by Tom Mattingly
(Reprinted with permission from "The Knoxville News Sentinel," December 16, 2007.)
(Editor's Note: Many of you know Otis Stephens, who was president of ACB from 1987 to 1989. And we know there are many football fans among you readers! We thought you might enjoy reading this story about Stephens, written by Tom Mattingly, a former student of Otis Stephens. Mattingly is the author of "The Tennessee Football Vault: The Story of the Tennessee Volunteers, 1891-2006" (2006), to be published in second edition in 2008, and "Tennessee Football: The Peyton Manning Years" (1998). He may be reached at [email protected]. His News Sentinel blog is called "The Vol Historian.")
If there were eight million stories in the old "Naked City" television program, there have to be at least that many, or maybe more, in the entirety of Big Orange Country.
If Knoxville radio personality Tony Basilio, the self-styled "Voice of the Common Fan," has a short list of the great Tennessee football fans, Dr. Otis Stephens' name should be at or near the top of his list. Stephens is a dedicated fan, part of the orange-clad throng who help make Neyland Stadium such an exciting place to be on Saturdays in the fall.
Each season, he and his wife, Mary, get the tailgate together, find their tickets and his headphones, get dressed in something orange and white, and make their way with their friends to Neyland Stadium, much as they have over the years.
They're in Section O at the southwest corner of the stadium, row 53, seats 10 and 11. "They tell me you can see the field well," he says.
That's one important component to this story. He's been blind much of his life, but that hasn't stopped him in the least, not professionally, not in his enjoyment of Tennessee football, not in any way.
A native of East Point, Ga., Stephens grew up hearing the Bulldogs' radio broadcasts through the voice of Ed Thilenius. The coach in those days was Wally Butts. It's hard to fathom, the march of time being so relentless, but it was also before the days of the legendary Larry Munson.
"I was there during Butts' most unsuccessful years," Stephens said. "He had one winning season out of five. Two years after I left, he won the SEC title with Fran Tarkenton."
Stephens is an amazing story in his own right. He holds a BA and an MA in political science from the University of Georgia. He continued his education with a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University as well as a J.D. from the University of Tennessee. He came to the department of political science in 1967, and had a stint in the arts and sciences dean's office beginning in 1996, before moving to the law school in 2000.
He's been a fixture on campus since his arrival, and is a popular, much-awarded, and much-respected professor. Students who didn't take his constitutional law class have missed something really special. There are few better. He's good enough to be grouped in the same company with Jimmy Walls, Bill Cherry, Dick Penner, J. Fred Holly, and those other legendary educators who enlightened so many students over the years.
You'll find him these days in Room 377 of the George C. Taylor Law School on Cumberland Avenue. He's a cogent observer of the constitutional law scene, teaching and having written several books on the subject.
In his seat with his headset on, Stephens finds himself in an enviable position relative to his fellow fans. He finds he often knows what's happening on the field before his friends do, thanks to John Ward and Bill Anderson, initially, and now Bob Kesling, Tim Priest, and Mike Stowell. He passes on information gleaned from the Vol Network. The referee then strides to the middle of the field and says what Stephens just said.
"The word description in radio is everything," he says. "It's far better and much more detailed than what you would hear on television. I have an advantage in knowing what happens.
"Bob Kesling has gotten better, coming into his own as a radio announcer. He has mastered the art of calling the game, giving accurate detail. He's on top of it now, and has a lot of enthusiasm. He gives you a real sense of what's going on."
It's the same with analyst Tim Priest, the Knoxville lawyer who was captain of the 11-1 1970 team. "I like Tim Priest's analysis," Stephens said. "His knowledge of the game is so detailed that he is able to present a very clear picture of what is taking place on the field. It is helpful to understanding what is going on. They make a very good team."
He'll quickly tell you there's something special about being in the noisy throng at Neyland Stadium each week. "The crowd tells you a lot about what's going on. I like to take the headset off and hear the crowd reaction, hear people converse about the game. The headset allows me to be on a par with the other fans, helps me enjoy the game."
Kesling offers the right perspective on the game, Stephens says. "You know he's on Tennessee's side, but that doesn't interfere with the broadcast," he said.
Now you know all about the constitutional law professor turned Vol fan, another great story from across the expanse of Neyland Stadium.