Remembering John Ward: Ten years since “Give Him Six!”

Tennessee Football Regardless of how things turn out for the Tennessee Volunteers this fall, the 2009 season represents so very many milestones—it really isn’t even worth the trouble to try and count them all.  There has been so much change lately and so very many new looks and faces that everything seems as if it is in flux.  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.  Still, no matter how great the changes may be, the echoes of years gone by still ring in the air around Neyland Stadium.  Thankfully, this will never change.

Vol Network In addition to all of the “obvious” landmark events that have or will occur as part of the 2009 football season, there is one more that may go unnoticed by many.  Though it hardly seems possible, the 2009 season marks Bob Kesling’s tenth year as the “Voice of the Vols.” 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 “Statewide Stadium” 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.  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.  There are few on television that come close—Ron Franklin and Mike Gottfried being pretty much the best—but even they cannot quite stay in step with the great radio broadcasters of the game.  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 television…

It is one thing to verbally recount what viewers just saw on their screen; it is an entirely different thing to narrate—paint a word picture—that which listeners depend on the broadcaster to pluck from the ether and make real.  It is remarkably easy to be sloppy and boring when broadcasting a game on television—the images speak for themselves.  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 broadcasters…

Thus, for the past ten years, we in Orange Nation have depended upon Bob Kesling to paint those pictures and to create those images—he has been the one to guide us through every play of every game.  On the whole, I have to say that Kesling has done a good job.  While I will be the first to admit that Kesling’s early broadcasts seemed to me a bit “sterile” 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.  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.  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 “Voice of the Vols.

Though Bob Kesling does a fine job, I still miss John Ward.

John and Lowell

John Ward & Lowell Blanchard

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.  Ward first began Vols play-by-play announcing when he began broadcasting Tennessee basketball games, along with the late Lowell Blanchard, in 1965.  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 Bowl—where an underdog Tennessee Volunteers squad bested the No. 2 Miami Hurricanes by 28 points.  That game was, and remains, one of the most significant Tennessee football games of all time.  Ward, however, made it even better.  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.  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.  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.  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.  There was no Vol Network affiliate serving my area.  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.  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.  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.  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.  I learned a lot about the game of football, about Tennessee, and about communicating an image.  I learned that often I could see the game better with my eyes closed and my ears open.  John Ward’s words became my eyes, and they never saw things as clearly as they did when he was painting the picture word by word.  I learned that Tennessee football was as much John Ward as John Ward was Tennessee football.  I learned that a true professional needs no introduction, no pomp, and no showy entrance.  I learned that class is a commodity not often found among broadcasters.  I learned that mistakes in public are not a bad thing if you can have a good laugh about it.


Cartoon of Ward from 1998

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.  For me he truly was—and remains—the voice of Tennessee.  He told us the story and let it unfold across the airwaves.  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.  Though this is difficult for me to imagine, I am sure there are many Tennessee fans today who have never heard Ward’s broadcasts and some who may not even know who he is.  On some level, that is very sad for me.  Yet, traditions are made over time, and each generation has a hand in forming and re-forming those traditions.  They are not static.  For me as a child and a young man, John Ward was a tradition.  Over the past ten years, however, Bob Kesling, Tim Priest, Bert Bertelkamp, and  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 Ward’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.  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 Ward’s memorable calls and catchphrases.  I plan on finding a permanent home for this soundboard here at the Gate, but for now, here are “21 Things” from the John Ward Era that still make me smile.

Rest assured, I’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.  That is the primary reason why I own an XM Satellite Radio.  Yes, I still listen to the Vol Network every chance I get.

So here’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.  Thank you for giving that experience to all of us who wear the orange.  Thank you for building and maintaining that wonderful tradition

…and a special thanks to the man who started that tradition for me: John Ward.

– So it goes …Email lawvol No McAlisters

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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23 Responses to “Remembering John Ward: Ten years since “Give Him Six!””

  • Home Sweet HomeNo Gravatar says:

    I was wondering when you were gonna post this, great stuff. though I was just in the 5th grade for his last season, I have a great appreciation for what John Ward meant to UT football and basketball – definitely a UT icon.

    I actually got to see John back in mid-May, when he came and spoke to my mini-term sports broadcasting class one morning at the studio in the Communications building where they do the coaches shows and stuff. he still has the great voice and the blue towel…

  • hooperNo Gravatar says:

    What a treasure you all had in him. He retired before my time as a Vols fan, but replays of his calls are still entrancing. And I fully agree; I would turn off the TV sound and turn on the radio in a heartbeat if I only had a way to synchronize the sound with the video. And even out of phase, it might still be preferable to the telly-babble about whichever midweek television show they’re plugging instead of calling the 4th overtime…

    • lawvolNo Gravatar says:

      Yeah, he was one of the last of the great radio announcers from the era spanning from the 1940s to the 1990s. There are so very few of them left — since Larry Munson was forced to retire at Georgia, Jack Cristil at Mississippi State is really the last great in the SEC, although some would include Eli Gold at Alabama (which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with). Max Falkenberg is gone at Kansas and Caywood Ledford from Kentucky. The Tarheads still have Woody Durham (whom I think still does a great job) and FSU still has Gene Deckerhoff (whose voice I don’t care for, but who does a bang-up job at announcing).

      Oddly enough, the best “new” radio voices are associated with pro teams these days, which befuddles me a bit considering that pro sports are so inherently made for television. If you ever want to hear a really fabulous announcer who is still doing great things, check out Chuck Kaiton who is the only radio announcer the Hartford Whalers / Carolina Hurricanes have ever had in the entire history of the franchise. When the Canes won the Stanley Cup in game 7 in 2006, his first comment after the final horn sounded was simply:
      9,393 days of frustration, and on the 9,394th day of NHL existence, the Carolina Hurricanes have won the Stanley Cup!
      I put that up in the ranks of the “Pandemonium Regins!” call by Ward at the end of the Florida game in 1998, you just don’t get that sort of thing from most announcers these days.

