Former radio play-by-play announcer John Ward, known to Tennessee fans as the “Voice of the Vols,” passed away Wednesday at age 88.
Ward, famous for catchphrases such as “It’s football time in Tennessee!,” was on the air from 1965 until 1999. He and color commentator Bill Anderson retired after the 1998-99 football and basketball seasons.
Ward never missed a game in more than 350 consecutive football broadcasts, while calling nearly 1,000 hoops games. He served as the play-by-play voice for Tennessee basketball for 34 seasons (1965-1999) and for UT football from 1968 to 1998.
“Mr. Ward brought Tennessee football and basketball to life for millions of Tennesseans and listeners worldwide for over three decades,” read a statement from the Vol Network. “He propelled Tennessee to the forefront of marketing and broadcasting, and remains the standard by which all others are measured. While it is a sad day for all Vol fans, we take pride in the fact that John belonged to us. Only the Tennessee Volunteers could call John their own, and he was proud to be the ‘Voice of the Vols.’
UT football fans say they’re saddened to hear of Ward’s passing.
“He was the heart and soul of UT football. Through the highs and the lows, it’s impossible to think of UT football and not think of John Ward in the same breath,” said Nick McCall.
“My biggest memory of John Ward is probably the ’98 season. I listened to a lot of the games on the radio with my dad. Probably a lot of people are talking about this, but the call for the Florida game. At the end of it, the overtime and the missed field goal,” added Matt McGowan.
“At half time I can remember me and my brothers would go out and re-enact the plays and we would reenact what John Ward said about those plays. Then we would come back in and watch the second half,” said Wes Selecman.
Ward is preceded in death by his wife Barbara. The couple was married for 55 years. He is survived by a brother, Bob Ward, of Charlotte, N.C.
Ward announced in June 1998 that the upcoming season would be his last behind the microphone. In a storybook ending, the football team went on to win the National Championship, downing Florida State, while the basketball team captured an SEC East Division championship.
“He meant a lot not just to Knoxville, Tennessee, not just to the University of Tennessee, but the entire state of Tennessee reveled in the fact that John Ward was our guy,” Vol Network General Manager Steve Early said.
“He is Tennessee. There are millions of Tennessee fans out here that are Tennessee fans not because of a coach or player, but because of John Ward and how he painted the picture,” said former vol Jayson Swain.
He also enjoyed golf, travel and maintaining a stunning and extensive Garden-of-Eden-like three-acre garden containing thousands of azalea, rhododendron, iris and rare wildflowers.
In 1994, Ward and his wife, Barbara, gave a $2 million gift to Tennessee—the largest gift ever made to the athletic department at the time.
In 1995, Tennessee named the broadcast level of Tom Elam Press Box at Neyland Stadium The John Ward Broadcast Center in Ward’s honor. The following year, he was named an honorary letterman by the Lettermen’s T-Club.
The 1998 UT senior class named a pedestrian greenway on the Knoxville campus in honor of Ward and former UT president Joseph E. Johnson.
Ward also was a multi-term president of the Southeastern Conference Broadcasters Association.
Former Tennessee head football coach and current athletic director Phillip Fulmer released a statement on Ward’s passing on Thursday:
“Our entire Tennessee family mourns the loss of the great John Ward. The University of Tennessee has lost one of its most beloved ambassadors.
“For generations of Vol fans, John’s voice brought to life many of their fondest memories of Tennessee football and basketball. His visionary thinking paved the way for the Vol Network’s rise to prominence as the standard bearer for intercollegiate athletics marketing and broadcasting.
“Despite our shared sadness, I believe it is appropriate to proudly reflect on and cherish the fact that John was ours. We will ensure that his legacy and memory are appropriately honored in the days, months and years to come.”
Sen. Lamar Alexander, who served as UT president from 1988 to 1991 issued the following statement:
“When it came to UT sports, listening to John Ward was almost as good as watching the game. In fact, many Vol fans at many games brought their radios to make sure they could do both. John was a generous, courteous, enthusiastic ambassador for the University of Tennessee. He brought joy into our lives, and we will miss him.”
Legendary Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning also released a statement about Ward:
“When I think about John Ward, I think about what an incredible life… what an incredible man… and what an incredible Tennessee Volunteer he was. Back when I was in school, and later when I was playing pro ball, whenever I would call someone in the Tennessee Athletic Department—whether I was calling Coach Fulmer, Coach Cutcliffe, Joe Harrington or anyone in the football department—I used to like when one of the assistants would answer and put me on hold, because when they put you on hold, you got to listen to John Ward radio calls from that season or some of his legendary calls from memorable games. That was the ‘holding music.’ And I used to just love staying on hold—I almost didn’t want the person I was calling to pick up. I just loved hearing his voice and hearing some of his great calls of Tennessee football history.
Head basketball coach Rick Barnes also expressed his admiration for Ward:
Steve Early brought John Ward to campus so that we could meet shortly after I got to Tennessee. John’s love for the university was evident to me immediately. I could have listened to his stories for hours. He sent me a wonderful note shortly afterward. In the few years I’ve been blessed to be a part of the Volunteer family, one of the most striking things about our history is the universal love Tennessee fans have for John Ward. I’m very thankful to have known him.
Neyland stadium announcer Jeff Jarnigan met Ward soon after starting as the voice of the Pride of the Southland Band.
“John had been doing it for years prior and on home football games we would practice over at UT sometimes as early as 6am, without fail John was always there,” said Jarnigan.
Jarnigan remembers Ward as the best in the buisness.
“Listening to him do his game, I knew the hue of the sky. I could practically smell the grass an dI could see that when he would say ‘The volunteer are racing onto the field’ I could visualize everything he was saying based on the words.”
VFLs on the field when those calls were made are cherishing the moments they got to listen to Ward.
“You’d get all the highlight films and even the low-light films but you know Johnny had a way to make those unfortunate plays for Tennessee sound refreshing,” said former Vol Sterling Henton.
Many will remember Kenny Chesney’s song, “Touchdown Tennessee,” a tribute to Ward’s time as the Voice of the Vols.
Social Media Reacts
Jeff Jarnigan, the “Voice of Neyland,” tweeted his condolences on Wednesday evening.
Others weighed in on Ward’s passing:
Some of John Ward’s most famous phrases
- “GIVE HIM SIX!” (When Tennessee scored a touchdown)
- “It’s Football Time … in Tennessee! (Right before kickoff)
- “BOTTOM!” (Basketball phrase for a made shot)
- “…down to the 30, 25, 20, slashing to the 15, the 10, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1… Give Him Six! Touchdown Tennessee!”
- “The kick is up … Ladies and gentlemen that kick is G-O-O-O-O-O-D!”
- “Back, in just one minute”
- “Did he make it? … HE MADE IT!”
- “Winding, grinding, twisting, turning… diving …” (description of a running play)