Several years ago, I was taking a young kid to his first college basketball game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
It was a bitterly cold January day as the University of Tennessee prepared to host SEC rival Vanderbilt. Outside the northeast corner of the arena, a group of hardy fans — including us — shivered against the cold as we waited for the gates to open one hour before tipoff.
As I wished I had worn a warmer jacket, a gray-headed man I instantly recognized walked up and joined the line. It was former UT play-by-play radio broadcaster John Ward.
I walked up and introduced myself, shook hands with him, and thanked him for his years behind the mic. He was gracious enough to take some time to chat, asking questions about where I was from and what I did in life.
It only took a moment for someone else to recognize the legendary attorney-turned-broadcaster, then another and another. And, on that cold, gray January day, John Ward stood outside Thompson-Boling Arena, where he had called so many basketball games, for an impromptu meet-and-greet, shaking hands with fans and signing autographs for kids.
It struck me that this was once the highest-paid figure within the entire University of Tennessee Athletics Department. That was the legacy of John Ward: one of Tennessee’s most popular figures and one of radio’s all-time greats, he made more money than two national championship-winning coaches, Phillip Fulmer and Pat Summitt.
To say that Ward could’ve had VIP access to all the UT football and basketball games he wanted is an understatement. He could’ve driven up to the place, been ushered right in, and given a private skybox.
And here he was, in 20-degree weather, waiting in line with the rest of us fans.
John Ward died last week at the age of 88, exactly 20 years after he coasted into retirement by walking UT fans through the magical 1998 national championship season. As he announced his retirement prior to the start of that ’98 season, Ward said that no one would remember him in 10 years. But that day outside Thompson-Boling Arena proved that wrong, as does the fact that many broadcasters still emulate Ward’s style.
Ward endeared himself to UT fans with his smooth, crisp voice and his ability to bring games to life in an era when collegiate sports were still adapting to the TV screen and radio was the only way for many to experience the games. But his status was cemented by his humble approach. As Ward’s generation says, “He never forgot his raisin’.”
Bill Mynatt, a high school football radio play-by-play man from East Tennessee, who is currently the voice of the Maryville Rebels, recalled Ward approaching him at an advertising seminar that Ward was speaking at, telling him that he did a “great job” on the air.
“The fact that he made it a point to say that to me just struck me like a ton of bricks,” Mynatt said. “For a man who was one of the best ever in his profession to tell me that just left me speechless. Here I was just a lowly high school radio play-by-play guy, yet he made it a point to encourage me. That meant the world to me.”
The fact that Ward’s craft was at the college level, and the fact that he was employed by a school rather than a large network, caused him to never receive the national recognition that he deserved. His voice was only heard in small markets throughout Tennessee and some neighboring states; most of the nation wouldn’t have known who he was and certainly never heard him call a game. So he wasn’t recognized in the same breath as radio greats like Vin Scully, Harry Carey or Keith Jackson, although he was as good as any of them and probably better than most.
Football fans throughout East Tennessee knew it, however, and more than one generation of youngsters grew up with a passion for UT football because of Ward.
Tim Smith, the radio voice of Oneida High School sports, said Ward’s influence was heavy in his own work.
“They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I could not have been more sincere,” Smith said. “I also could not have been even close. No one is or was.”
By the time I was old enough to start paying serious attention to football, Ward had been behind the mic for 20 years. In 1988, as UT attempted to pick up a win against Memphis State after a disastrous 0-6 start to the season, my father had the radio on as he carted us through the Cumberland Mountains on a leaf-peeping tour. Down in Wartburg, some guy named Joe had climbed onto the roof of a convenience store, threatening to not come down until UT actually won a game.
A nine-year-old boy was mesmerized that day — mesmerized by the game and by the guy calling the game. As for Tennessee, the Vols defeated Memphis, went on a five-game winning streak to end the season, and launched the greatest decade in the program’s history, beginning with back-to-back SEC championships in 1989 and 1990.
I cut my teeth as a football fan on names like John Majors, Andy Kelly, Carl Pickens, Dale Carter, Chuck Webb and Tony Thompson as Tennessee started that incredible run. And John Ward.
I heard my first Ward game when I was nine. He retired when I was 19. The biggest part of my childhood — at least the formative years — were spent listening to Ward broadcast UT games. We didn’t have a TV in our house back then, and the only UT games I saw were the ones my uncle recorded on VHS tapes and gave to me. And I would watch those over and over with the sound turned down, “calling the game” myself as I pretended to be Ward.
As Tim Smith said last week, “If you were hit with a feeling like you lost someone who was a ‘friend of the band’ and everyone else from a generation of Tennessee Volunteer fans, you’re not alone.”
Indeed, it felt last week as though a family member passed. And, for most Tennessee fans, John Ward was family.
Godspeed, John. Thanks for the memories.