You couldn’t be a Tennessee fan without loving John Ward.
At the same time, you didn’t have to be a Tennessee fan to be a John Ward fan, both of his distinctive broadcast style and, if you knew him even slightly away from the microphone, his gracious and patient demeanor.
“John was incredible,” said Bill Battle, the former Alabama athletics director who was Tennessee’s head coach in the early 1970’s. “He was the most well-organized man I ever knew. For my Sunday TV show, we filmed at midnight on Saturday night. John always had a script written out, meticulous about every detail. He was a great pleasure to work with, and a great announcer.”
Ward passed away on Wednesday, another loss in a summer that has seen the Southeastern Conference landscape lose Mike Slive and C.M. Newton, two other giants. The era that Ward represented has disappeared before his passing.
There are few of those voices left from the days when college football was scarcely, sporadically televised. The fans’ immediate visceral connection to their team came over the radio. (The main outlet for post-game analysis was the Sunday newspaper, just to measure how times have changed.) The announcers of that era weren’t just appreciated for their technical skills as play-by-play announcers. They were also semi-official team representatives, and if they were pulling for the home team, so much the better. They were also ambassadors for college football as a whole. You might grumble about Phil Fuller or fume about Peyton Manning, but it was a rare individual who didn’t like John Ward. You didn’t have to love Georgia football to be entertained by Larry Munson, even when he was talking about breaking the metaphorical nose of another team (possibly yours) with a hob-nailed boot.
There was John Forney at Alabama, Jim Fyffe at Auburn, John Ferguson at LSU (an almost-weekly presence for fans of most SEC schools because the Tigers so often played at night on clear-signal WWL out of New Orleans) and Jack Cristil at Mississippi State. There was the great Cawood Ledford on Kentucky basketball. All are gone now, leaving only memories that cannot be erased for the generation that was young when they were in their prime.
Their heirs on the microphone, many of them, have forged their own legacies — Eli Gold at Alabama (and his predecessor, the underrated Paul Kennedy), Jim Ellis at Mississippi State, Rod Bramblett at Auburn (nationally known, if not entirely beloved in Tuscaloosa, for his call of the ‘Kick Six’), Mic Hubert at Florida, Charlie McAlexander (who worked at various times for Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and South Carolina), David Kellums at Ole Miss and the man who has done well with the daunting task of following the legendary Ward at Tennessee, Bob Kessling. Many of those have been in their current roles for decades and have forged strong bonds with their fan bases. More than a few homes across the SEC still have the radio announcer providing the audio soundtrack while a muted television set plays. Sometimes the broadcasts sync up, sometimes not, but many fans prefer that voice they know.
Times change. No Southeastern Conference campus is the same as it was 40 years ago. Stadiums are renovated, Rosters turn over every three or four years. It takes a fortunate (or incredibly dominant) head coach to last a decade. Young fans can’t imagine a day when you couldn’t watch Arkansas play Texas-El Paso on television if you want to do so. But it wasn’t always that way, and it was John Forney or John Ward or one of the others who brought college football to an entire state.
With Ward’s passing, another icon of that era is gone.
Saint Peter, be sure to “give him six” when you greet him at the gate. Not just for Tennessee fans, but for all of us.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.