Why 'Vol Calls' remains a hit after more than 30 years on air as Tennessee call-in show

Robbie Slack sets the alarm on his phone for 7:55 p.m. on Wednesdays during the fall. The alarm reminds him that “Vol Calls,” the Vol Network’s weekly statewide coaches call-in radio show, will begin at the top of the hour.

Just before 8 o’clock, Slack places his call so he gets into the queue early. Many nights, he is one of the callers selected to go on the air. Slack usually offers a motivational preamble before asking Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt a question.

Slack calls on one phone while listening to a live stream of the show on another.

“Some people might call me crazy,” said Slack, 30, from Tallahassee, Florida, who has been calling in for more than a decade, “but, you know, everyone has their favorite hobbies or something that they might take seriously.”

“Vol Calls” began in 1989 as one of Knoxville’s first talk radio shows. The show remains popular by offering Vols fans around the country a chance to ask Tennessee coaches questions.

“When you’ve got the coach live, most nights, the lines are full,” said Bob Kesling, who has hosted the show nearly every year that it has been on the air.

Bob Kesling of "Vol Calls" speaks to University of Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt while on the air at Calhoun's on the River in Knoxville, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2019. Kesling has hosted the show in nearly every year since it debuted in 1989.

Kesling and co-host Brent Hubbs are usually joined by a Vols coach. The show, which spans 34 weeks, finds peak popularity during the fall, when Pruitt answers callers’ questions for the first half of the hour-long show.

“I really enjoy it,” Pruitt said. “It’s one of my favorite parts of the week. There’s lots of really good questions that come from the fans who call in.”

The unpredictable nature of fans’ questions combined with Pruitt’s dry, straightforward answers are a match made in radio heaven.

Earlier this season, a caller offered — in seriousness — to join the team for the upcoming game as a walk-on linebacker. Another caller suggested Pruitt ditch Tennessee’s approach in favor of the West Coast offense.

Pruitt offers a helping of deadpan humor. After Tennessee’s season-opening loss to Georgia State, a caller asked Pruitt which player on Tennessee’s defense puts fear in an opponent.

“I would say absolutely none of them,” Pruitt said.

Bob Kesling of "Vol Calls" and University of Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt sign autographs at Calhoun's on the River in Knoxville, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2019.

Beyond the funny moments, “Vol Calls” offers a rare opportunity for a fan to connect with a coach. That connection keeps the show going strong after more than 30 years.

“It’s still something that means something to a Tennessee fan,” said Mike Keith, who served as co-host alongside Kesling for the show’s first nine years, “and that can’t get lost.”

When 'Vol Calls' started

Johnny Majors was the first Tennessee coach to join Kesling and Keith on “Vol Calls.” Majors previously appeared on a call-in show dubbed “Johnny Majors on the Line,” hosted by John Ward. That show debuted in 1979 and was canceled ahead of the 1984 season.

“Vol Calls” filled the void. Page 9 of the 1989 football media guide noted the show’s launch:

Monday nights may never be the same in Big Orange Country as “VolCalls” starts …

The show moved to Wednesdays decades later.

Talk radio now is found on several spots on the dial in Knoxville. In 1989, it was virtually absent from the airwaves.

“'The Rush Limbaugh Show' was not even on in Knoxville at that time,” recalls Keith, who is now the radio play-by-play voice of the Tennessee Titans. “There was one show: ‘SportsTalk.’ That was it. So, when ‘Vol Calls’ came on, it was a revelation.”

The show became an on-location event during the 2000s, and it has been broadcast live from Calhoun’s on the River since 2012.

Bob Kesling, left, and Mike Keith are shown in this promotional photo during the early days of "Vol Calls." The show debuted in 1989, with Kesling and Keith as the hosts.

In the show’s beginning, Kesling and Keith stationed themselves at the WIVK studio that was then located at 6711 Kingston Pike atop Bearden Hill. Majors — and years later Phillip Fulmer — joined via phone miles away at the UT football offices. Kesling and Keith got handed a slip of paper when a call came in, with the caller’s name and location and what line the caller was on.

Callers hail from all over

Most of the calls originate from Tennessee towns other than Knoxville or states where fans aren’t as saturated with Vols information. Last season, Pruitt fielded a call from a fan on vacation in the Caribbean.

On the Wednesday before Tennessee’s game against South Carolina last month, Pruitt fielded eight calls from fans in three states. Two callers were from Knoxville, but others hailed from Tennessee towns like Cedar Grove, Chattanooga, Cosby and Five Points.

And there was Larry Keel, 58, from Huntsville, Alabama.

Larry Keel of Huntsville, Alabama, is shown with his wife, Nedia Jo, before the 1996 Citrus Bowl. Keel has been calling in to "Vol Calls" since the show's inception in 1989.

Keel has been calling in since the show’s inception.

Keel attended his first Tennessee football game at age 7. His mother carried her son on her shoulders into Legion Field in Birmingham to watch Tennessee play Auburn.

“I’ve just been a Tennessee fan since I was old enough to wear an orange jacket,” Keel said.

Keel isn’t treated to much Tennessee discussion when he flips on the radio in Huntsville.

