As the Alabama basketball team plays its first-round NCAA tournament game today in Birmingham, there’s no better time than now to reveal the Crimson Tide’s best-kept secret. He’s been a member of the Alabama “team” for 40 basketball seasons (and 39 football seasons), yet for the most part remains in total obscurity to many Tide fans. He’s certainly not one of those who has a “face for radio,” but let’s be honest – most folks would recognize his voice more so than his face.

So, just who is this mystery man?

He’s Tom Stipe, who serves as producer/engineer of the Crimson Tide Sports Network (CTSN), and if there’s ever been a true Renaissance man around Tuscaloosa, Tom is your guy. If the adage about “wearing many hats” is true, his closet is overflowing. (Even his Facebook page intro says his occupation is “Wearer of many hats.”)

Case in point:

  • He dabbles in writing country music. (He’s co-written with Tracy Lawrence and Trick Pony’s Keith Burns, among others.)
  • He’s a music aficionado, not only as a listener, but as a performer. (He played trumpet and flugelhorn in Steve Samples’ jazz band while a student at Alabama, and toured throughout Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia in an R&B band named Moon Pie.)
  • He’s a chef extraordinaire. (His gumbo and shrimp etouffee are divine; his brisket would top Buc-ees’ brand any day.)
  • He loves cars, and even owns a Corvette convertible. (Even though it is, as he says, “the world’s most expensive cat bed.”)
  • He’s the producer/engineer for the U.S. Open Tennis world-wide radio network every year.
  • He coordinates the world audio feeds for the U.S. Open Golf Championship every year (and has worked several PGA Championships).
  • In various producer/engineer roles, he’s worked Super Bowls, the Olympics, Major League Baseball, and the World Cup.
  • He writes (and has written) jingles, radio ads, and television commercials for many businesses, as well as for the University of Alabama and the Crimson Tide Sports Network.
  • He’s the current president of the SEC Broadcasters Association.
  • My goodness, he’s even BFFs with the renowned James Spann, all the way back to their days at Tuscaloosa High School.

Oh yeah, and by the way, he’s personally witnessed more Alabama basketball games in history, and I contend that no one comes close.

More on that in a moment.

Allow me to take you on a short journey into the life of “The Most Interesting Man in the (University of Alabama’s) World.”

Tom Stipe’s wide array of remarkable stories actually begins prior to his birth. While in Nashville in the early 1950s, his future parents, Roy and Sara Stipe, became best friends with Steve and Jeannette Belichick, neighbors in their apartment complex. Roy was fresh out of Howard (now Samford) pharmacy school, while Steve was on the Vanderbilt football coaching staff. In April 1952, Steve and Jeannette gave birth to Bill – yes, that Bill Belichick – and on occasions when the Belichicks would go out for an evening, Roy and Sara would babysit little Bill. For many years, long after each couple moved away to continue their careers elsewhere, the Stipes and the Belichicks would stay in touch.

Roy’s second pharmacy job was in Owensboro, Ky., where Tom was born on Nov. 8, 1956. After only a year or so in Owensboro, the Stipes moved to Knoxville, Tenn., where Roy went to work for Walgreens. It was in Knoxville – the home of that pumpkin orange team – where Tom developed a love for, yes, the Alabama Crimson Tide.

“Cheering for Alabama in the heart of Tennessee country just came natural,” Tom says. “My parents were huge fans. My grandmother, aunt, uncle, and all my Killingsworth cousins lived in Tuscaloosa. We’d visit there every Christmas and in the summers.

“I distinctly remember running around in my front yard trying to throw a football left-handed to be like Kenny Stabler. How ironic it was for him to become my partner in the Alabama broadcast booth more than 30 years later.”

Tom has many memories of attending Alabama-Tennessee football games as a kid, but none more than the 1970 game, when former Alabama end and then Tennessee head coach Bill Battle led his Volunteers to a 24-0 shutout of the Tide in Knoxville.

“Every year when Alabama and Tennessee played, we had a friendly pact with our across-the-street neighbors that when Alabama won, my parents would decorate their yard with shakers, streamers, and other Crimson Tide paraphernalia,” Tom recalls. “And if Tennessee won, they would decorate our yard in orange and white.

“Of course, we attended the 1970 game when Alabama suffered that bad loss. That day, Bill Battle really got the best of his mentor, Coach Bryant.

“After the game, we drove into our neighborhood, and our house was decked out in orange and white. And there was a stuffed bear wearing a houndstooth hat hanging from a tree with a noose around his neck. Our Tennessee neighbors had gone way over and above what my folks had ever done to their yard.”

Much to the Stipes’ surprise, a full color photo of the strangled bear appeared on the front page of the next day’s Knoxville News-Sentinel newspaper. The story, though, wouldn’t end there.

“More than 40 years later, the first time I saw Bill Battle when he came back to Alabama to be our athletics director, he walked into the Alabama radio booth and I said, “Hey Coach, do you remember that photo in the Knoxville News-Sentinel the next morning following your win over Alabama in 1970?

“He said, ‘Do I? It’s framed in my office!’

“I said, with a laugh, ‘Well, that was my house.’”

