Keith Jackson is retiring as ABC's voice of college football at
the end of this season, and I will miss him. But for me the
retirement of John Ward, the radio voice of Tennessee football
for 31 years, leaves a bigger void. There isn't a man, woman or
child in the Volunteer State who doesn't know Ward's opening
phrase, "It's football time in Tennessee!" or his signature
touchdown call, "Give him six!"
"The identity of the university is established in the voice of
the broadcaster on the radio," Ward says. "If the fans can
tolerate the guy, he becomes a part of the family." He adds,
with a measure of approval, "Keith Jackson was a radio guy."
Jackson called games as a student for Washington State's radio
station in the 1950s. Radio's hold on college football fans
lasted at least another generation. When I was a child in
Mobile, on Saturday afternoons I could walk past one store after
another, their doors ajar and radios on, and never lose track of
John Forney's call of an Alabama game. Forney died last year at
70; Ward, 64, is retiring; and the number of broadcasters whose
voices are synonymous with their schools is dwindling: Jack
Cristil at Mississippi State, Jack Dale at Texas Tech, Woody
Durham at North Carolina, Bob Robertson at Washington State,
Larry Munson at Georgia.
Last month, when Tennessee played at Georgia, Ward and Munson
chatted before the game. Both of them grew up listening to
college football broadcasts, Ward in Tennessee and Munson in
Montana. They both got to hear Ted Husing and Bill Stern, who
did games from all parts of the country. The two boys would sit
beside their fathers, who would draw charts illustrating each
team's drives. Both of them say they learned pacing, rhythm and
the flow of the game from Husing and Stern. Yet Ward and Munson
couldn't be more different on the air.
Ward strains his passion through a clipped delivery, repeats the
score before every snap and says he doesn't care who wins.
Munson is known for his gravelly growl and his partisanship. "We
blocked the punt," he'll exclaim, or "We stopped him on the
four!" Munson breaks every rule of journalistic neutrality, and
he's proud of it. "I want Georgia to win," he says. "It's a very
College football is richer because of Ward and Munson. Ward says
he doesn't understand why the current generation of play-by-play
broadcasters includes "no distinctive voices. They're all
One of the young guys who understands the emotional ties between
a school's voice and its fans is Durham's son Wes, 32, who does
broadcasts for Georgia Tech. "We played football in the front
yard, calling the game as we played," Wes says. "College
football in the Southeast is the great, big front-yard game." As
Ward might say, Give him six.
When Ward says, "It's football time in Tennessee!" fans settle
in for his call.