(Editor’s note: Considering well over half of the Tennessee basketball and football games Mr. Ward broadcast were played on a Saturday, Steve Williams has used “Sadurday” a few times in this column to reflect his and many UT fans’ feelings after the death of the longtime Voice of the Vols.)
By Steve Williams
When I first heard the news of John Ward’s passing Wednesday night I experienced the same feeling I had when Pat Summitt died.
A University of Tennessee sports figure that I had admired for years was no longer with us. Tennessee athletics and its fans had suffered another great loss.
My brother John texted me Thursday morning: “It’s a sad day in Big Orange Country.”
My reply, in Ward’s honor: “Yes sir ree!” And I added: “It is indeed a Sadurday.”
Like many, I spent a lot of time Thursday listening to local sports talk radio as shows dedicated the day to remembering Ward, the Voice of the Vols in basketball and football for over 30 years.
You may remember the press conference on June 3, 1998 when an emotional Ward announced his planned retirement from broadcasting UT games. It could be a world record for brevity.
“I have a prepared statement,” said Ward. “I’m going to read it, verbatim: It’s time.”
The 1998 football and 1998-99 basketball seasons would be his last.
But oh how remarkable it was the Vols won the national championship in 1998 and Ward’s final broadcast in football ended with: “The national champions are clad in Big Orange!” (“What a Year!” added Bill Anderson, Ward’s one and only football color analyst).
On this Sadurday, it was fun listening to many of Ward’s great calls, which never seem to get old for those of us whose blood runs orange. And it was interesting hearing the stories of fans that had run into Ward by chance over the years.
I didn’t hear a single negative comment. But that’s not surprising. Like Tim Berry, chief engineer of the Vol Network, said, “John was a consummate professional and an even better man.”
As popular as he was across the state, Ward didn’t seek the spotlight. Instead, he always seemed to try to shine it on the UT fans and thank them for their support every chance he had.
“It is a sad day, but there are so many great memories of John Ward,” said Vol Historian Tom Mattingly.
Older UT fans like me remember the early seasons of Ward calling Tennessee basketball games during the Ray Mears Era in the mid-1960s.
Ward, I’ve always felt, was a better play-by-play sportscaster in basketball than he was in football. He did it so well, you could close your eyes and see the game in your mind. I was very impressed with his knowledge of the game.
Bert’s “Money!” is good, but I still rank Ward’s “Bottom!” better for describing a made basket.
There are some Ward calls that seem to be permanently fixed in my memory, like “King of the Volunteers!” … “It’s good…No, it’s no good!” … and “Pandemonium reigns!”
Of course, Ward could make you tingle with excitement or put a lump in your throat when kickoff neared and he announced “It’s Football Time in Tennessee!”
Hopefully, AD Phillip Fulmer will have that piped into Neyland Stadium this season and make it a tradition.
“We lost one of the true legends in Broadcasting and Tennessee Athletics,” said Bob Kesling, who served as a spotter for Ward before succeeding him in 1999.
Even though it had been almost 20 years since he put a “wrap” on his last broadcast, it was quite evident Sadurday he was still beloved by Vol fans and will be missed.
On a personal note, when I was a Student Assistant in the UT Sports Information Department under Haywood Harris and Bud Ford in the early 1970s, I got to keep the scoring and take game notes for Ward up there high on that “cat walk” press box at Stokely Athletics Center.
What a treat that was for me, working beside and assisting John Ward!
I don’t recall ever going on the air, but Ward would broadcast my game recaps, sometimes verbatim, and acknowledge me. I remember several folks back home in Clinton would hear that as they listened to the Vols and they let me know about it.
My brother John gets the final say in this column. It came in his last text message to me on Sadurday, and I can’t think of anything more appropriate:
“Give him six!”