VOL. 9 | NO. 5 | Saturday, January 30, 2016
Bertelkamp Made Right Call in Going with the Vols
By Dave Link | Special to The Memphis News
Bert Bertelkamp would be the first to tell you he’s pulling for Tennessee when calling basketball games as color commentator for the Vol Network.
And why wouldn’t he?
Bertelkamp is Big Orange to the bone. His father Hank played for the Vols (1951-53), was a team captain and remains a big supporter of UT.
Bert was raised in Knoxville, graduated from Bearden High School in 1976 and chose to follow Hank’s footsteps to Tennessee instead of taking scholarship offers from Duke, North Carolina, Clemson and Wake Forest.
Legendary Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears poses here with Bertelkamp.
It was on a whim Bert got into his job as color commentator for the Vol Network, kind of a one-year thing, just for fun.
When John Ward retired as the “Voice of the Vols” in 2009, his successor, Bob Kesling, asked Bertelkamp to be his color commentator for basketball. They’ve been calling games together for 17 seasons.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Bertelkamp says. “It’s been a lot of fun. You can tell I haven’t had any training if you listen to the games.”
Bertelkamp, president of Knoxville-based Bertelkamp Automation, a company he co-owns with his dad, made it clear during his first interview with the Vol Network he wasn’t exactly a pro at radio.
The late Edwin Huster Jr., in charge of the Vol Network at the time, laid out the rules to Bertelkamp as a color commentator.
“Here’s what you can’t do,” Huster told Bertelkamp. “No. 1, you can’t be a homer. You can’t be all Tennessee. No. 2, you can’t referee the games and criticize the refs. And No. 3, you can’t coach the team.”
Bertelkamp thought for a second.
“Well,” he said, “then I’m not your man because I’ll try not to coach the team, but I’m damn sure a UT guy, and I’m damn sure gonna criticize the refs if they’re not doing a good job.”
Bertelkamp didn’t always plan to play for Tennessee, nor did he always plan to play basketball.
While growing up in West Knoxville, Bertelkamp also played football and baseball. He excelled as a pitcher and shortstop at Rocky Hill Ball Park, alternating at both positions on all-star teams with Billy Arbo, who became a multi-sports star at Webb School.
Bertelkamp stopped playing all but basketball in the seventh grade, but not because he was forced in that direction.
“My dad definitely had an influence on me, but he didn’t really push me to basketball,” Bert explains. “I just naturally went that way.”
Bertelkamp quickly became a high-level recruit as point guard/shooting guard at Bearden, where he played for head coach Ralph Beeler as a sophomore and Tom Deaton the next two years.
Bearden was one of the top teams in Knoxville led by Bertelkamp and others such as Bobby Tipton, Guille and Buddy Cruze, Tommy White and Bruce Howard.
However, the Bulldogs had trouble getting past Austin-East and star guard Elston Turner, who later played at Ole Miss and spent eight years in the NBA.
“We were always basically the second-best team in Knoxville to Austin-East,” Bertelkamp points out. “We only beat them one time in my three years at Bearden, but we always played them in the final of the tournament.
“I used to go head-to-head with Elston. He was a great athlete, and, of course, he went to Ole Miss. I wished he’d of gone to UT. He just kept getting better and better and better. I think he played football too, but once he committed to basketball, he ended up being an NBA player. He was really a good player.”
Bertelkamp was no slouch, either.
Duke recruited him the hardest, but at the time wasn’t a premier program in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and wasn’t coached by Mike Krzyzewski.
Still, Duke, coached by Bill Foster, pursued Bertelkamp with the pitch they would build the team around Mike Gminski, a post player from Monroe, Connecticut, with Bertelkamp as the two guard.
Bertelkamp says he passed on Duke because he didn’t think it could compete against the likes of North Carolina, North Carolina State, Maryland and Virginia for ACC championships.
“Well, I was absolutely wrong about that because my sophomore year (at UT) I’m sitting at home with dad watching the (NCAA) final game, and it’s Kentucky and Duke, and dad said, ‘You didn’t really think that through very well. You were wrong about that,’” Bertlekamp recalls.
“They were in the final game my sophomore year, and the guy they took instead of me was right out there playing. It was a guy named Bob Bender.”
Instead of Duke, Bertelkamp went to UT because he saw a chance for a starting role in his second year. He joined the Vols in 1976-77 for the heyday of Big Orange basketball created by head coach Ray Mears.
