UTC basketball ever had.”
The next basketball season – the final year at cozy Maclellan Gym – saw the Mocs emerge on the national stage, finishing 27-4 that included a first-round NCAA tournament win over North Carolina State. But the chance to advance to the Sweet Sixteen fell short in a one-point loss to Minnesota as Schoene missed from close range in the final seconds.
“To this day, that one rips your guts out,” Reynolds said. “It hurt because we lost and and because I knew it would stick with Russ. He is such a good guy, and I hate that he might think his whole UTC career was remembered for that one shot. It’s one of those things you have to deal with.”
The Mocs moved to what is now known as McKenzie Arena for the 1982-83 season, finishing 26-4 with a No. 15 ranking including narrow home losses to Tennessee and defending champion North Carolina which featured Michael Jordan. A one-point loss to Maryland in the NCAA tournament after leading by a dozen at the half provided another gut-wrenching end to the season.
“Murray Arnold was a genius as a coach, and knew only two things in life: his wife, Ann Conn, and basketball,” Reynolds said. “I remember going to his house for dinner after a game. Ann Conn fixed us something to eat and we sat with TV trays watching the score crawl at the bottom of the screen for an hour. All he wanted to do was talk basketball and watch the scores go by.”
The longest tenure of any coach for Reynolds – 12 seasons - was Mack McCarthy, and being a part of the 1997 Sweet Sixteen run was a special time.
“Mack was a completely different personality from Murray,” Reynolds said. “He was a guy who could hold court anywhere, and he was the most recognizable person in Chattanooga at the time. Mack loved his years here, but I think he got to the point where he wondered what else he could do.”
McCarthy looks back with appreciation at the role Reynolds played in his first head coaching role at UTC.
“He was so good to me because he was such a pro,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t have a large entourage traveling with us and he was certainly part of the family. He didn’t hesitate to challenge things that I would say, and would ask tough questions in a pretty high profile situation back when I got there. His presence and friendship helped me navigate through that in a big way.
“I could absolutely say anything to him and knew it wasn’t going anywhere else. That’s not always the case with some broadcasters. I had 100 percent trust in JR and it’s critical that you have people around you that will always give you an honest answer and know that whatever you say is in the vault.”
The John Shulman era provided Reynolds with a keepsake he has carried in his briefcase since December of 2004 when UTC defeated big-brother Tennessee.
“Buzz Peterson was Tennessee’s coach, and I had gotten to know him from his time at Appalachian State,” Reynolds said. “I saw him before the game and said, ‘Buzz, I hate to tell you that you’re going to get your ass kicked today.’ I was serious, and I still carry that press pass from that game with me today.”
Lamont Paris is the eighth different basketball coach during Reynolds’ tenure, while Rusty Wright made it nine football coaches. The excitement surrounding the basketball program doesn’t compare to the magical days of the early ‘80s, but Reynolds senses an upward trend for Mocs hoops.
“Lamont has changed the culture here,” Reynolds said. “The one thing he is that none of the other coaches was is he is patient. He inherited nothing, but he’s been the most patient coach I’ve ever been around. This year’s team is a fun team to watch. They play hard and are good kids.”
While the football program hasn’t enjoyed the constant level of success of their basketball brethren, Reynolds fondly recalls the Russ Huesman coaching years. Huesman, a former UTC defensive back, led the Mocs to a winning record in seven of his eight seasons after the program had enjoyed only one winning campaign the previous 12 years.
“I still remember sitting with Russ after losing to top-ranked New Hampshire in the 2014 playoffs,” Reynolds said. “Russ and I are both looking at the stat sheet and wondering how we lost that game. It would have been a monumental football win that would have sent us to the semifinals.”
Huesman, who is entering his fourth season in charge of the Richmond program, has fond memories of his time with Reynolds.
“I spent two stints with him - one as a player and one as a coach,” Huesman said. “I always thought he was tremendous in how he treated me during my time at UTC. My dad was in Cincinnati and he listened to our games on the radio. He would always say, ‘Tell your radio guy he did a great job’, and JR would get a kick out of that.
“I have a lot of memories going up to the press box and sitting with him after games. I think JR was a guy who could call the game with a twinge of homerism in his voice, but not be overbearing. We laughed the most about my halftime rants, and he loved it more than anybody. When it comes to broadcasting, JR is as good as anybody doing it.”
