BY JIM STEELE
Former Huntingdon all-state quarterback and Tennessee Volunteer standout defensive back Tim Priest is stepping down after 22 years in the broadcast booth.
Priest served as the Big Orange Network’s football color commentary, joining play-by-play man Bob Kesling in 1999. But Priest has given his all for Tennessee a lot longer than 22 years. His wife, Betsy, reminded him of that fact.
“I was with the Vol Network for 22 years, but before that, I did the Football Finals show on WIVK for 24 years, so, really, I’ve been doing this for 46 years,” Priest said. “I don’t know if my wife knows what I look like on Saturdays in the fall, but we’ll see.”
Priest arrived on The Hill in 1967 and has been a fixture in the UT football program, as well as Knoxville, since that time. While he enjoyed his time with the Vol Network, he realized it was time to do other things.
“I’d been thinking about this for a couple of years,” Priest said. “The biggest motivation was that I have grandchildren who are athletes, and they play volleyball, football, baseball, basketball and they play year-round, but they play in the fall, too. I want to spend more time with them, and it just seemed like the right time.”
That’s not to say he won’t miss it.
“I’ll miss all the people I worked with on the network,” he said. “Working with Bob Kesling and the Vol Network has been a privilege.”
Kesling, who succeeded John Ward as the Voice of the Vols had high praise for his former partner.
“He was a lot of fun to work with, but he had an opinion,” Kesling said. “He had broadcast experience, he was a lawyer and knew how to ask questions and minimize words. Tim was perfect because he was a quarterback and defensive back, so he saw the whole field. We (Kesling, Tennessee athletics director Doug Dickey and Vol Network chief Edwin Huster) put the list together. We checked the boxes and figured who had the most checked boxes. Tim was the guy who checked the boxes. He was the best choice.”
Kesling said that Priest was a fan and wore UT on his sleeve.
“That was what was so good about him,” Kesling said. “He could outline why Tennessee won or why Tennessee lost. On breaks he’d go crazy, but that was the coach in him.”
Kesling said Priest’s preparation was impeccable. They’d watch film on Thursday and Kesling said he’d approach the broadcast as if he was preparing for a trial.
“He asked intelligent questions and he knew the game,” the play-by-play man said. “I learned a lot of football from him.”
Priest said there were times when he’d have to prepare for a big game while preparing for a big trial, which was a pretty intense juggling act.
“There have been times when I had trials on Monday or Tuesday and I’d bring my files with me. Sometimes, instead of preparing for the games, I was preparing for the trial,” he said. “I kind of learned how to juggle my commitments. When the ballgame gets started, it’s not hard to concentrate.”
Priest was part of a lot of memorable games as a player and a broadcaster, but he says one of his most memorable moments didn’t occur in Huntingdon, Knoxville, Tuscaloosa, Gainesville or Athens. It was in Camden, Tennessee.
“My junior year, Camden beat the tar out of us. They had Tommy McKelvy and they beat us handily,” Priest said. “(Huntingdon) Coach Paul Ward said they were working hard at Camden, he asked us if were working hard. My senior year, we went over there and beat them handily.”
Another game involving a local rival, Priest said Huntingdon was at McKenzie and the Mustangs were winning by a pretty good margin. McKenzie kicked off and Priest returned it. He thought he was going to score when he got to about the 11-yard line.
“Jimmy Padgett caught me!” Priest said. “I didn’t think he was that fast. He got the best of me on that play, but we beat them pretty handily.”
Priest remembers Coach Ward fondly.
“Ward could coach football. He came here in the mid-1950s. Huntingdon wasn’t very good his first year, but he was a tough coach,” he said. ” If he gave you praise, you knew you were doing something good. He had some good teams.”
Priest had a pretty good game against Alabama in 1970. The Vols beat the Tide 24-0, Alabama’s first shutout loss since 1959, 7-0 to Penn State in the Liberty Bowl. Scott Hunter threw five interceptions and Alabama totaled eight picks in the game. Priest hauled in a team-record three that afternoon. This was Tennessee coach Bill Battle’s first game against his former mentor Bear Bryant.
“We knew Coach Battle had played at Alabama and played for Bear Bryant. They weren’t a great team at the time. When Coach Battle came in, Buddy Bennett coached the secondary. We changed the scheme with four defensive backs and a monster man and we were a lot more aggressive. We had a lot of help up front,” said Priest. “The Alabama quarterback had a bad day. His star wide receivers came to the huddle and said, ‘throw it to Tennessee and maybe we can intercept it.'”
Priest also was part of that 38-0 “Archie Who?” game, where Ole Miss shellacked the Vols in Oxford.
“We laid the biggest egg ever at Ole Miss, losing 38-0. Back then they had the sky writer’s tour. Writers from the various conference cities would get on a plane and visit the schools and talk to the players,” said Priest. “They asked (All-American linebacker) Steve Kiner who he thought would win the SEC. He said us, I guess. They asked him about Archie Manning, he said, ‘Archie who?’ They (the writers) said Ole Miss had horses down there and Kiner said they didn’t know the difference between a horse and a mule. They had a mule out in front of the stadium when we got there.”
Years later, Priest said he got to know the Manning patriarch and sought his advice when Priest was named color commentator. Manning was the Saints color man in those days. Priest said he had notes and statistics for every little thing and Manning admonished him to get rid of those notes. Manning related that he was going to have 20-25 seconds to speak and those notes were useless.
Priest managed to do okay with his assessment, minus the crib notes. He says he’ll miss the relationships he developed while doing the games. He saw his share of good years, but he was there during the lean years, too.
“It’s a lot more fun to call a game when you are winning,” he said.
The former Mustang standout says he’s optimistic about the Vols’ future.
“We’ve had a run of these coaches where they are here for just a few years. Tennessee fans have to understand you have to give Josh Heupel time,” Priest said. “He’s not going to win this year and maybe not next year. We’re a few years away from standing toe-to-toe with some of these teams in the SEC,” he added.