Bertelkamp’s first season at UT was the junior year of Bernard King and the senior year of Ernie Grunfeld. They were the core of the “Ernie and Bernie Show,” or the “Bernie and Ernie Show,” depending on the night.
They were on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the most prolific scoring duo in college basketball at the time, and a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Bert Bertelkamp in his younger days as a Vols guard. He played in three NCAA tournaments with Tennessee.
Bertelkamp was the backup to Mike Jackson as a freshman.
“Tennessee basketball then was a road show,” Bertelkamp says. “Everywhere we went on the road, we were getting harassed, and Ernie and Bernie were the stars of the league.
“Everybody hated Tennessee and wanted to beat us, and of course, Bernard and those guys were really pretty good on the national level. And we won.”
Mears, though, wasn’t coaching the Vols during Bertelkamp’s first two years. His bouts with depression forced assistant Stu Aberdeen to do most of the coaching duties in 1976-77, and the next year, Cliff Wettig, served as acting head coach.
Bertelkamp played sparingly as a freshman – in 21 games, he averaged 1.2 points and had nine total assists – and the Vols tied for first with Kentucky in the SEC with a 16-2 record.
Tennessee got the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament because it swept Kentucky twice during the season, and the Vols went to Baton Rouge, La., to play Syracuse in the NCAA’s Mideast Region first round.
After leading by 10 early and by eight in the second half, the Vols’ season ended with a 93-88 overtime loss. Grunfeld had 26 points and 12 rebounds, King had 23 points and 12 rebounds, but the “Ernie and Bernie Show” was over.
“We had other good players: Mike Jackson, Terry Crosby, Johnny Darden,” Bertelkamp adds.
“We were really good, but Coach Mears got sick my first two years and never really coached the team when I was there, and that hurt us some, but Coach Aberdeen coached the team and did a really good job. He was a really good coach too. But we should have made the Final Four with that team.”
Bertelkamp played in two more NCAA tournaments for the Vols with Don Devoe as head coach.
In 1979, Tennessee beat Eastern Kentucky 97-81 at the Mideast Region first round in Murfreesboro with Bertelkamp starting alongside Gary Carter in the backcourt, Terry Crosby and Reggie Johnson at forwards and Howard Wood at center.
The Vols lost to Notre Dame 73-67 in the second round against an Irish roster that included Kelly Tripucka and Orlando Woolridge.
UT was back in the 1980 NCAA tournament and beat Furman 80-69 in the East Region in Greensboro, N.C., before losing to Maryland 86-75 in the second round. Maryland had Albert King, Buck Williams and Greg Manning.
Bertelkamp, 12th on UT’s career assists list (332), remembers the craze of Big Orange basketball during his playing days.
“It was sold out every game,” he remembers. “You couldn’t get a ticket. We were beating Kentucky. In my four years, we beat Kentucky six out of nine and we beat ’em three in a row my junior year because we beat ’em in the finals of the SEC tournament.”
After UT, Bertelkamp went to work for Bertelkamp Automation and worked in a satellite office in Nashville until 1989 when he moved back to Knoxville.
His start in broadcasting began when Kesling, then the WBIR-TV sports director and a news anchor, asked Bertelkamp to work as color commentator with him for Jefferson-Pilot Sports on its SEC Television package.
When Kesling succeeded Ward as lead announcer for the Vol Network, he again asked Bertelkamp to be his color commentator for UT basketball.
“I never had any training other than him kicking me under the table and saying, ‘You can’t say that,’” Bertelkamp says.
Chances are, Bertelkamp will say it anyway. Like it or not, Bertelkamp tells the truth while on the air.
“That’s what most of the positive feedback that I’ve gotten through the years is that I’m honest,” he says. “If we’re not playing good, I say so, but if we are playing good, I’m a UT guy. It’s ‘us’ and ‘we’ and I don’t worry about being neutral.
“I try to be fair, but I tell it like it is.”
Bertelkamp has covered six head coaches at UT since joining the Vol Network: Jerry Green (1997-01), Buzz Peterson (2001-05), Bruce Pearl (2005-11), Cuonzo Martin (2011-14), Donnie Tyndall (2014-15), and Rick Barnes (2015-present).
From his seat on press row, Bertelkamp has seen up close the highs and lows of Vols basketball in recent years. He’s on board with the program under Barnes.
“We’ve got a competitive team, and that’s about all you can ask for when you don’t have a point guard and you don’t have any size,” Bertelkamp says.
“I think he’s a great fit and we couldn’t ask for anything better than (Barnes).”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.