Joel Utley is living his childhood dream and has been for the last 51 years.
The Kentucky Wesleyan men’s basketball radio play-by-play announcer grew up loving radio and listening to St. Louis Cardinals’ games with his father in Madisonville, Ky.
“I was fascinated by those word-pictures that came out of that box,” Utley said. “Of course, that was in the days before television got going. I never wanted to do anything else than be a radio broadcaster.”
As a young boy, Utley envisioned his hero — Hall of Fame baseball player Stan Musial — hitting home runs out of Busch Stadium as he acted out his own broadcasts of Cardinals’ games using earmuffs for a headset, a shoebox for an amplifier and a stuffed sock for his microphone.
After college, Utley moved to Owensboro, Ky., to work at the local radio station, which also happened to be the home for Kentucky Wesleyan basketball games.
In the basketball-obsessed Blue Grass State, the Panthers had an outstanding college-division team, and Utley was asked to call their games beginning in December 1961.
Little did Utley know a half a century later he would still be the “Voice of the Panthers.” Fifty-one years and more than 1,451 games have passed since that first broadcast, and Utley is still pinching himself about the opportunity.
“It has been a marvelous experience for me,” Utley said. “I never thought at the time I would stay as long as I have. Nobody has been more blessed to have this opportunity.”
During his time behind the microphone, Utley has called 13 NCAA Division II championship games, including eight times when Kentucky Wesleyan raised the national title trophy (1966, 1968, 1969, 1973, 1987, 1990, 1999, 2001). But the most memorable championship for Utley was undoubtedly the program’s first in 1966.
“We had played Southern Illinois University twice that year in the regular season and the last time they beat us by 20 points at home,” Utley said. We ended up playing them for the national championship and defeated them, 54-51. That stands out to me.”
In addition to the eight NCAA championships, the Panthers participated in six consecutive national title games from 1998 to 2003.
“It is an unbelievable story for a school and community our size to sustain championship caliber teams over decades and decades with various coaches and hundreds of players,” Utley said.
Utley began calling the games solo in 1961, and been alone on the Panthers’ broadcasts since then, but does not suggest that technique for everyone.
“Unlike football and baseball, in basketball broadcasting you do not have a lot of dead air,” Utley said. “Things flow pretty rapidly so calling games alone never bothered me.”
Kentucky Wesleyan sports information director Roy Pickerill met Utley as a student manager for the basketball team. The two bonded as roommates on road trips, and Utley would ask Pickerill to help to research records and notes. Pickerill eventually became the school’s sports information director, a position he has held for 40 years.
“[Joel's] a legend,” Pickerill said. “He’s indescribable. When he talks in the pregame show, he still gives you the person’s spelling of their last name. He still does it the old school way and people appreciate that.
“You’re listening to the game, but he makes it so visual, it makes it seem like you’re there at the game. He’s telling you what’s going on through his eyes, but he is very detailed and good at describing the action that people can imagine in their minds.”
Utley, 72, also called games for local high schools when he wasn’t doing Panthers’ games, but now that he is retired, Kentucky Wesleyan basketball is the only thing on his plate.
“He would do the games for free,” Pickerill said. “We do pay him, but even if we didn’t, he would still do them. He lives for Kentucky Wesleyan basketball. He bleeds purple and white. He is so dedicated. He comes over and watches practice almost every day … he can’t get enough.”
Taping every game since the 1970s, Utley enjoys listening to the recordings on the way home after road trips. While he doesn’t remember ever having to take a night off because he lost his voice, Utley does recall a few bouts with the hiccups — one in particular.
“One of the worst experiences I’ve had was when we were playing Lewis University years ago, and I had the hiccups,” Utley said. “My wife and I listened to it driving back to Owensboro and laughed the whole way. That was one of the most unusual experiences, and it lasted the whole blasted game.”
While Utley’s love of his job has never wavered, there certainly have been some changes in both Division II basketball and technology over his 51 years.
“The level of talent that we now see at the Division II level is far superior to what it was and of course the coaching is better,” Utley said. “As far as the game itself, there is so much physical contact now. My dad was a high school basketball official and as a kid, I would go to games with him. If you just touched somebody, it was a foul. Now, guys can get run over on the court and sometimes it isn’t called.
“The game is so much faster and the athletes are bigger and stronger. It is entirely different from what I saw when things were first evolving.”
Also, the days of Utley’s voice only being heard over the radio waves in Owensboro are long gone.
“In the past the signal hardly got out of the county,” Utley said. “It is quite a different matter now with the Internet. Our player who is from Australia’s parents listen even though there is a 15-hour difference. It’s amazing.”
Utley has no plans of retiring any time soon as long as he remains physically and mentally sound.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life behind that microphone,” Utley said. “It is absolutely something I love.”