In Owensboro, two things are always synonymous…Joel Utley and Kentucky Wesleyan Basketball. One just wouldn’t be the same without the other.
Joel Utley, voice of the Kentucky Wesleyan College Panthers, is celebrating his 55th season in 2015-16. He has called the play-by-play for almost 1600 games, and has the distinction as the only broadcaster in the nation to call 12 NCAA Championship games (all levels) including eight NCAA Division II titles—1966, 1969, 1969, 1973, 1987, 1990 and 2001.
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, Kentucky.
Since hearing words come out of a box as a child, Joel knew he wanted to pursue a career in radio. That career now spans 55 years.
He recounts, “My first broadcast ‘equipment’ consisted of a cutout cardboard microphone (thanks to my dad)…..ear muffs for my headphones….and a shoebox with ‘dials’ marked by crayon. I used this to create descriptions of my baseball board game as a child.” One could certainly say he was destined to shine behind the mic.
“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.”
It appeared as though Joel’s future was sealed in hoops, having a father who was a high school basketball official.
While working in Lexington, a job opened at WVJS in the summer of 1961, in Owensboro. It was a welcome move that allowed Joel to be closer to his family in Madisonville.
He was a jack of all trades when he arrived. He served as news director, performed DJ work, and the job also included announcing high school football and basketball games, as well college games.
It was in December of 1961 that Joel would begin announcing for the Panthers, who had an impressive college-division team.
Though he began with multiple sports, his role evolved in his announcing career, and he especially enjoyed basketball. Utley says, “It’s easier to keep up with ten guys on a court than all the guys on a football field.”
The first year was a very special year with the Panthers in Joel’s expansive career; they were 21-4 on the season. During that time, the system was broken into university division and college division. That year, the Panthers lost to 3 university-division teams, but later avenged some of those losses. As Utley recalls the plays with such precision, he takes you back to those games with his passion for the beloved Panthers.
Though Joel will tell you each season has had its heroes and memories, he was certainly fond of the 1966 team under Guy Strong, winning their first championship and their way into an NCAA postseason tournament. In the first game of regionals, the team had a miracle tip-in on a missed free throw. In the week following, KWC would avenge two regular season losses to Southern Illinois University, leading the Panthers to win the national championship.
He’s a proud father as he recounts stats as if each year was one of his children. With their eight title championship victories, Utley says it was especially impressive, under now WKU coach Ray Harper, for a school the size of Kentucky Wesleyan to play for the national championship for six consecutive years.
It’s unbelievable to him that it is now 55 years later and nearly 1600 games since he became the recognizable “Voice of the Panthers,” but it’s his Kentucky Wesleyan family and love for Owensboro that has kept him here.
Utley is appreciated throughout the Bluegrass for his contributions to Kentucky sports, and will be inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame on June 2 in Louisville.
His induction marks the fourth Kentucky Wesleyan legend to earn the honor, along with All-American “King” Kelly Coleman (2000); 1966 NCAA Championship coach Guy Strong (2002); and All-American George Tinsley (2011).
Joel also joins a prestigious group of fellow Owensboro natives and previous inductees, including University of Kentucky All-Americans and NBA stars Cliff Hagan (1975) and Rex Chapman (2011); Owensboro High School State Championship basketball coach Bobby Watson (2012); and NASCAR brothers Darrell (1999) and Michael (2010) Waltrip.
When reflecting on his time announcing for the Panthers, Joel humbly says, “It’s something I love to do. It’s not work…it’s love. It’s never seemed like work.” And if that’s the case, then it would seem like Joel has never worked a day in his life.