For over 30 years he was the voice of Tennessee football. On any given Saturday in the fall between 1968 and 1998, fans across the Volunteer State would eagerly turn down the volume on their television sets and tune into the radio to hear his voice call a Vol football game. Why? Because for those 30 years, they had the pleasure of hearing one of the greatest voices in the industry call a college football game.
John Ward, the Vol Network’s play-by-play icon, who is etched in Tennessee athletics lore for his legendary calls in both football and basketball, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 88.
With the news of his passing, I think I can safely say that it immediately brought back a wave of memories for fans who were old enough to remember him call a game. All of them good, of course. There was the Florida game in ‘98, Condredge Holloway’s late-game heroics, a handful of last-second field goals, deep touchdown passes, long runs, and of course, the Fiesta Bowl. He had a way of building up the anticipation and setting the scene for those who were not in attendance. For many fans old enough to remember, Ward had a way of making the living room or a car feel like the broadcast booth.
You could fill a book on John Ward’s thrilling and theatrical calls both in what transpired on the gridiron and on the hardwood. Because of this, I want to look back at five great John Ward calls in football. By no means do I want to rank them or say that these five are the best, because for you, one might be more special than the other because of a memory attached to it. His voice had that effect on more than one generation of Vols fans, and I hope as you read this, it will only evoke fond memories.
5.) “All he did was score!” Tennessee vs Alabama, 1995:
Tennessee had lost 7 of the last 8 to Alabama when they traveled to Birmingham to take on the Crimson Tide at Legion Field. All of those years of pinned up frustration was let out, and the tone was set early when Peyton Manning hit Joey Kent on an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play from scrimmage.
4.) The Miracle at South Bend. Tennessee vs Notre Dame, 1991:
After trailing 31-7, Tennessee pulled off an improbable, come-from-behind, 35-34 victory over the home turf of the Fighting Irish. The comeback was kickstarted just before the half, with the Vols behind 31-7, Notre Dame looked to extend their lead with a field goal that would be blocked by Darryl Hardy and returned by Floyd Miley 85-yards for a touchdown to make it a 31-14 game. Tennessee would claw back to take the lead, but with four seconds left in the game, Notre Dame lined up for a game-winning field goal. John Ward, as you can imagine, broke the hearts of those listening back home when he initially announced that the kick was good. Once he realized that Notre Dame kicker Rob Leonard’s 27-yard boot just missed to the right, he reassured everyone that the kick was “NO GOOD.
3.) “GIVE HIM SIX!” Tennessee vs Auburn, 1989:
Auburn entered Neyland Stadium as the No. 4 team in the land, as well as favorites in this early-season contest. However, it was the home-standing Volunteers who jumped out to an early 14-3 lead thanks to running back Reggie Cobb who raced 79-yards down the sideline for a touchdown. A memorable staple of Ward’s was to count the yard lines as the player was approaching the endzone, and he didn’t miss the opportunity to do that here. Tennessee would go on to win 21-14, using a defensive stand late to pull off the upset.
2.) “PANDEMONIUM REIGNS” Tennessee vs Florida, 1998:
It had been five seasons of heartbreak, frustration, and failure for Tennessee. No matter the circumstances, Phillip Fulmer and the Voulnteers could not get the proverbial monkey off of their back when it came to playing Steve Spurrier and the Florida Gators. In 1995, Tennessee watched an immaculate first-half performance from Peyton Manning and a big-lead turn into a convincing 62-37 defeat. The roles were nearly reversed in 1996, as Florida jumped out to a 35-0 advantage before Manning and Co. stormed back, only to fall short, 35-29. But on this September night, fate was on the side of the home team. The Gators and Vols went into overtime, tied 17-17. Jeff Hall put Tennessee on top 20-17 with a 41-yard field goal. Next, it was Florida’s turn, and it rested on the foot of Collins Cooper, who missed wide-right as a sea of orange poured onto Sheilds-Watkins Field.
1.) “The National Champion is clad in Big Orange!” Tennessee vs Florida State, Fiesta Bowl, 1999:
There may not be a memory sweeter to any living Tennessee fan than the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. A team that entered the season with less expectations than previous teams had capped off an undefeated season with a 23-16 win over No. 2 Florida State at Sun Devil Stadium to claim the 1998 National Championship. It was only fitting that this would be the last time John Ward’s voice would be heard on the airwaves during a Tennessee football game.