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April 9, 2014
Denton not just a voice; a visionary
January 25, 1994.
The Associated Press machine was going to go off at any second. So I stood and watched that machine as if my life depended on it.
At just a few minutes past seven, the machine typed out a short blurb: Archie Manning's son, a quarterback in his own right named Peyton, had picked Tennessee over five other schools.
I tore into the WIVK Radio studios and immediately shared the news with the world. We had felt that Tennessee might be Peyton Manning's school, but could not be 100% sure until he said it. After all, Archie Manning was still Ole Miss's greatest football legend and, while the Rebels had some serious issues at the time, no one could quite believe that Peyton Manning would not end up in Oxford.
But he picked Tennessee.
The calls were streaming into the WIVK phone lines, when in streamed the boss, WIVK general manager Bobby Denton. He was as excited as the callers, but he had a question for me.
"Why don't you have Peyton Manning on the phone?" Bobby inquired. "That's what people want to hear."
He was right, but there was an explanation. The Mannings gave Peyton's commitment to the Associated Press with the understanding that there would be no interviews until after school, when a press conference would be held. As Bobby listened to the explanation, he nodded, but he wasn't through with his questions.
"Well, are you going to the press conference?" Bobby asked.
I'm certain that I have never had a more stunned look on my face. The press conference was in less than eight hours in New Orleans. I was in Knoxville. Logistically that didn't work. Plus, I was hosting the Tennessee Baseball Leadoff Man Banquet that night. I couldn't leave Rod Delmonico high and dry, even if I could get to the Big Easy, which I couldn't.
A stuttering explanation followed, but Bobby wasn't satisfied.
"We need to have someone at that press conference," Bobby stated firmly. "This is going to be all that anyone is talking about today."
He was right, but what would we do?
"How about sending Cody Allison?" I asked. The room was filled with nodding heads and suddenly we had a plan.
I called Cody, but there was no answer. Cody is now a highly-respected lawyer in Nashville, but in 1994, he was merely a college student who interned at WIVK and would often stay up very late "studying".
I called again. No answer. On the third try, Cody picked up. His voice made it clear that he had been "studying" until the wee hours of the morning.
"We're coming to get you," I explained. "You are going to New Orleans."
"I am?" Cody croaked.
While I was getting Cody Allison awakened, Bobby was seeing to it that we had him a plane ticket. An assistant found a 9:30am flight to New Orleans that arrived around 1pm. It cost over $1000. Bobby didn't care; buy it, he said.
I grabbed the receipt for the plane ticket and jumped into the WIVK Traffic Tracker with Ed Rupp. We rousted Cody from his deluxe college boy apartment and set sail for McGhee-Tyson airport. I glanced at the speedometer and the Rupper was doing over 90mph. I was too afraid to look over again.
Cody got the full briefing as he combed his hair and brushed his teeth. He wasn't very awake, but did seem to grasp the significance of the moment. Bobby Denton wanted this done so he'd better do the job well.
Long story short: Cody made the flight, got to the press conference, asked some great questions (especially of Archie Manning) and provided our listeners with the some amazing radio coverage of a huge event. It was great radio and, to this day, I am still so proud of how Cody came through on January 25, 1994. Bobby was, too.
Twenty years later, it is still easy to marvel at Bobby Denton's decision to send someone to New Orleans to listen to a high school football player talk about his commitment.Today, it happens every single week.
I guess that I should not have been surprised then or now, because in January 1991, he sent me "over the mountain" to Bryson City, NC in a WIVK station van to cover a similar press conference for Heath Shuler. At that time, allowing a 23-year old to drive in in the dark through the Smoky Mountains didn't seem like a great idea (especially when I encountered snow), but Bobby believed that the story was big enough to the audience that it was worth it.
And it was. He was always right, especially when it came to sports.
But Bobby's commitment to expanding sports coverage didn't stop with covering recruiting press conferences.
He told the accounting staff to leave me alone when our sports department racked up thousands of dollars in long-distance calls during the months of January and February. He wanted WIVK to report every commitment first. We didn't, but that's what he wanted.
He put SportsTalk on their air in 1988, allowed a 21-year old to start hosting it in 1989, expanded it to two-hour show in 1991 and then a three-hour show the following year. In 1996, SportsTalk moved to afternoon drive, making it one of the first sports shows in the region to be on the air at 3pm.
Bobby paid then-News Sentinel UT beat reporter Jimmy Hyams to become a "regular contributor" to SportsTalk when no other show had "regular contributors". He also allowed us to hire Brent Hubbs as a full-time reporter for the show, something unheard-of at the time.
Bobby wanted as much sports information as possible, so he gave us permission to break into programming ANY TIME that we had a breaking Tennessee sports story, because "people want to know and they count on us for that."
He expanded UT football coverage on gameday, giving fans the chance to get as much pre-game coverage as possible and the chance to call in after the game with their questions or comments.
He made Lady Vol basketball and Tennessee baseball broadcasts a regular staple of our WNOX AM 990 program, starting with both when neither had a chance of making money. Today, they are both profitable.
Sometimes, Bobby Denton used WIVK resources to make certain that we got the story out.
During one of many UT basketball coaching searches that we covered, I got a lucky break---a friend walking through Thompson-Boling Arena noticed that the staff was setting up for a press conference and called me. Another source confirmed to me that Tennessee had made a hire, but did not know who the new coach was.
I raced up to the WIVK sports office and asked Brent Hubbs to make a call. Brent had a source that we thought might help. As Brent made the call, I could tell the conversation was taking a strange turn. Brent put the phone on hold and was shaking his head.
The source was willing to help us, but only if we could come up with two tickets to the upcoming Reba McEntire concert.
Gee whiz, I thought. We didn't pay for information, but this particular coaching search was long and hard and we were sick of it. Two Reba tickets seemed like a small price to pay to get the story. But this was a big concert and only one guy in the WIVK building had tickets: Bobby Denton.
I raced down the stairs to Bobby's office and arrived in record time. Bobby's door was closed and his assistant, Mary Litteral, informed me that Bobby was a big meeting with a huge client. When I explained the situation, she picked up the phone and rang his office. Seconds later, we had the Reba tickets and broke the story.
Mary knew what we knew: to Bobby Denton, a big sports story was worth interrupting an important meeting and giving up two Reba tickets. That's why Mary did not hesitate.
Bobby wanted to know the story. He knew that you wanted to know the story, too.
By committing his stations' airtime, staff and financial resources, Bobby made sure that everyone knew the story and, in doing so, he changed the way Tennessee sports were covered. In fact, his commitment to sports coverage was a precursor of how UT sports are covered today. He never thought of it that way, but Bobby would be thrilled to know that.
He was the longtime, outstanding PA announcer at Neyland Stadium, that's true, but Bobby Denton was a lot more. He was a marketing genius, a remarkable salesman and had a fantastic ear for musical talent. He might be one of the finest radio men that ever lived. He was a great boss and a better friend. I wish that you all could have known him like his employees did. I wish that you could have known him like I did.
I hope that there's recruiting news in heaven, because the biggest Tennessee fan that I have ever known just got there and he will need an update.