It's football time in Tenne...sseeeeee!'"
It's the phrase that sends tens of thousands of fans into mania and an adage that for 43 years has earned Bobby Denton rock star status in Vol Country.
"People go absolutely nuts," Bobby says. "It's the one thing people look forward to when I open the mic."
As the public address announcer for Neyland Stadium during UT football season, Bobby loves the passion and pageantry of college football on Rocky TopÑso much that he splits time between Knoxville and Naples, FL during the offseason and shows no signs of slowing down as he enters his 43rd football season.
He's the longest running announcer in the country. No one else has ever had a longer running stint. "Knock on wood," Bobby says tapping his fist, "I've never missed a home game." And when Mike Hamilton took the job as UT's athletic director he asked Bobby for one favor, "If you decide you're ever going to quit doing the PA, give me a two-year notice." "So if I live by that," he says, "I'll at least be here for my 45th year."
A graduate of East High School, Bobby worked at a Gulf station in East Knoxville "blacking" tires on Kay's Ice Cream trucks, earning "Blacky" as the first of many nicknames.
His passion was cars, and one summer night he followed that love and took his '57 Chevy to the Maryville drag strip, completely unaware of the opportunity about to be thrown his way.
"I got there and somebody said, 'The announcer didn't show up. Get up there and announce the race!' I had no idea what I was doing, but I just started cutting up with the drivers, and they invited me back the next week."
After a year announcing drag races, Smokey Mountain Raceway tapped Bobby to announce NASCAR races during the Richard Petty and Dale Earndhart, Sr. era. He was a proven natural and consequently headed to Alabama and Talladega Superspeedway as the race announcer there for 16 years.
While at Talladega, Bobby's East Tennessee roots came calling. WSKT in South Knoxville convinced Bobby he was made for radio broadcasting. He admits knowing very little about the radio side of the mic, but he loved Knoxville and decided to give it a shot. "I go over there and [WSKT owner] Harry Morgan said, 'You're hired!' I said, 'Well, when do I start?' He said, 'This afternoon.'"
Bobby worked at WSKT for over nine months until WIVK offered the young DJ a job. A short while after he started spinning rock-n-roll music for the station, WIVK rocked his world when they decided to go country. "I thought I was the teenage rock-n-roll idol," he laughs, "so I went to Jacksonville, Florida and played rock music down there." 14 months later he was back in the studio where "Booby Denton" was quickly on the rise.
For the next 36 years, he would catapult WIVK to one of the leading mid-market country radio stations in the country. As he worked his way up to VP and General Manager, Bobby's strategy was to create a full-service radio station. "Our goal was to be a station with news, info, sports and weather that just happens to play country, and we never wavered from that," he says. "We proved that during the '93 blizzard. We were the only ones with generators and the only station that was able to remain on the air with 24/7 coverage."
Until 2001 and Citadel Broadcasting's buyout, WIVK won four CMA (Country Music Association) Awards for Radio Station of the Year along with multiple other awards and accolades under Bobby's direction. He's also been credited for launching the careers of some of country music's shining stars, including Randy Owen, the front man for Alabama. Owen paid a visit to the WIVK studios one day to drop off a demo by his group, then called "Wild Country." Bobby liked what he heard, and, during his afternoon show, just as Owen was hitting the road back home, Bobby played the record for the first time. "Randy pulled over in their yellow Camaro," Bobby recalls. "They sat and cried because it was the first time they'd ever heard their recording on the radio."
Bobby's still a fan of traditional country like Conway Twitty, George Strait, Alan Jackson, Reba McIntyre. "Their songs would go well in the economy today," he jokes. But it's one of country's biggest stars that Bobby has a long-running history with: Dolly Parton. "She used to drag me to watch her play in the Sevier High School band," he says. Later, it was Bobby who dragged her to his drag races, and as her memory serves, he left her sitting in the stands while he called the races. "She's told the story a million times," Bobby recalls, "that I had no interest in her; I was more interested in cars. Well, as you know, she's a bit hard to ignore. She is an incredible woman. She's one of the smartest individuals I have ever met and has more common sense than any one person I've been around in my life."
There is no doubt Bobby is proud of his career achievements. Aside from those, the 68-year-old's proudest personal accomplishment has been sobriety for virtually nine years from an admitted alcohol problem after his wife, Shannon, led an intervention that resulted in two months in rehabilitation. "I started the twelve-step program and reconnected with my higher power," says Bobby. "It's the single best thing I've ever done."
Bobby's best remedy, however, has always been humor. He is an iconic jokester and, always with cigar in hand (preferably hand-rolled with Nicaraguan tobacco from Miami), fills a room with his effervescence and contagious laughter. His practical jokes have become worthy of his own fascinating storytelling like the one he played on his friend the late Edwin Huster, former Vol Network General Manager.
