John Ward, the legendary Tennessee announcer who died this week at 88, made at least two perfect decisions in his life. He decided after attending the University of Tennessee and doing a stint in the Army not to practice law. Instead, Ward entered advertising. He got pretty good at it, and pulled off the double-bonus of avoiding a life of depositions and judgments while also choosing a career that allowed him significant free time to watch sports.
The other thing Ward definitely did right: He kept college football as a hobby. Announcing Tennessee football games was not John Ward’s full-time job. That gave him a kind of advantage: He was on the same schedule as every other Vol fan in the stands, and showed up for the same reasons. He carved time for them out of the rest of his life.
Ward, with a blue towel around his neck and almost always in a suit he could have worn from work to the game, just happened to be the guy with the mic.
Ward didn’t have to call games for a living. His broadcasts didn’t feel that way, though. Ward ripped through games with the clipped energy of a horse track announcer. Listen to his countdown of yard markers on any touchdown call, and it is almost impossible not to hear the third race at Churchill Downs somewhere in the background. He kept the catchphrases tidy, the pace brisk even when the game was not, and the patter to a minimum. Like every great college football announcer, he was professional but clearly and perpetually partial.
That advantage, again: John Ward was not there for John Ward. He was, like anyone else there, a skilled hobbyist there for the game.
There is a third thing Ward definitely did the right way. Ward usually opened his broadcasts what might be the most perfect convocation in all of college football broadcasting, a preamble of the matchup delivered in a rapidly escalating half-growl, and always peaking with:
It’s football time in Tennessee.
Even now — twenty years after he left the broadcast booth, and heard with the ears of someone who pulled for someone, anyone other than Tennessee — it raises the hair on our arms to hear. Ward’s final game intro began, as always, with those flawlessly delivered syllables. It ended with an undefeated season and Tennessee’s 23-16 victory over Florida State in the 1998 BCS Championship game.
His finale was fair, overdue, and pure. After thirty years of perfect starts in the booth, John Ward’s football team repaid him with a perfect finish.