The Stipes moved to Tuscaloosa in the summer of 1973, just before Tom’s senior year at Tuscaloosa High School. After graduation, he enrolled at the University of Alabama, where his long career in radio, engineering, and broadcasting took off.

While at the Capstone, in addition to his being a full-time student, playing in the UA jazz band, and traveling with his R&B band, Tom worked at WTBC radio station in Tuscaloosa for legendary Alabama radio network founder Bert Bank, a WWII hero and survivor of the Bataan Death March. Many of “Bert’s Boys” at the station went on to stardom in the broadcasting industry, e.g., James Spann, Matt Coulter, Dave Baird, Tony Giles, Steve Phillips, and many more.

“As a kid back in the WTBC days, I didn’t really understand who Bert was and what he represented,” Tom says. “None of us really did. Luckily, I was fortunate enough to know him as an adult when I began working for the network. It was then that I came to appreciate him as a true American hero.”

After graduating from the University in 1979, Tom ventured into television sports broadcasting for Tuscaloosa’s WCFT Channel 33 (the precursor to ABC 33/40 in Birmingham), then in the summer of 1980, with encouragement from his friend Tony Giles, he joined the staff of University Broadcast Services.

At the urging of Crimson Tide play-by-play broadcaster Paul Kennedy, the support of University president Joab Thomas, and a seal-the-deal recommendation from Bert Bank, Tom in 1983 began his stint as producer/engineer for the Crimson Tide Sports Network.

Some 40 or years later, he’s still at it.

On the basketball side, his network journey began on Nov. 26, 1983, for the Tide’s 70-50 win over Rider. His most recent game as producer/engineer was last Sunday afternoon for Alabama’s 82-63 title-clincher over Texas A&M.

During this 40-season span (1983-84 through 2022-23), 1,238 Alabama basketball games have been played, and get this – to the best of Tom’s recollection, he has personally witnessed all but about 20 of them. Several times, a road game or tournament game fell during an Iron Bowl or SEC Championship Game weekend, so his duties in the football broadcast booth took precedent. He was sick for a trip to Wisconsin, he missed a couple games for family weddings/events, and he missed this season’s Gonzaga contest due to the college graduation of his daughter, Sarah. And of course, during the 2020-21 season COVID prevented any school’s radio crew from traveling to road games (although the Alabama crew still called the games from a live TV feed).

(Note: Tom’s witnessing more than 1,200 Tide basketball games doesn’t even count the games he attended each year as a UA student in the 1970s or those he attended between graduation and starting his duties with the network. Including these would increase his total to around 1,400 games attended.)

Tom has seen seven Tide hoops teams cut down SEC championship nets – four under Wimp Sanderson, one under Mark Gottfried, and two under Nate Oats. Today in Birmingham, he’ll be working his 20th NCAA Tournament.

On the football side, Tom’s first game with the network was the 1984 Alabama-Boston College game in Legion Field; his latest was the Tide’s 45-20 shellacking of Kansas State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

In these 39 seasons on the gridiron, he’s missed only three games. Two – the 1991 Fiesta Bowl and 1995 Citrus Bowl – were games for which the Alabama radio network didn’t have broadcasting rights. For the other missed game, in Fayetteville against Arkansas during the height of COVID in 2020, Eli Gold came down with COVID the week of the game. The radio crew of Chris Stewart, John Parker Wilson, and Tom – not wanting to risk getting COVID the week prior to the SEC Championship Game – called the game via live feed from three separate booths inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Counting the Arkansas game in 2020 to which he didn’t travel, Tom has worked 500 Tide football games for the network. He’s been part of the CTSN crew for 11 SEC championship teams and seven national championship squads.

(Note: Again, like basketball, Tom never missed a home football game from his freshman year at UA in 1974 to the time he began his stint with the network in 1984. And of course, he never missed going back home to Knoxville every other year for the Tide-Vols matchup. So, including all these, his attendance total for football probably exceeds 575 games.)

Are you kidding? 1,400 Alabama basketball games? 575 football games? Who knows, chances are good that not only has Tom witnessed more Alabama basketball games than anyone (a given), but with these numbers, he’s probably been an eye-witness to more UA athletic events than anyone. Ever.

Tom, though, makes it clear: He has never taken his job for granted.

“At the end of the day, it’s been such a blessing to do games for your school with your friends for so many years,” Tom says. “And, in the process, to see us win a lot of games and a lot of championships. As much as I love doing U.S. Open tennis and Super Bowls and U.S. Open golf and other events like those, it’s different when it’s your school. The jobs may be similar but doing it for Alabama matters a lot more.

“I’m an Alabama guy. This is my school and I care about it. I try to be the consummate professional about what I do, but at the end of the day, I really do care about who wins the ball game.

“One of the things that Eli (Gold), Butch Owens (spotter), and I have always done is to take a photo of ourselves outside the stadium prior to all our championship games. As our photo was being taken in bitter cold Indianapolis at the 2022 national championship game, I whispered to Eli, ‘Just how lucky are we to be able to do this?’”

Lucky indeed, although so deserving.

“I consider what I do a blessing,” Tom says. “And I’m especially blessed to have a wife like Sharon to tolerate all my comings and goings.

“What I do is definitely a lot of work. But if you’re working doing something you love, you’re not working.”

© 2023 Tommy Ford All Rights Reserved