Remembering John Ward: Ten years since “Give Him Six!”
Regardless of how things turn out for the Tennessee Volunteers this fall, the 2009 season represents so very many milestonesâ€”it really isnâ€™t even worth the trouble to try and count them all.Â There has been so much change lately and so very many new looks and faces that everything seems as if it is in flux.Â Some feel this near c-change is long overdue, others decry it as a loss of tradition, others still reserve judgments and simply point to the inevitable movement of the hands of time.Â Still, no matter how great the changes may be, the echoes of years gone by still ring in the air around Neyland Stadium.Â Thankfully, this will never change.
In addition to all of the â€śobviousâ€ť landmark events that have or will occur as part of the 2009 football season, there is one more that may go unnoticed by many.Â Though it hardly seems possible, the 2009 season marks Bob Keslingâ€™s tenth year as the â€śVoice of the Vols.â€ť Since the kickoff of the 1999 football opener against the Wyoming Cowboys, Kesling along with color-commentator Tim Priest, and sideline reporter Mike Stowell (who succeeded Jeff Francis in 2007), have brought the sounds of Big Orange football into our homes via the â€śStatewide Stadiumâ€ť that is the Vol Network.
As have I pointed out in previous posts, since I was a child, I have always been a dedicated fan of live sports radio broadcasts.Â I learned at an early age that television broadcasters, no matter how good they may be, simply cannot match the style, flair, color, or excitement that a gifted radio sportscaster can bring to a game.Â There are few on television that come closeâ€”Ron Franklin and Mike Gottfried being pretty much the bestâ€”but even they cannot quite stay in step with the great radio broadcasters of the game.Â Of course, for every Franklin and Gottfried, there are a bevy of lackluster talking suits which do little more than get in the way of the game rather than actually improving your understanding of what is taking place.
Thus is the curse of televisionâ€¦
It is one thing to verbally recount what viewers just saw on their screen; it is an entirely different thing to narrateâ€”paint a word pictureâ€”that which listeners depend on the broadcaster to pluck from the ether and make real.Â It is remarkably easy to be sloppy and boring when broadcasting a game on televisionâ€”the images speak for themselves.Â With radio, however, the broadcaster creates those images and the world in which they exist.
That is why I will always be a fan of radio play-by-play broadcastersâ€¦
Thus, for the past ten years, we in Orange Nation have depended upon Bob Kesling to paint those pictures and to create those imagesâ€”he has been the one to guide us through every play of every game.Â On the whole, I have to say that Kesling has done a good job.Â While I will be the first to admit that Keslingâ€™s early broadcasts seemed to me a bit â€śsterileâ€ť and deadpan, over the past decade he and his gameday cohorts have steadily improved and I think they do a fine job of broadcasting Tennessee Football.Â Suffice it to say that I listen each week, even if the game is on television or even if I am in Section Y7 watching it for myself.
This decennial milestone, however, is less about the ten years that Kesling has served as the chief broadcaster for Tennessee, and more about the man he replaced.Â I still can hardly believe that it has been ten years since last we heard the inviting and familiar baritone sounds of John Ward as the â€śVoice of the Vols.â€ť
Though Bob Kesling does a fine job, I still miss John Ward.
John Ward served as the Voice of the Vols in some capacity from 1963 until 1998, starting out as the host of the Tennessee coaches shows and as the PA announcer in Neyland Stadium.Â Ward first began Vols play-by-play announcing when he began broadcasting Tennessee basketball games, along with the late Lowell Blanchard, in 1965.Â Then, in 1968 veteran Vol Network broadcasters George Mooney (who started the Vol Navy) and Bob Fox decided to pursue other endeavors, paving the way for Ward and color-commentator Bill Anderson to assume their position behind the microphone.
I first heard Ward when he broadcast the now legendary 1985-86 Sugar Bowlâ€”where an underdog Tennessee Volunteers squad bested the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes by 28 points.Â That game was, and remains, one of the most significant Tennessee football games of all time.Â Ward, however, made it even better.Â After hearing just one broadcast by John Ward it is fair to say that I was hooked.