Edwin and his wife Julia used to spend hours landscaping and relaxing by their backyard pool. The yard, according to Bobby, was Edwin's pride and joy. Late one night, during the Dogwood Arts Festival, he "borrowed" an "Open Garden" sign and put it in Edwin's front yard. "The next morning while Edwin and Julia were drinking coffee and reading the newspaper by their pool, a busload of Japanese tourists stopped, got off in their yard, and starting snapping pictures. He remembers "immediately getting a call from Edwin who was laughing and saying, 'There's only one person I know who could have done this.'"
Bobby has brought the same humor into the Neyland Stadium press box for every home game. While there's been dispute between him and the legendary Vol Network broadcaster John Ward over who coined the phrase, "It's football time in Tennessee!" there's one phrase of Bobby's that can never be refuted.
During his inaugural days calling UT football games, he would announce stadium concession prices and then suggested, as prices began to rise, printing them in the game programs. Today, 15 minutes before kickoff, the crowd still roars as Bobby makes his customary, and now famous, pitch. "Today's concession prices are found on page 99 of your souvenir program book. We urge you to pay these prices and pleaseÉ pay no more."
"I run into people in Florida who say, "I know you! You're the guy who says 'pay no more'!" " Bobby laughs. You'll also know it's him by the 'PAYNOMO' license plate on his white P.T. Cruiser with an orange pin stripe and power 'T'."
Bobby's love for the Vols began as a youngster. He sold Cokes at home games so he could get in the stadium for free. In 43 years as the Voice of Neyland Stadium and a life-long UT fan, handfuls of Volunteer legends have passed through Neyland Stadium on Bobby's watch, but none as impressive, he says, as one talented quarterback.
"Peyton Manning, without a doubt," Bobby says, "is everything you see. He's one player who left and has never forgotten the university or this community. I'm talking about personally and financially. He puts his money where his mouth is."
Great players rival memorable moments for Bobby. Among those moments was Arkansas's fumble in 1998 that paved the way for Tennessee's '98 National Championship title as was the '71 freshman game against Notre Dame where 35,000 fans showed up to watch rising stars like Condredge Holloway. UT's first night game in 1972 against Penn State was another historical Neyland moment for Bobby. "There are probably a lot of fans now who wish we'd never started night games. They can't stay up that late," he laughs.
But perhaps one of the most memorable Neyland Stadium moments that lives with every avid UT football fan was against South Carolina when Lou Holtz was still coaching the Gamecocks. South Carolina was staring down the field at 4th down and 45 yards to go. In typical Bobby Denton style he called the play with, "It's fourth down andÉ the river!"
"The crowd went wild," Bobby says. "They interviewed Lou Holtz and asked him if he thought I was showdogging to which Lou Holtz responded, 'Hell, I thought it was farther than that.'"
With so much history spanning Bobby's career in Neyland, he's quick to admit the future of Tennessee football could be just as bright. New UT head football coach Lane Kiffin has pushed all the right buttons with Bobby so far.
"I'm excited about it because this staff is really fired up. They're great recruiters, and I think Lane Kiffin has been great," he says. "I know among the fans I've talked to, the women love him, and the men love his wife, so they've made an impact," Bobby jokes.
It's also been a thrill for Bobby to see his close friend, former UT coach Johnny Majors invited back into the UT football family. "He's a legend at Tennessee," Bobby says. "I'm glad Lane reached out to him. He belongs in the program." And just as he does every year, Bobby made his way back to Knoxville for the annual Johnny Majors Invitational Golf Tournament. "The university really got behind the golf tournament this year for the first time in a long while," notes Bobby. "That was great to see."
The change in UT's coaching ranks isn't the only change Bobby has witnessed since last season. The departure of UT President John Peterson left tongues wagging about UT's ability to find the right leader. "You've got to match the person with the job," asserts Bobby. "We need someone who loves East Tennessee. We need someone who wants to retire here. We need someone who understands the people of this area and what they expect."
"I've never seen a survey on this," he claims, "but I would say 70 percent of UT sports fans didn't graduate from the University of Tennessee because it's amazing how many people adopted the university as their school because they've grown up around it."
So as football season beckons, Bobby will soon settle in to his newly renovated press box and wait for a new era in Tennessee football to begin. After Thanksgiving, he'll head back South to warmer weather and rejoin his weekly poker group and practice his golf game with buddies who call him "Radio." And this time next year, UT fans will once again wait eagerly for The Voice of Neyland Stadium to open the mic and kick off his 44th year and yet one more season of Tennessee football tradition. Until then, "Put a little love in your heart, darlin'. Bye."