KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Family, friends and fans from all across Big Orange Country made their way to Thompson-Boling Arena Wednesday night to honor John Ward’s broadcasting and marketing contributions to the University of Tennessee during an iconic career spanning more than three decades.
Bob Kesling, the event’s master of ceremonies, provided some of his own personal interactions with Ward before handing it over to eight different speakers: Phillip Fulmer, Steve Early, Doug Dickey, Bill Justus, Bert Bertelkamp, Mike Keith, Charles Davis and Ben Bates.
Compelling videos accompanied each speaker, allowing fans to relive some of Ward’s most famous calls and glean a glimpse of his charismatic personality. The tribute event also featured some unseen footage for the first time.
“John Ward brought life and feeling to our living rooms as he colorfully told the story of each play,” Fulmer, Tennessee’s director of athletics, said. “We all know that he was absolutely the greatest broadcaster of all-time and our ‘Voice of the Vols.'”
Ward, who passed away June 20 at the age of 88, served as the play-by-play announcer for Volunteers’ basketball for 34 years (1965-1999) and Tennessee football for more than 30 seasons.
The Vol Network’s revered play-by-play man called more than 350 consecutive football games and just shy of 1,000 basketball games. Ward also called some Lady Vol basketball games and other UT events in his time behind the microphone.
During his time on Rocky Top, Ward worked with four football coaches (Dickey, Bill Battle, Johnny Majors and Fulmer) and six basketball coaches (Ray Mears, Cliff Wettig, Don DeVoe, Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill and Jerry Green).
“On Saturday, truly John Ward was a poet, master of suspense and in total command of the English language,” Vol Network General Manager Early said. “So many plays – seemingly inconsequential – affected me and stayed with me, and I remember those calls to this second.”
Ward’s broadcasting work earned him many accolades; he was named the Best College Announcer in the Country in 1976. The 28-time Tennessee Sportscaster of the Year Award recipient has also been inducted into the Tennessee Radio Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame.
Ward also excelled in his true passion: advertising. The University of Tennessee graduate was the president of his own advertising agency and production company, helping make the Volunteers a household name across the nation.
In 1998, Ward called his final football game – a 23-16 national championship victory over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl – poetically counting down the game’s final seconds with the legendary call “The national champion is clad in Big Orange.”
Throughout the night Wednesday, these revisited moments and stories from VFLs helped Tennessee fans remember not only how much they loved Ward, but also how much he loved them, too.
“John Ward loved the state of Tennessee with all of his heart,” Keith, play-by-play announcer for the Tennessee Titans, said. “He loved the university with all of his heart. He loved these teams, he loved the players, he loved the coaches with all of his heart. But if it’s possible, he loved the fans even more.”