He wasn’t the first play-by-play announcer. But he was the best God ever created, born for moments like fall Saturday afternoons and winter nights and weekends.
I listen to a lot of radio play-by-play announcers while I work and go about my daily tasks. Often, they’ll drift away into the background until they mention something that catches my attention, and then I wonder what/who was he talking about.
Not with John Ward. No AM radio static was too strong for his booming voice. His staccato delivery enunciating every syllable with great distinction. There was no drifting off when John Ward was calling a game. He made a play in the final minutes of a 30-0 game sound just as important as fourth-and-goal trailing by a touchdown with 30 seconds to play.
Often imitated (and quite well by many) but never duplicated, his “It’s football time in Tennessee” was once used on the front page of a preseason tabloid of this newspaper 34 years ago. It’s bellowed by public-address and radio announcers from Memphis to Mountain City every fall Friday night, to the point I get sick of it. But I can’t blame them. It was never tiring to hear John Ward open a broadcast with the phrase he should have trademarked.
As a young play-by-play announcer years ago, I found myself using many of his pet phrases, especially those in basketball. Couldn’t help it. They were that good and they stuck with you.
He is a big reason a lot of guys are in broadcasting today or even in print media. I heard him say the reason he took the UT gig was to get into the games for free.
When he began, the only college football games televised were on ABC. You couldn’t watch the Vols from your living room but two or three times a season - if they were having a good year. John Ward was their lifeline to the Big Orange.
His calls made countless Tennesseans Vol fans for life, even if they never attended the school. He made them want to come to Neyland Stadium, and bring along the transistor. By the time CBS, ESPN and every other alphabet network began televising games 20 years later, Ward’s work was ingrained. Folks would watch the games, but turn off the sound to listen to the Voice of the Vols.
Much like our country, Vol Nation is fractured. But John Ward was a uniter. He united an entire state around the Big Orange.
Even fans of other teams respected him. I took a sports history class in college and one day the discussion came around to sportscasters. Another student said he wasn’t a UT fan, but respected John Ward because, even though you knew he wanted the Vols to win, he was professional behind the mike. He was enthusiastic about big plays by the Big Orange, but let it show by the resonance of his voice, not the words. He reported what happened and let the listeners react.
In other words, he wasn’t a homer. When he was behind the mic, the UT School of Law graduate who went on to become an advertising executive was a REPORTER. Jack Webb could have used him on “Dragnet” as it was “just the facts”, but with more emotion when it came to the Vols.
The next negative word I hear about John Ward will be the first. How rare is that?
As rare as John Ward. There won’t be another.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 615-444-3952, ext. 17 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.