After that first experience, I could be found crowded around a radio whenever the Big Orange took the field.Â I longed to hear John Ward and Bill Anderson relay the plays to me and the thousands of others out there in their own distinctive style.Â To this day, I am a religious believer that if I am watching Tennessee play on TV, the sound goes off and the radio turns on.Â However, in the era before satellite radio and internet webcasts, tuning in the Vol Network from my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina was not always an easy proposition.Â There was no Vol Network affiliate serving my area.Â Still, I found that if I was lucky, and if the game was at night (when the ionosphere makes radio signals carry farther) I could pick up the scratchy signal of the broadcast emanating from a station near Murphy, North Carolina.Â Though my mother thought I was crazy constantly trying to tweak the radio to get just a bit more clarity, I always tried to find the broadcast.Â She also thought I was about half-cracked when, as a student at Tennessee, I figured out a way to mount a tiny radio inside my marching band hat while I was in the Pride of the Southland, thus enabling me to listen while in the stands.Â John Ward made it worth my while.
To this day, I am still a dedicated Vol Network listener and always have my earphones with me when sitting in Neyland Stadium.
From 1986 to 1998, I listened to as many broadcasts as possible.Â I learned a lot about the game of football, about Tennessee, and about communicating an image.Â I learned that often I could see the game better with my eyes closed and my ears open.Â John Wardâ€™s words became my eyes, and they never saw things as clearly as they did when he was painting the picture word by word.Â I learned that Tennessee football was as much John Ward as John Ward was Tennessee football.Â I learned that a true professional needs no introduction, no pomp, and no showy entrance.Â I learned that class is a commodity not often found among broadcasters.Â I learned that mistakes in public are not a bad thing if you can have a good laugh about it.
Both prior to his retirement at the end of the 1998-99 basketball season and since that time, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak with John Ward on several occasions, and found him to be every bit as genuine and every bit the gentleman he was on the radio.Â For me he truly wasâ€”and remainsâ€”the voice of Tennessee.Â He told us the story and let it unfold across the airwaves.Â He not only told us what was happening, but he managed to make it real, to make the excitement palpable.
Now, it has been ten years since he last sat behind the microphone in the communications center which bears his name inside the pressbox of Neyland Stadium.Â Though this is difficult for me to imagine, I am sure there are many Tennessee fans today who have never heard Wardâ€™s broadcasts and some who may not even know who he is.Â On some level, that is very sad for me.Â Yet, traditions are made over time, and each generation has a hand in forming and re-forming those traditions.Â They are not static.Â For me as a child and a young man, John Ward was a tradition.Â Over the past ten years, however, Bob Kesling, Tim Priest, Bert Bertelkamp, andÂ Mike Stowell have started a new tradition for the Vol Network, one which I am sure in years to come will be remembered just as fondly as I remember Wardâ€™s.
Still, as we prepare for the 2009 football season, on the cusp of a great undiscovered country, the hopes of the future, it seems only appropriate that we look back ten years and remember the man who came into our ears, into our homes, into our lives to bring us the story of Tennessee.Â That past is prologue for the future to which we all look.
In recognition of this little reminiscent look back, I have put together a little soundboard of a few of John Wardâ€™s memorable calls and catchphrases.Â I plan on finding a permanent home for this soundboard here at the Gate, but for now, here are â€ś21 Thingsâ€ť from the John Ward Era that still make me smile.
Rest assured, Iâ€™ll be listening this fall from my perch in the North Endzone, from my home in North Carolina, or wherever else I might find myself on a gameday.Â That is the primary reason why I own an XM Satellite Radio.Â Yes, I still listen to the Vol Network every chance I get.
So hereâ€™s to all the folks at the Vol Network for giving me and countless other Vol fans across the globe a reason to tune in.Â Thank you for giving that experience to all of us who wear the orange.Â Thank you for building and maintaining that wonderful traditionâ€¦
â€¦and a special thanks to the man who started that tradition for me: John Ward.
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Image(s) Courtesy of:Â Â Â UT Sports.com / the Vol Network â€˘Â Unofficial John Ward Page â€˘Â Knoxville News Sentinel ||Â Statement on Fair Use
About the Author: "Lawvol" -- I'm just a guy living in North Carolina who has an unnatural fascination with the color orange. Just because I'm a Tennessee alum and die-hard Volunteer fan doesn't mean that I can't poke a little fun at the Big Orange and anybody else for that matter. Feel free to complain all you want. >> Read more from this author
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