For a second, Bob Kesling thought he may be a star in the SEC.
Standings on the sidelines in 1972, the walk-on fullback heard freshman coach Bob Davis yell his name. Dreams of becoming the next great Volunteer instantly popped up, only to be dashed seconds later.
“We were playing our first game at Vandy and we weren’t playing well. We were trying to rally in the fourth quarter and I heard coach Davis yell my name and tell me to get in at tailback,” Kelsing recalled. “It was a great opportunity for me, but I had to tell him I had never played tailback in a game before.
“He said, ‘I know that. You don’t think we’re going to give you the ball, do you?’”
Kesling captivated a capacity crowd gathered for Noon Rotary with tales of his time on The Hill Thursday. Kesling never went on to be a gridiron hero for the Volunteers, but his name is still called every time the lights go on at Neyland Stadium.
Kesling serves as the play-by-play announcer for the Tennessee football and men’s basketball teams, giving him rare access inside Volunteer athletics. He was able to give listeners a peek inside the programs, along with some candid stories of his path to becoming the voice of the Vols.
None of it may have happened without a pep talk from a Vol legend.
“I was working with the Vol Network when Pat Summitt won her first national championship. She had gone to the Final 4 several times before getting the title – before then, some people thought she was a great regular season coach, but she would never win a championship,” said Kesling. “I asked her to lunch because I was sitting around thinking, ‘In 7-10 years from now, am I going to be doing the same thing?’ I asked her, ‘What got you over the hump?’"
Kesling continued, “She told me it was pretty simple – work harder. I kind of needed a kick in the pants to get me going. She listened to me for a while, but then pulled in close and gave me that stare. She told me she didn’t know anything about the politics of broadcasting, but her guess was I wasn’t good enough.”
It was brutal honesty from Summitt that sparked Kesling.
“She hit me in the head with a hammer. She told me she thought I did a great job, but somebody doesn’t. She told me to get to work and make the next newscast I do the best I’ve ever done,” said Kesling. “I took her message to heart and the next year, I was hired by Jefferson Pilot.”
It wasn’t long before Kesling was back with the Vols though. After John Ward’s retirement following the team’s national championship season in 1998, Kesling became the new voice of the Vols.
He did his best to apply the things he learned from his predecessor, who gave him his first job with the Vol Network 20 years before.
“I learned a lot sitting next to one of the greatest to ever call a game,” said Kesling. “I started as a film editor and later became the spotter, who works as the assistant to the play-by-play guy. I miss him. Everybody remembers listening to John on Saturdays.”
Ward’s famous calls are all treasured by Vol fans, but one Kesling will never forget was a rare slip-up.
“Washington State was in town and they had a quarterback named Samoa Samoa and he could throw it with both hands. John told me before the game to go down there and make sure he could throw it with both hands,” said Kesling. “I go down there and he’s tossing it 50 yards with his right hand, then 50 yards with his left, so I told John.
“It’s the second quarter and Washington State has the ball third-and-3 at the Tennessee 30. John starts his call and talks about how it will be tough for the Tennessee defense because he can roll out and throw with either hand – he’s amphibious. I was laughing thinking how some guy was probably driving down the road thinking we didn’t have a chance because John said their quarterback was amphibious, but John never missed a beat.”
Sometimes, Kesling still can’t believe how his path led him to his dream job.
“I didn’t know anybody in the state of Tennessee when I arrived in 1972. I came and never left. I raised my family here and I’m blessed to do this job,” said Kesling.
Maybe it would’ve been different if Kesling would have taken that hand-off all those years ago. Instead, Kesling can always talk about all Vols he’s seen go into the checkerboards.