The endless miles covered on countless road trips don’t get any easier after 40 years, but they’ve provided memories aplenty.
“One time we’re going to The Citadel and we look outside bus window and our tire goes rolling past us on fire,” Reynolds said. “We had to pull over to the side of the road and wait for another bus to come. Then a few weeks ago, a power surge knocked out my equipment and for 15 minutes I had to broadcast on a cell phone. There’s just so many stories that have made this journey memorable.”
Reynolds is joined by color analyst Todd Agne for football, but conducts his basketball broadcasts solo.
“It’s probably been a dozen years since I had a sidekick in basketball,” Reynolds said. “I wish there was someone at halftime, but I always come to the conclusion that people would rather hear me than someone else. At least that’s the answer I always tell people.”
Reynolds has forged through numerous games when dealing with physical ailments, but putting on the headset snaps him back to reality.
“The funny thing is that I never feel like crap during the game no matter how I might feel beforehand,” Reynolds said. “Game time is a fun time. I don’t know if it’s adrenaline or just being focused, but I never feel bad once the games start.”
The opportunity to remain connected with the student-athletes has not only allowed Reynolds to remain young at heart, but has enabled him to expand his perspective on life.
“I‘m a 64-year old man with more young African-American friends than anybody I know,” Reynolds said. “I am better off having a relationship with all of these different guys. I don’t know if they learn anything from me, but their perspective is different from mine having grown up in the lily white suburbs of Chicago. I’m a better person for that.”
After 40 seasons, Reynolds has no plans to step away from the microphone any time in the near future. He can’t imagine doing anything else that would bring him such joy.
“I tell (UTC Sports Information Director) Jay Blackmon I’m going to do 100 more football games. They keep asking me ‘Starting when?’ I really don’t know. I still look forward to the games, even though the travel starts to get a little rugged. As long as I still look forward to games and my excitement is contagious, I’ll keep doing it. When I become a curmudgeon in that like I am in every other aspect of life, then it’s time to go.
“I’m hoping I’ll know when that is, but I don’t know for sure. There’s no exit plan to my knowledge. UTC might have one, but they just haven’t told me what it is yet.”
As Reynolds looks back at his time as “The Voice of the Mocs”, he is reflective as to what sort of legacy he would like to leave behind.
“I want people to remember that I cared about the product and I cared about the people,” Reynolds said. “I always wanted the players and coaches to succeed, and I wanted to be fair in my representation. I try to let every new coach know there will come a point in time when they will be mad at me. When that happens, just come to me. If I’m wrong, then I’ll admit it. I think I always treated people fair and my word was my bond.”
McCarthy, who now provides color analysis on college telecasts, has a new appreciation for Reynolds’ contributions to Chattanooga.
“I know he’s had other opportunities, but I find it astounding that he’s still there because he’s so good and would be a star no matter where he was,” McCarthy said. “He’s been happy to stay there and become ‘Chattanooga’s Emcee’. I don’t think there’s ever been an event in Chattanooga that he hasn’t emceed at one time or another. When it comes to equity, he’s got a whole lot of it built up in that community.”
Longest tenured active broadcasters in Division I football:
51 - Bill Hillgrove, Pittsburgh
47 – Don Fischer, Indiana; Tommy Suggs, South Carolina
46 - Art Challis, Southern Utah; Dave Nitz, Louisiana Tech; Joe Starkey, California
42 - John Cox, Southern Miss
42 – George Blaha, Michigan State
41 - Mike Reis, Southern Illinois; Gene Deckerhoff, Florida State; Johnny Holliday, Maryland
40 - JIM REYNOLDS, CHATTANOOGA; Bill Baker, Northern Illinois; Jack Nixon, New Mexico State
Longest tenured active broadcasters in Division I basketball:
52 - Ray Goss, Duquesne
51 - Bill Hillgrove, Pitt
46 - Art Challis, S. Utah; Rich Chvotkin, Georgetown; Don Fischer, Indiana
45 - Dave Nitz, Louisiana Tech
42 - John Cox, Southern Miss
41 - Dave Snell, Bradley; Mike Reis, S. Illinois; Johnny Holliday, Maryland
40 - JIM REYNOLDS, CHATTANOOGA; Bill Baker, Northern Illinois; Mike Kennedy, Wichita State; Joe Sunderman, Xavier
Information provided by UTC Sports Information Department
Paul Payne can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Paul_A_Payne