Tim Cable and Scott Gray discovered great waves in 1989 and they’ve ridden them everywhere from Alaska to Florida while describing Science Hill football and basketball games to radio listeners.
The duo is in its 25th season broadcasting Hilltoppers football, a special season in which WKPT has changed its title to ESPN Tri-Cities. Gray has also done basketball since ‘89. Cable worked basketball the first 13 seasons, and might return this year.
They didn’t know each other growing up, but shared a reverence for Tennessee’s John Ward.
“I think he was the best in the business,” said Gray, who played golf in high school at Sullivan Central.
Cable has also long been a fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Marty Brennaman – since before he was an all-conference baseball player for Doug Phillips at Hampton in the late ‘70s.
Gray and Cable are informative and understated, and their folksy presentation would surely suit their beloved “Andy Griffith Show” characters. Indeed, they’ve formed a friendship that would stack up with those of Andy Taylor and Barney Fife or Griffith and Don Knotts.
“We clicked immediately on the air,” Gray said. “And we’re very close friends off the air. We love traveling to the games together. We both love sports … and we’ve helped each other through some times.”
Gray and Cable worked football games the first five seasons with former East Tennessee State football coach John Robert Bell. Cable has done play-by-play from the outset. In the beginning, Gray compiled stats and Bell was an analyst better known for having coached the Buccaneers past Terry Bradshaw’s Louisiana Tech in the Rice Bowl.
Of course, the late Bell was best known for his kindness. Cable was somewhat aware of Bell’s graceful warmth beforehand, because his first cousin was married to Bell’s secretary, Marilyn Tester. But Bell’s unwavering compassion was still awe-inspiring.
“When I started working with him I was just blown away,” Cable said, “because he is the most genuinely nice man I’ve ever met. I mean, he was just incredible. How far it went – and I know he did this for a lot of people – his wife Anne made my kids Christmas stockings. She hand-crocheted them and put their names on them and everything, and he was happy to deliver those. They were such great people. …
“Coach Bell was just a great man; I mean, one of Johnson City’s all-time greats. And it just amazed me how many people he knew. … Wherever we went on a road trip it would take us 30 minutes to get into the stadium and get up to the broadcast booth, because he was talking to everybody and shaking hands with everybody. He had such great contacts – Bill Curry, Tom Landry. The list goes on and on.”
Bell felt like family immediately.
“Tim and I always talked about and agreed that Coach Bell was really like a grandfather to us,” Gray said. “He was always thinking of others before himself.”
That said, the inexperienced Bell could give new meaning to color commentary.
“He would kind of walk over us on the air and shout different things,” Cable said. “Like, one of his favorite things was he always thought the slant pass would work all the time. So he’d talk over us a little bit and say, ‘The slant! The slant’s open!’”
Gray and Cable fondly recollect the night they were locked in Memorial Stadium after a game and Bell, then in his 70s and a large man (not overweight), got on a sawhorse that began bowing while he attempted to scale the fence.
Cable paused while chuckling affectionately several times discussing Bell’s radio ways.
“At first, he would kind of talk going into and coming out of commercials,” Cable said. “And he got to this point where when he realized he’d made a mistake in talking coming back from a commercial, he would shut up real quick and just kind of lean back in his chair and look at us almost like, ‘Oops, I did it again.’”
However, there were plenty of times when Bell’s football knowledge evoked images of former NFL coach/color analyst Hank Stram. Bell often mentioned a play that would work moments before the Hilltoppers ran it successfully.
“He analyzed everything so well,” Cable said, “and really predicted things well – tendencies that teams were doing and plays that he thought were coming up.”
Bell did learn to communicate silently, too.
“He would use hand signals just before a new play would begin to tell us what play was going to be run based on the offensive set (Science Hill) was in,” Gray said.
Gray continued doing stats after assuming Bell’s analyst role. It's a difficult series of tasks, but he’s an impressive model of efficiency.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better stat guy than Scott is,” Cable said. “He’s very detailed. And he’s a pretty good color commentator, too. He knows the game real well.”
Cable, who recently concluded 25 years with WJHL-TV, can usually be seen looking through binoculars while speaking into a headset, describing action thoroughly and accurately.
“He was just outstanding on TV with everything he did, especially his great ‘Cable Country’ segments,” Gray said. “He's just as good, if not better, in radio. I've learned a lot from him over the years.
“He doesn't miss a thing. He's very mindful of our listeners, especially the players' parents, and whenever the opportunity arises, he mentions every player involved in the play.”
Coincidentally, Cable had alluded to family of former players in an interview prior to Gray's comments. Cable noted basketball player Gilbert Charles’ grandmother, Sarah “Babe” Hamilton, baking cookies for them, and recalled football/baseball player Jeremy Owens’ parents bringing Cowtales to the press box after they’d mentioned liking the chewy candy sticks on the air.
The late Jack and Shirley Ann Chinouth, arguably the Hilltoppers’ most avid boosters for a lengthy stretch, came to mind, too.
“They were such great Science Hill people,” Cable said, “and they became close to us. She would do things for us, make sure we had things.”
Of course, Gray and Cable’s favorite memories involve great Science Hill players and games. Cable doesn’t hesitate when asked about Science Hill’s top running back since he’s been in the booth. Terry Copeland rushed for more than 4,600 yards during a career that ended in 1994, and was the area player that seemed to excite ETSU coach Mike Cavan the most during his stay (1991-96).
“He was incredible, and if things had gone the right way with him, you know, we may have been seeing him play on Sundays,” Cable said. “I just think he was that good. Strong, and yet fast. He’d run away from people. He could beat you two ways: he’d either run over you or run around you. And then he’d run off and leave you once he got in the secondary. I mean, he just dominated some games.”
