Remembering John Ward, the iconic voice of the Vols

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Local broadcasting legend John Ward passes away at 88

For more than three decades, John Ward faithfully served as the voice of the University of Tennessee’s football and men’s basketball programs.

Ward signed off professionally after providing play-by-play commentary for the 1999 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, a game in which the Volunteers football team knocked off Florida State to win the 1998 Bowl Championship Series (BCS) National Championship. The Vols, who in recent years have experienced some tough times on the gridiron, nevertheless made history that January when they were crowned the first BCS champions.

As the final gun sounded in the Arizona desert, Ward uttered the last words of his illustrious career: “The national champion is clad in Big Orange.” That simple yet elegant phrase was the culminating statement in a journey that began on Rocky Top in 1958, when Ward first stepped into the booth to call a UT basketball game. Seven years later, in 1965, he took over as the full-time voice of the basketball Vols. Three years after that, he inherited play-by-play duties at Neyland Stadium for the first time.

A 1954 graduate of the University of Tennessee law school who began broadcasting as “a hobby” (his own words), Ward became the permanent voice of Tennessee football later in 1968, replacing Lindsey Nelson, a legend in his own right who went on to achieve fame nationally as a broadcaster for the New York Mets, the San Francisco Giants and Notre Dame football (on the university’s Sunday morning replay show).

Ward quickly won the hearts of UT sports fans with his unmistakable baritone voice and his signature catchphrases of “It’s Football Time … in Tennessee,” “Give Him Six,” “Bottom” and countless others.

As a native Tennessean and a lifelong sports fan, I came to recognize Ward’s voice early in my life. He provided what was THE voice for college football at a time before the influx of 24-hour sports news networks. On Saturday afternoons in the fall, that voice came booming from radios and into living rooms, backyards and garages all across the Volunteer State and throughout Big Orange country. (And who could forget seeing folks around Neyland listening to Ward provide expert commentary on their clunky portable radios?)

Upon relocating to California in 1985, I missed several things about my home state, but I missed nothing more than listening to broadcasts of Tennessee football games with John Ward and Bill Anderson on the call.

Sure, there was no short supply of radio greats in Southern California at that time. I listened to renowned broadcasters such as Vin Scully of the Dodgers, Ernie Harwell during his short stint with the Angels, Chick Hearn of the Lakers and Bob Miller of the Kings. But for a Southerner like me, college football was the sport that held the most interest, intrigue and prestige. And as far as I was concerned, John Ward WAS college football. He called games in the Southeastern Conference when Eli Gold was breaking in at Alabama and when Larry Munson – the ultimate Athens homer – was beginning to narrate the exploits of Herschel Walker and the Bulldogs.

Not hearing Ward left a huge void for me, one that finally was filled when CBS Radio broadcasted the Vol Network feed of a Tennessee/Florida game. Of course, Steve Spurrier and the Gators got the best of Tennessee that day in Knoxville, but hearing that familiar voice brought back a flood of warm, distant memories. Regardless of the result, all was right in my world for four hours on a hot, sunny Saturday morning in Orange County, California.

I also fondly recall hearing Ward’s final call when the Volunteers pulled off the biggest win in the history of its football program – the upset of the Seminoles near the end of the last millenium.

Ward entered the business quietly, but he quickly made an impact, leaving his mark on the SEC while simultaneously replacing a legend in Nelson. He announced his departure from the Vol Network with little fanfare prior to that 1998 season, simply declaring, “It’s time.” On June 20, Ward passed away at the age of 88 after suffering from a long illness. While he may be gone, he’ll never be forgotten in the hearts and minds of all those whose lives he touched – even if it was only in increments of two to four hours every fall/winter as he exposed several generations of fans to life in Big Orange country.

For a look back at another legendary Tennessee voice, check out our tribute to Bobby Denton.

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