Updated at 10:21 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27, 2018.
KNOXVILLE — Through a farewell campaign capped by Tennessee winning the national championship for the 1998 college football season, the tributes poured in as John Ward seemed baffled by it all. He offered a modest hope for what fans would remember from his three-plus decades as the radio voice of Volunteers football and basketball.
"A word here, a word there, a phrase here, a phrase there that we remember," Ward suggested fans might say. "Maybe we won't remember who said it, but we remember what was said. If that's what people remember, I'll be happy."
Tennessee fans remember what words and phrases were said. Wednesday night, they showed just how fondly they remember who said them.
Several hundred fans filled Thompson-Boling Arena for a tribute ceremony honoring Ward, who died last Wednesday at the age of 88. Tens of thousands more watched online as a list of Tennessee athletic icons regaled the audience with tales of Ward's sense of humor and rigid adherence to structure.
Ward once forced an entourage of traveling companions to eat the same meal at McDonald's during each leg of a postseason basketball tournament road trip, according to a story told by Ward's Vol Network successor, Bob Kesling. He also chided budding television football analyst and former Vols defensive back Charles Davis for not bringing detailed notes to an assignment covering Tennessee's spring game, even though Davis, now an analyst on FOX, had played for the team the previous season.
The stories all circled back to a central theme
"The real secret to John Ward wasn't the massive IQ. It wasn't the voice," said Mike Keith, a former Vol Network co-worker of Ward's and the current radio voice of the Tennessee Titans. "It wasn't the preparation. It wasn't the attention to detail. It was the fact that John Ward loved the state of Tennessee with all his heart. He loved the university with all his heart. He loved these teams. He loved the players, and he loved the coaches with all his heart.
"But if it's possible, he loved the fans even more. He knew he had a responsibility to the fan base. He cherished the fact that he was their eyes and their ears to all of it."
As former Tennessee football coach and athletic director Doug Dickey put it, Ward would have been 350-0 as a football broadcaster.
"We've been here a lot of times for championships we celebrated, and I've had a chance to come back a number of times for some reunions of championship teams," Dickey said. "But I think tonight, we really celebrate one of our true champions of a profession. John Ward was a guy that I think had it all going for him, and he knew what to do with it."
Ward grew up in south Knoxville, where his father, Herschel Ward, was superintendent of Tennessee School for the Deaf. Ward's mother, Sarah, was a teacher at the school. In a documentary titled "The Voice," which chronicles Ward's career, Ward said his father listened to Tennessee football games on the radio when John was young.
For deaf students, Herschel Ward would draw scenes from the game on a chart for them to interpret, while others read his lips.
"I think his ability to visualize for people who could not hear might have helped in the early days, that maybe I learned how to visualize, too," Ward said in the documentary.
As a Boy Scout, Ward worked at Tennessee football games as an usher. After graduating from Knoxville High School, he attended Tennessee and recorded play-by-play broadcasts of fraternity basketball games. He took a job as a copy boy at the Knoxville Journal — it paid 40 cents an hour — and worked as a sports writer for 75 cents an hour as he progressed through law school at Tennessee.
His first break in broadcasting came when a local radio station needed a fill-in broadcaster for a high school football game one Friday night. Ward found his calling, though it would be years before it came to fruition.
He was drafted into the Army after law school and broadcasted baseball games over the Armed Forces Network from Fort Benning, Georgia, while he served.
Once Ward's military duty was satisfied, he returned to WKGN in Knoxville and rose through the ranks of the station's business side before getting into advertising, which required him to step away from play-by-play work. It was in the advertising business that Ward met his wife of 55 years, Barbara, who died last summer.
Eventually, Ward's relationship with then-Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears and some politicking led to Ward taking over as voice of the men's basketball program for the 1964-65 season. Ward's introduction to the press box in football came as the Neyland Stadium public address announcer before he took over play-by-play duties in 1968 along with former Vol Bill Anderson.
The duo forged a three-decade partnership.
Ward was approached by other universities and professional teams about job opportunities but never wavered in his loyalty to the University of Tennessee.
"I think broadcasting Tennessee football and basketball games on the Vol Network is the best broadcasting job in the country. Period," Ward said in "The Voice" documentary. "Why take a second-rate job paying you three times as much when you've could have the first-rate job? That's the way I look at it."
Ward called 350 consecutive Tennessee football broadcasts and nearly 1,000 basketball games during his career.
On June 3, 1998, he announced the upcoming football and basketball seasons would be his last. At the podium for the news conference, Ward had a prepared statement in front of him but reduced the content of it to two words: "It's time."
In the documentary, Ward explained, "I would much rather quit three years too early than one second too late."
His farewell tour included participating in the Vol Walk with Anderson prior to Tennessee's final home football game of the season against Kentucky. For Tennessee's regular-season finale at Vanderbilt, an estimated crowd of 10,000 packed Nashville's Centennial Park to see Ward on the set of the pregame show.
"I had no idea what was going to happen," Ward said of the reception he received in his final year behind the microphone. "I thought I did. But the response of fans, listeners, has been overwhelming."
As the final seconds ticked off the clock during Tennessee's Fiesta Bowl victory over Florida State for the inaugural Bowl Championship Series national title to cap the 1998 season, Ward relayed that "The national champion is clad in Big Orange."
It was a fitting end to an era.
Ward remained largely out of the public eye in the two decades between his retirement and his death, although his iconic voice was occasionally heard on advertisements. He enjoyed traveling, gardening, golf, hiking and touring the state of Tennessee, according to his obituary.
Just a few months after his wife's July 2017 death, Ward returned to Neyland Stadium to be honored as Tennessee's legend of the game when the Vols took on Vanderbilt. Several of his best calls played over the public address system as Ward, battling poor health, walked onto the field to a standing ovation.
"That Vanderbilt game, the idea of John being our legend of the game and being honored on the field was discussed about a month prior," longtime friend and Vol Network employee Ben Bates said. "What if? Would he do it? In front of us, the answer was, 'Ain't no way.' But as we've learned since, he was going to do everything he could do to get on that field and rise to the occasion."
Did he make it?
He made it.
Then, Ward walked off the field, signing off from Rocky Top one final time.
"As John pointed out once we got back to his room," Bates said, "even the Vanderbilt fans were clapping."
Ward remained captivated by Tennessee athletics to the end, taking an interest in the 2017-18 men's basketball team that exceeded expectations to win a share of the SEC regular-season championship.
The team delivered Ward a piece of the net and a shirt commemorating the occasion. It was the shirt Ward wore on his final day.
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.