      I will say that I do feel for Bob Kesling, he followed one of the best and has been heavily criticized as a result. Personally, I think he and Tim Priest do a good job — Tim is arguably one of the best color men around, and Kesling has begun to develop a style of his own over the past few years(such as his “Checkerboards!” calls). The problem is that until people like me quit writing articles like this he’ll never really get a fair shake. That is why I included the whole “what is past is prologue” bit above (which is actually a line from “The Tempest” by Shakespeare).

      Either way, what the Vol Network puts on the air is still better than 90% of what you’ll hear on television .

  • richvolNo Gravatar says:

    What made Ward so great to me was how he described a play in it’s entirety…many times after the play had already concluded. If you weren’t around a TV set the picture he painted in your mind was way beyond anyone else’s ability. You could hear the excitement build in his voice as your heart began to race along with his but he still faithfully laid out the sequence of events in that great baritone. You will never hear another like him.

  • HudroNo Gravatar says:

    John was at his best doing basketball although he did football well too. Kesling still makes too many mistakes but Tim Priest makes it worth the listening.

    One of my best memories of John came when we played UNC Charlotte and he was eating a subway sandwich in the stands before game time. He chatted with me for over 15 minutes about his favorite players, coaches, etc. What a treasure.

    • charlieNo Gravatar says:

      Cant stand Kessling or Priest. Kessling makes one mistake after another, and he doesnt speak clearly and distincly. Priest is a primadonna.

  • jimvolsNo Gravatar says:

    awesome, just awesome. Thanks so much for posting.

  • BRobNo Gravatar says:

    Bob Kesling “has done a good job?” Please. Statements like that destroy your credibility. You just spent a great deal of time and effort on this lengthy John Ward piece. Thatg fact alone tells us how you really feel. The overwhelming majority of Vol faithful listeners feel the same way too. Bob is awful. Just dreadful as a football announcer. Own up to it. The Vols, the university, and the faithful Vol listeners deserve far better. Demand change! That’s the underlying theme on the constant flow of “good ole days with John Ward” articles. IMG (or whoever owns he Vol Network nowadays) should be forced by the fans to install competent broadcast talent for our Vols. This apparently won’t change without listener voices being expressed and advertiser dollars being diminished. STEP UP!

    • lawvolNo Gravatar says:

      Well, you know I have had my issues with Kesling over the years, but I do honestly believed that he has improved (and I would be lying if I didn’t say that I thought Tim Priest was one of the best color guys anywhere — including Bill Anderson). That is why I said of Kesling that he does “a fine job” — I didn’t say “amazing” or anything along those lines. Thus, I do understand what you mean, but I don’t think Kesling is the worst.

      Is there room for improvement? You bet. Is he the best in the world? No. Is he competent to do the job? In my opinion, yes, he is. It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.

      In the end, however, compared to Ward no one seems all that great — he was truly one of the legends.

      Still, your point is well made: the fall off since John Ward left has been huge — it just isn’t the same. I guess, the question is whether Kesling could be great as opposed to has he been great. In other words, does he have what it takes to be a broadcasting “all star“?

      I honestly don’t know the answer to that one.

      At any rate, thanks for stopping by the Gate and for leaving a comment. Feel free to call me out any time.

    • Floyd EdgeNo Gravatar says:

      I couldn’t agree more with your comment. BOOBS is just awful and continues to be forced down our throats. Our BB & FB programs will be too good to suffer under his announcing. Nice guy – horrible announcer.

  • Luke BartoloNo Gravatar says:

    One of my faves is the OH NO OH NO one.

  • beachbums624No Gravatar says:

    Thanks for the time and effort . Thanks for sharing these classic “John Ward ” moments .He is and probably always will be “The Voice of the Vols ” to me . I got to meet John once outside a bank in Farragut. He was gracious and as it was a friday , payday for my crew of fellow carpenters , excited about saturday . Funny thing is , I dont remember Who We beat That Saturday . But I Will Never forget, meeting John Ward . And yes , like most everyone i know , We turned the television volume down . Just had to listen to John on the radio.

  • JasonNo Gravatar says:

    John Ward is still truly missed. What a great man and a great commentator. No one will be able to match him.

  • CharlieNo Gravatar says:

    I remember listening to John Ward do basketball when I was in jr high and I couldnt believe someone could call a game so fast. I quickly became hooked. When I was in high school my dad took me with him to the home games as he had season tickets. I bought a transistor radio just so I could listen to Ward in the stands! Some years later, I was fortunate enough to meet John after he finished the John Majors dressing room show. We sat and talked for at least an hour. He was a total gentleman!

    Someone posted that Priest is as good as Anderson. Bite your tongue. Priest couldnt tie Andersons shoes! Priest says silly crap that makes him sound like a dumb a**(Berttlekamp does the same thing). Anderson analyzed the game.

    I miss both Ward and Anderson. I seldom carry a radio to the games anymore!

  • My son has just sent me the article in 2009 on John Ward. What other memories it brought back. John and I graduted in 1951. During our Junior and Senior years, he was editor of the Orange and White and I was Sports Editor. I saw him many times at the games, but since then have lost contact. He went on to sports and after the Korean War, I returnd to my father’s business as a mortician. I sold our businsses in 1988 to a conglomerate which sold to 3 other conglomerates. At age 77, I went back in business as an independent, Good Shepherd Funeral Home and at 81 have regained the lead in volume among 5 competitors. John’s the best!!

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