Whether it be 1955 while sitting in the family car, parked on the highest peak in town, desperately straining to hear Cawood Ledford's call of the Cats, or 1985 while sitting at home, turning down the sound and listening to his mellifluous voice call the game, millions of Kentucky Wildcat basketball fans, from 1953 to 1992, looked forward to hearing Cawood's voice call the Wildcat action almost as much as they did the games themselves.
It's strange, really. One would think the excitement, the visceral anticipation of the game would dominate their emotions in the hours leading up to the contest. But with Cawood, it was the experience of hearing him call the action as it unfolded, his eloquence surpassed by only his love of the Kentucky Wildcats, which also dominated UK fans' pregame thoughts. For listening to Cawood put the listener squarely in the middle of the action, in the high dollar seats, shoulder to shoulder with Big Blue royalty. Simply put, if Cawood wasn't calling the game, it wasn't Kentucky basketball. And in that sense, for 39 glorious seasons, Cawood Ledford was the voice of Kentucky basketball.
Born To Make The Call
Ledford was from Harlan County, born in 1926 in a town named for his mother's side of the family. Cawood grew up like many other eastern Kentucky boys; dreaming of lofty goals and rooting for the Wildcats. He was four-years-old when Adolph Rupp was hired as the UK coach (1930), so the foundation of his passion was nurtured and rooted in the formative years of what would become a dominating Big Blue winning machine. Beginning in the 1930's, and because of the team's unparalleled success, Kentucky basketball was to many Kentuckians -- some struggling mightily to put food on the table, and looking for hope -- an inspiration, and a reason to look forward to tomorrow.
Those were the times Cawood grew up in. That was the atmosphere, charged with a passion for the Wildcats that is perhaps not well understood today, which helped launch Cawood into a world reserved for only the most gifted, and yes, the most passionate. To be as good as Cawood was at what he did, one has to almost experience an epiphany of sorts: a knowledge that, "Hey, I was born to do this."
Look no further than this little fact for confirmation: Cawood's only radio experience prior to getting the job calling UK games for WLEX were his two-years spent calling high school basketball and football games for WHLN in Harlan. Two years of experience, and yet from day one -- a December 5, 1953 UK victory versus Temple -- Cawood was pure gold calling the Cats.
Even more impressive, Ledford had no formal radio training of any kind. After a stint in the Marines in World War II, he earned a degree in English from Centre College, and yet he excelled to the point of calling the World Series multiple times, 22 Kentucky Derbys, 18 Final Fours, the ABA's Kentucky Colonels, The Masters, and heavyweight boxing championships. Cawood won 22 Sportscaster of the Year awards along the way (more than any other announcer), and four times Ledford was named the top college basketball announcer in the nation. Three times he was honored as horse racing's top announcer with an Eclipse Award.
Obviously, Cawood's greatness could not be contained within the boundaries of the Bluegrass. Kentucky fans had to share him. And really, why not? When one has the best, one wants the whole world to know.
Yeah, Cawood was born to make the call, and make them he did.
Born To Connect
Current UK radio play-by-play man Tom Leach said this about Cawood to WSGS radio at the time of Ledford's death on September 5, 2001: "He was so good at what he did as far as just bringing the games to life for the listeners. He was as much a part of Kentucky basketball and its storied history than any coaches or players."
Cawood was born to be a sports announcer, but how did that extraordinary gift manifest itself to us, the listeners? In other words, what made Cawood so exceptional?
Well, the English degree certainly didn't hurt. Earning that degree gave Cawood a firm command of the language, and he was blessed with such tremendous recall that he was able to search for the right descriptive, find it, and say it, all in the literal blink of an eye. When the microphone was hot, Cawood was the Boston Pops performing at Carnegie Hall, while by comparison, most of us struggle to play chopsticks in our living rooms.
The result: Cawood connected with people. That is the most apt, and perhaps the most accurate way to describe his gift, and connecting with people is a gift, make no mistake. It's a talent many millions of people desire to have, but so few are granted. The connection Cawood had with UK fans was born out of his Kentucky roots, through and through. He was simply a Wildcat fan telling other Wildcat fans what was happening on the court. He just did it a thousand times more eloquently than anyone else.
In fact, Cawood was to in tune with Wildcat fans, and vice versa, that some fans could quickly determine -- just by the sound of Ledford's voice -- whether the Cats were winning or losing. It was almost undetectable, but it was there. A slight tightness in his voice -- perhaps a slightly different inflection -- and the listener knew the Cats were down, and the time for concern was upon them.
It was plainly obvious Cawood loved the Wildcats, and the millions of Kentucky fans who listened knew he loved them. For it was that love that radiated through the game night air, reaching fan's ears and touching their souls, creating the magnificently perfect marriage of announcer and listener. One, in perfect rhythm with the other. That's why Tom Leach is right, that's why Cawood is as much a part of Kentucky basketball as any player or coach.
Alexander Wolff, the outstanding Sports Illustrated writer, once wrote about Cawood, "Somewhere over the Rockies, I dial Teamline from an airphone at my seat on the plane, and listened to Kentucky take an eight-point lead over Iowa State. You haven't lived friends, until you've heard the heavenly voice of Wildcat radio announcer Cawood Ledford at 39,000 feet."
Ledford connected; not only to Kentucky fans, but to all who listened and had an appreciation for the talent and passion an announcer must possess to transport the listener to within inches of the action. Even if the listener is traveling through the heavens at 400 miles-per-hour.
Born to Inspire
Gayle Lawson, a retired teacher from Harlan, told the Associated Press upon the passing of Ledford, "The children knew Cawood Ledford better than they knew their own principals. They listened to Cawood more."
Perhaps the greatest legacy Cawood left us with is the inspiration he provided to the thousands of boys grew up, just as he did, in eastern Kentucky. Surrounded by poverty and hopelessness, but in search of something better. Because of this common thread, Educators and parents often used Cawood as an example of an eastern Kentucky boy who made it out of the darkness, and into the brightest of lights, becoming larger-than-life. And Cawood, because of his gentle way, and gentlemanly manner, presented those who lifted him up with an easy burden, for the integrity of the man is all that surpassed his singular talent as an announcer.
When the young people of Kentucky looked at Cawood Ledford, they saw an accomplished man, a famous man, a man idolized like few others, but, he was a man who kicked the same dirt as they did, and who's daddy worked in the same coal mines as theirs did, a man who went to the same schools as they did.
They saw this man from eastern Kentucky impeccably dressed, always polite and considerate, greeting folks with a handshake and a hug.
Cawood Ledford, Voice of the Wildcats, was one of them. Hopefully, those many little boys and girls thought to themselves, "Cawood Ledford proves that my present doesn't have to be my forever."
Born To Live Forever
Cawood Ledford was such an endearing person, and rightfully adored by the masses, that one had to have a parking pass and credential to attend his funeral. That many people, from around the world, wanted to pay their final respects to Cawood. The magnitude of that outpouring is a tribute to not only Cawood's far reaching talent, but to his personality and genteel country charm as well.
People loved, and still remember Cawood for many different reasons. He was the soul of Kentucky basketball for nearly four decades; he was the greatest play-by-play announcer in college basketball history. He was a Kentuckian made very, very good, and his personality drew people to him like flies to a barbecue. Cawood loved Kentucky and the people who comprise this great Commonwealth, and millions reciprocated that enduring love. Although Cawood is no longer with us, as long as Wildcat fans can hear the echo of Cawood's call bouncing around their memories, his voice will never die.