Photo credit: Anne Newman/RTI
This Week in UT Sports History is a weekly column written by RTI contributor Lexie Little
With the 2019 NCAA College World Series well underway in Omaha, Nebraska, some Vol fans reminisce about Tennessee campaigns in the postseason. Others focus on announcements regarding UT football scheduling and what those announcements meant in years prior. But, no matter the sport, Tennessee faithful keep Vols, past and present, in mind during summer months.
In recent years, Tennessee has lost notable individuals who shaped UT athletics forever during the month of June. Last week, SEC Network celebrated what would have been legendary coach Pat Summitt’s 67th birthday with a lineup of programming central to one of Tennessee’s favorite daughters and one of the nation’s most formidable coaches. Summitt died on June 28, 2016 following complications related to early on-set Alzheimer’s disease. Nearly two years later, “Voice of the Vols” John Ward died at age 88 on June 20th.
Remember those Vols and more in “This Week in UT Sports History.”
June 17, 1951
Omaha’s Morning World-Herald headline read “6,290 See Oklahoma Clip Vols for College Baseball Title, 3-2.”
In its first program trip to Omaha, Tennessee finished second in the nation to the College World Series champion Sooners, letting a 2-0 lead slip away in a finals loss. Holding the lead until the fifth inning, the Vols watched their national title hopes slide as Sooners rounded the bases for single runs in the sixth, seventh, and eight innings.
“The Cinderella team almost made it,” reporter Robert Phipps wrote in his recap. “That would have been a great news story. But Tennessee, which seemed to lead a charmed life in the College World Series, finally ran out of luck Sunday night at Muny Stadium.”
UT outfielder Bill Asbury tallied two of three hits in the match-up. Asbury, who was born in Powell, Tennessee, and later resided in Alcoa, served as a colonel in the Tennessee Air National Guard at McGhee Tyson airbase for 30 years following his time in Knoxville. The 1951 College World Series Most Outstanding Player, Sid Hatfield, pitched eight innings of relief in the loss. In those eight innings, he walked eight Oklahoma batters, the third-most walks in a championship game.
Earlier in the week, Oklahoma pitcher James Waldrip had walked 15 against Springfield. Somehow, the Sooners escaped with an impressive 7-1 win to advance and later claim the title.
“They didn’t hit me much. I pitched a two-hitter,” Waldrip said at an OU alumni weekend nearly four decades later, as reported by the Oklahoman. “But walking 15 men…that’s why coach Baer has so many gray hairs.”
Prior to the tournament, Tennessee claimed the Southeastern Conference title, earning a 16-1 record in the regular season. The Vols would not return to Omaha until 1995, 44 years after the program’s first appearance.
June 18, 2009
Multi-decade sports droughts remain commonplace among college teams, whether they be time between postseason appearances or years between team match-ups. Ten years ago, Chick-fil-A Bowl President and CEO Gary Stokan sought to end one such drought, choosing Tennessee and N.C. State University to open the 2012 season in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The two teams had not met since 1939.
At the time, Lane Kiffin had just assumed the title of head coach at Tennessee following current Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer’s last season as head coach. Few might have guessed that Kiffin would not be at the helm when the Vols and Wolfpack finally met on the gridiron three years later.
“This regional rivalry game will feature an ACC program with one of the conference’s brightest futures under a proven Tom O’Brien against a traditional SEC power led by new head coach Lane Kiffin,” UT Sports representatives wrote in the announcement via utsports.com. “The game is expected to air nationally on ESPN Sept. 1, 2012.”
Kiffin looked forward to the match-up saying, “We are excited to be a part of what should be a great environment to kick off the 2012 season. Atlanta is a great sports town and the Georgia Dome has been great for college football.”
But Kiffin would not be in Atlanta, Georgia, at kickoff. Instead, he prepared for a 7-6 season at the University of Southern California, having left Tennessee after only one season.
Ironically, Kiffin’s one season at Tennessee ended with an appearance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which Tennessee lost 37-14 to Virginia Tech on Dec. 31, 2009. The Hokies had faced Alabama in the 2009 Chick-fil-A Kickoff game on Sept. 5, losing 34-24.
June 20, 2018
Broadcasters and their calls become as synonymous with college teams as the players and coaches they follow. Larry Munson at the University of Georgia, Woody Durham at North Carolina, and Rod Bramblett, the “Voice of the Auburn Tigers,” who died tragically earlier this year, are all examples.
And there’s John Ward.
One year ago this week, the “Voice of the Vols” spoke no more, leaving a deafening silence in broadcast booths across the south. Ward, who called more than 350 consecutive football games and nearly 1,000 basketball games for Tennessee, died June 20, 2018 at age 88.
For more than three decades, Ward detailed the victories and defeats of Tennessee basketball and football, one play at a time, down to the last roll around the rim or yard earned.
“John Ward brought life and feeling to our living rooms as he colorfully told the story of each play,” Director of Athletics Phillip Fulmer said at a memorial ceremony one week following Ward’s death. “We all know that he was absolutely the greatest broadcaster of all time and our ‘Voice of the Vols.’”
Ward called plays devised by four football coaches, including Fulmer, during his 30-plus seasons in Neyland Stadium. Volunteer fans often echo his catchphrases, yelling “give him six” when the Vols score a touchdown and remembering the night “pandemonium [reigned].”
The owner of his own advertising agency and production company, Ward followed his passions instead of his professional preparation to build his career. He graduated with a law degree from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1954, but his voice announced the players coming off the bench rather than arguments before the bench.
His voice resonates through Tennessee history and likely will for years to come.