John Ward, the University of Tennessee’s beloved “Voice of the Vols” for 34 seasons in basketball and 31 seasons in football, died Wednesday after battling a lengthy illness. He was 88.
Ward’s death was announced in a statement by the Vol Network, which read in part: “It is with a heavy heart that we announce a great voice has gone silent.”
For parts of four decades, Ward was the radio liaison between the Vols and their rabid Big Orange Nation, and he captivated fans with his unmistakable crisp voice and signature calls — from “Give him six” after a Tennessee touchdown to “Bottom” when the Vols made a big shot in basketball. His final football season behind the microphone was Tennessee’s 1998 national championship campaign, and he retired for good following the ensuing basketball season.
Ward never missed a game in more than 350 consecutive broadcasts. Country music superstar Kenny Chesney, who grew up in eastern Tennessee, recorded a tribute to Ward, “Touchdown Tennessee,” soon after Ward retired.
Similar to contemporaries Larry Munson at Georgia, Cawood Ledford at Kentucky and Woody Durham at North Carolina, Ward was part of an era, particularly in the South, when radio play-by-play broadcasters became woven deeply into that school’s culture, especially with so few college games televised back then.
Former Tennessee president Joe Johnson once joked that he would rather have to replace then-athletic director Doug Dickey, then-football coach Phillip Fulmer and then-women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt all at once than to have to replace Ward.
When he announced his retirement in 1998, Ward said, “I’ll miss the game, but I’ll miss the fans more.”
When asked if he had a grasp of what he had meant to the Tennessee fans, Ward said, “I probably don’t, but I don’t think of it in that light. I know what they’ve meant to me.”
Peyton Manning, Bernard King, Reggie White, Dale Ellis and Condredge Holloway were just a few of the athletes to come through Tennessee that Ward brought to life on the radio.
In 1994, Ward and his late wife, Barbara, made a $2 million gift to Tennessee, at the time the largest ever made to the school’s athletic department.
“John Ward has created an aura, an image, a tradition that just doesn’t happen by accident,” Johnson said when Ward announced his retirement.
Fulmer, now Tennessee’s athletic director, said Ward had an indelible impact on him while growing up in Winchester, Tennessee.
“I’m one of the millions who appreciates what John Ward has meant to Tennessee,” Fulmer said. “He’s one of the reasons I chose Tennessee, listening to his energy and enthusiasm and excitement.”
Ward was honored on the field last season at Neyland Stadium and moved to tears after being greeted with a rousing standing ovation. As he walked onto the field, some of his more memorable calls blared on the loudspeaker, including him punctuating Tennessee’s win over Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl with his memorable, “The national champion is clad in Big Orange!”