As the radio play-by-play broadcaster for Tennessee sports from 1965-99, he was known for his unique style with such phrases as “It’s football time in Tennessee” right before kickoff.
Country music star Kenny Chesney released the tribute song, “Touchdown Tennessee,” soon after Ward’s retirement. The Vol Network first announced Ward’s death with a tweet, “Tennessee has lost its Voice.”
Ward’s final football broadcast was the Vols’ 23-16 win over Florida State in the 1998 Fiesta Bowl National Championship game. East Tennessee State coach Randy Sanders was the offensive coordinator for the Vols in that game. A decade prior to that, Sanders was a Tennessee quarterback.
“For so many years, he was Tennessee football,” Sanders said. “When you flipped on the radio or you watched the old Johnny Majors Show, you always saw John Ward and you always heard that voice, you thought of Tennessee football. His impact on fans, football, the university and the whole state of Tennessee was tremendous.”
Ward, giving the title “Voice of the Vols” Emeritus by UT after his retirement, was named the Tennessee sportscaster of the year 28 times over his 35-year broadcasting career. He was named the Best College Announcer in the country in 1976. After receiving a law degree from the University of Tennessee in 1954, he went into radio and advertising. He became the Vols play-by-play voice for basketball in 1965 and for the football team in 1968.
His influence on those around the state and in his profession was huge as ETSU broadcaster Jay Sandos attested.
“My dad was a big Tennessee fan growing up as a kid, and we would go to a game a year and bring the walkman in the stadium when you would go,” Sandos said. “The biggest influence I took from him was the pure true excitement of when something happens. You could always tell when Tennessee did something good, but he always called something good for the opposing team when they deserved it. I try to emulate those things.”
Sandos enjoyed how Ward would make an average play sound like a can’t-miss moment to Tennessee fans.
“You would hear a three-yard run and it would be the greatest play, he’s like spinning, cutting, fighting, diving and battling his way,” Sandos recalled. “He had a way of being descriptive on what might be throwaway plays for most fans and keeping them engaged.”
Ward was a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the Knoxville Hall of Fame. He was preceded in death by his wife, Barbara.
Former University of Tennessee and Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten tweeted, “Give him 6. RIP John Ward. Legend.”
Sandos recalled one play when Ward had a bit of an uncharacteristic description of a touchdown run without his usual, “25, 20, 15, 10, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Touchdown Tennessee.”
“I remember my all-time favorite call was a toss sweep to Travis Stephens,” Sandos said. “It was like there’s 35, 40, then he pauses, which he never did. He comes back on, we’re looking for a flag and there’s no flag. It’s 82 yards for a touchdown. He had so many things about him that so many broadcasters from around Tennessee and the whole Southeast would emulate. It’s a bad loss for the school, the state and my profession.”