Cue “Vol Calls.”

Some callers just want to say hello to the coach or to offer their two-cents on a subject. That’s not Keel’s style. He calls when he’s genuinely curious about something and wants the coach’s opinion.

“When I call in, I want to know something,” Keel said. “I’m not going to call ‘Vol Calls’ without a question. I’m just not going to do it. I’m not going to waste Bob’s time.”

How to get on the air

Kesling’s role as host is akin to a traffic cop. He aims to keep callers on track and get as many fans on the air as possible.

Callers don’t go through a rigorous screening process. As Keith put it, “you don’t have to show your Real ID to get on the air.”

The limited screening that occurs is to ensure the caller has a relevant question — if Pruitt is on the air, don’t ask him about the Lady Vols — and to get the caller’s name and location. The goal isn’t to weed out callers who might want to ask a more pointed question.

“You want them to be able to air their jubilation and then also air their frustrations,” Kesling said.

From left, Brent Hubbs, Bob Kesling and University of Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt on the set of "Vol Calls" at Calhoun's on the River in Knoxville, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2019.

Callers rarely phone in looking to hold a coach’s feet to the flames. Rather, most callers are dedicated fans who are serious about football and have a legitimate question for the coach.

“Ninety percent of the people that call in are supportive of the program and the coaches,” Kesling said. “They’re not on here to bash them.”

Of course, coaches don’t always get off easy.

Kesling remembers a fan giving former coach Derek Dooley a hard time while asking a question on site when the show aired from the Texas Roadhouse near West Town Mall.

“Coach, I hate to say this,” the fan said, “but our teams play terrible in the second half. You must give the worst halftime speeches in the history of college football. But you’re still our coach, and I love you. Go Vols.”

Dooley, a natural on the show, played it off well.

“What are you supposed to say to that? Dooley loved it,” Kesling said.

Memorable calls for Kesling, Keith

Days before National Signing Day in 1991, quarterback Heath Shuler committed to Tennessee. Keith drove to Bryson City, North Carolina, to cover Shuler’s news conference and arranged for Shuler to join “Vol Calls” via phone that night for an interview.

Shuler phoned in while family and friends listened on 107.7 FM. The interview went off without a hitch. Keith puffed out his chest as the show went to break.

“I’m a giant hero at this point,” Keith recalled. “I got Heath Shuler on ‘Vol Calls,’ and it’s gone great.”

Keith’s pride turned to anxiety when the first caller after the break said Shuler sounded unimpressive and not very smart. Subsequent callers phoned in to apologize for that fan’s remarks and defend Shuler.

Keith panicked that his shining moment had become a grave mistake. He dialed Shuler after the show to thank him for joining and apologize for the caller’s critique.

“He thought it was hilarious,” Keith said. “He laughed.”

Keith later learned the critical caller was an alcohol-aided fraternity student whose fraternity brothers gave him plenty of ribbing for that phone call.

Vols players have been known to call in under an assumed name to ask their coach a question.

Former Tennessee quarterback Andy Kelly regularly called during his days playing for Majors, unbeknownst to Majors and Kesling. Kelly rang from his dorm room using made-up names and throwing his voice.

Tennessee tied Colorado 31-31 to open the 1990 season on a Sunday in Anaheim. A day later, Kelly phoned “Vol Calls” with a false name. He congratulated Majors on the tie, asked about the team’s health and inquired about the progress of little-used running back Carey Baker, one of Kelly’s buddies.

Majors thanked the caller for the well wishes on the tie and assured him the team was healthy. But he was puzzled about the player the caller asked about.

“You sure you don’t mean our outstanding nose tackle, Carey Bailey?” Majors asked.

No, Coach, Carey Baker, the caller reiterated.

Kesling was hosting from the WIVK studio. He heard Majors remove his headset and ask assistant David Cutcliffe whether a Carey Baker played on the team. Cutcliffe confirmed Baker existed, and Majors hopped back on the air.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Majors told the caller. “Carey Baker, he’s a reserve running back. He made the trip to California. He doesn’t figure in our future plans. Next question.”

That exchange remains one of Kesling’s favorites. Years later, Kelly revealed to Kesling that he was the caller.

Pruitt gets ‘fired up’ by 'Vol Calls'

Pruitt has come to look forward to Slack’s phone call, which often includes inspirational words.

“Robbie calls in every week from Tallahassee,” Pruitt said. “He kind of gets me fired up.”

Robbie Slack, 30, of Tallahassee, Florida, is a regular caller on "Vol Calls." Coach Jeremy Pruitt especially appreciates Slack's calls for his motivational messages.

Kesling thinks Pruitt enjoys the show as much as any coach for whom he’s hosted.

Earlier this season, Pruitt’s Vols were mired in an 0-2 start after losses to Georgia State and BYU.

Some callers the following week had pointed questions about Tennessee’s quarterback situation, red-zone struggles, conservative offensive approach and struggling defense.

Others phoned in to voice support for their second-year coach.

Russ from Clarksville dialed in with a pick-me-up for the coach: “I believe in you to the end,” he said. “I’ve got your six.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at blake.toppmeyer@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.