By Tom Mattingly
The day was Tuesday, June 2, 1998, when a media release about a significant happening within the University of Tennessee Athletic Department was sent out, accomplished on something called a Fax Expander.
“MEDIA CONFERENCE SET FOR WEDNESDAY: The University of Tennessee Athletic Department will hold a media conference in the Team Meeting Room on the second floor of the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center on campus tomorrow (Wednesday, June 3) at 11 a.m. The media conference will involve Vol broadcaster John Ward.”
The next day, there was the official announcement that Ward and sidekick Bill Anderson were stepping down from the Vol Network. Ward had broadcast basketball starting in 1964-65 and football with Anderson since 1968.
“When 107,000 people show up for a football game or 24,000 come for basketball, part of the legacy goes to John Ward and Bill Anderson for creating an aura about our place that has just been tremendous,” Athletic Director Doug Dickey said.
Ward was succinct, as always: “I have a prepared statement, and I’m going to read it. Verbatim.” Here came the news.
With that, he sat down, although he would later answer questions.
There were magic moments on the gridiron for the duo, such as the 1985 Alabama game (“Shula back to throw, left-handed, out into the flat… Broken up… Was that intercepted in mid-air? Ladies and gentlemen, what a play by Dale Jones!”), the 1986 Sugar Bowl (“ Powell just came roaring down the greensward…”), the opening play of the 1995 Alabama game (“80 yards, Joey Kent… Touchdown… on Play… Number 1”), a key moment of the 1998 Arkansas game (“Just give it to Henry,” as the Vols moved ever closer to the game-winning score at the south end), and many others.
Early in the 1977 California game, sophomore quarterback Jimmy Streater broke an 80-yard touchdown run. Ward had the call, and Anderson could be heard in the background urging him on as he broke the line of scrimmage and headed to the north end zone. Anderson and John Majors had been Tennessee teammates,
and Bill was obviously interested in helping his old pal whenever and however he could.
There was the magic year of 1966-67 when the Vols surprised everybody by winning the SEC in hoops, and Ward’s broadcasts of road games were the hottest show in town. Ron Widby led the way, and the team became known as the “Fearless Five.”
Tennessee won the SEC title that year with a triple-overtime win at Mississippi State when sophomore guard Bill Justus canned two free throws to give the Vols the victory. When the game ended, the recollection is that Ward said something like this: “ Wrap it up, tie it in orange and white, and send it to Bill Justus, care of Gibbs Hall, Knoxville, Tennessee.”
There were the “Ernie and Bernie” years. When the game was over, everybody in Stokely Center went home to watch the video replay with Ward’s radio call of the game dubbed over the tape.
One night at Kentucky, when Bernard King was at his best, Ward uttered these memorable words: “We don’t editorialize much, but this young man…. can play… this game.”
His broadcast style was light years ahead of its time, featuring a staccato baritone many have tried to emulate, but no one has ever duplicated. Ward made football and basketball play-by-play, especially basketball, into an art form. He could make the standard broadcast disclaimer (“This broadcast is authorized under broadcast rights granted by the University of Tennessee through the Vol Network, solely for the entertainment of our listening audience….’’) a thing of beauty.
One day at Kentucky, the Vols were massed at the northwest corner of Commonwealth Stadium, as it was known back then, ready to take the field. Ward looked knowingly at Anderson and said: “Bill, what time is it?” Anderson looked flummoxed, and with some gentle prodding from John, came up with the right answer: “It’s football time in Tennessee,” adding this statement: “I didn’t know I could say that.’’ He could, and life on the broadcast went on.
A wonderful Ward story came in an unlikely setting. John and wife, Barbara, once took a trip on the Orient Express. Just before the train left the station, another man and his wife got on. The man walked past the Wards, looked in John’s direction, and said, “Bottom!”
John, Barbara, and Bill are all now in Glory, but the memories linger.
That’s the way things appeared more than 30 years ago, announcing the media conference to “involve Vol broadcaster John Ward.”