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 natural thing."
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 generic."
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.