Copeland’s “shoestring catch” for a long TD against Morristown East has stuck with Gray, and it was in the Copeland era when Mike Turner’s Hilltoppers produced one of Gray and Cable’s most memorable plays; the “Lateral-Rooski” came in a win against a good Jefferson County.
“They (Hilltoppers) were trying to kick the extra-point, which would’ve tied the game as I recall,” Cable said. “The snap was bad and Darrell Love was holding and Matt Maggard was kicking. It was a high snap and went through Darrell Love’s hands, and so Maggard picks the ball up and starts taking off toward the goal line. And he doesn’t make it very far, because he wasn’t that swift. And he laterals it over to Darrell Love, who then throws it – loops it up in the air – and Tyrone Bachman jumps up and catches it in the end zone and they beat Jeff County by one point. That was kind of a magical season, anyway.
“That was the year they beat McMinn County in the first round and they beat Baylor in the second round. The Baylor game, I remember, because they (the 'Toppers) had bus trouble – I think the bus broke down in Knoxville – and I think all they had to eat before the game were bananas and Gatorade.”
Also in 1993, Gray and Cable went to Alaska for Science Hill basketball and nearly missed the first game after getting caught in a snowstorm while sightseeing.
“We went to Portage Glacier National Park,” Gray said. “The closer we got to the park, the heavier the snow became. … We were talking as we were driving, how ironic – and sad and comical – it would be if we fly some 3,000 miles to Alaska, then can't do (Science Hill’s) first game because we got stranded in the wilderness.”
It was even more exciting in the warm confines of jam-packed Freedom Hall the following year. Gray and Cable saw George Pitts’ Hilltoppers win three state titles and beat Jermaine O’Neal’s team in the Omni in Atlanta, but their favorite game was Science Hill’s victory against Oak Hill Academy in December of ’94 at Freedom Hall.
“Freedom Hall was unreal,” Cable said. “It was packed. You couldn’t get a seat. I mean, it was like a Tennessee-Kentucky atmosphere in college basketball.”
Speaking of Vols and Wildcats, Oak Hill had Ron Mercer, who had played for the Nashville Goodpasture team Science Hill had beaten the year before in the Arby’s Classic. Kentucky’s Rick Pitino and UT’s Kevin O’Neil had a heated recruiting battle for Mercer.
Perhaps more importantly in terms of the electric atmosphere, Oak Hill also had point guard Rob Williams, who had transferred from Science Hill after helping the Hilltoppers to a state title his junior year. Science Hill’s players included Jovann Johnson, Nathaniel Bailey, Brad Fields and Odarius Williams.
“For Science Hill athletics, that’s the top game,” Gray said. “I mean, watching Jovann make that steal near midcourt and Pitts ran down the sideline with him as he went in to dunk that basketball on that play – I’ll never forget that. That sent goosebumps at the time that happened, and I still get them now talking about it. …
“That semifinal game against Whites Creek (1990) is probably No. 2 on my list, because nobody gave Science Hill a chance. It was all about Cornelius Ridley and his (coaching) career, and it was only appropriate to be capped off with a state championship. … And there was nothing about Science Hill. … I’ll never forget, it was close in the second half, and there were three or four times in a row where Whites Creek … couldn’t get the ball past half-court. … I’ll never forget how sweet that felt, because … it was just all about Whites Creek and David Vaughn and Cornelius Ridley.”
The preeminent football atmosphere materialized last year, when Science Hill lost 37-34 at Dobyns-Bennett in a matchup of 9-0 teams. Science Hill was up 15 points in the fourth quarter and trying to snap a losing streak that began in 1995.
“That was the best atmosphere we’ve had in 25 years, and it was a great game, too,” Cable said. “It was just bad for Science Hill, because they should’ve beaten them. But as far as atmosphere, I think that one and the Oak Hill basketball game at Freedom Hall – that’s two high school atmospheres that you just don’t usually see.”
And for those who can’t see such moments, Gray and Cable help paint the scene. Bart Lyon played football at Science Hill in the late ‘80s and has spearheaded the Junior Toppers program for decades.
“One of the coolest things … was (Science Hill quarterback/receiver) Tomas Hill’s dad would tape Tim Cable and Scott Gray’s broadcasts and then record it in with the highlight film,” Lyon said. “They’re the eyes and ears of Science Hill fans, especially when Science Hill was in the Big East Conference and always going to Campbell County, Jeff County, Sevier County and other schools down that way.”
It’s been a labor of love. Among the many players Gray and Cable mentioned enjoying watching were blazing fast receiver Toby Patton, Shane Williams, Damon Johnson, Reed Hayes and current junior Malik McGue, who took over for Hayes in what must be the most athletic succession of Science Hill quarterbacks.
“Hayes would be warming up (last season) and I thought, ‘Man, he’s really got a good arm. He can really throw it,’” Cable said. “I guess I wasn’t surprised about his throwing as I was by his running his senior year. If they needed a play, he always made it it seemed like. …
“And I think McGue’s on his way to being that way now. Of course, they’ve got a lot of weapons, but if they need a play, McGue’s gonna be the type that can make it for them. He might be – of course, it’s still a little early – but he might be the best athlete we’ve seen in our 25 years. And there’s been a lot of good ones.”
Gray and Cable anticipate more milestone seasons to come.
“We just enjoy it so much,” Cable said. “There’s something about the Friday night lights. They never go out, you know. They’re magical. I’m 52 years old now, and I still get excited about the start of football season and getting to be on the air and working with Scott again.”