Cawood: Kentucky remembers a legend

Cawood Ledford

Legendary UK broadcaster Cawood Ledford lost his battle with cancer on Wednesday at the age of 75.

LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Cawood.

For 39 years, the name was as synonymous to University of Kentucky sports as anyone who ever played or coached for the Wildcats.

The Commonwealth both grieved and looked back with fond memories Wednesday after learning that Cawood Ledford, the beloved "Voice of the Wildcats" from 1953-92, died at Harlan Appalachian Regional Hospital after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

“Cawood was the ultimate in genteel class," said Jim Host, CEO of Lexington-based Host Communications and a longtime friend of Ledford. "He exuded a quiet confidence, but always remembered who he was, where he came from and who he worked for.

"He will be remembered as the best college basketball broadcaster in the history of the game. Once he began to call the games for the NCAA Radio Network in 1976, he earned a national reputation and in turn, had many opportunities to leave. I sat in on many of those discussions, but he chose to stay here instead because it was here in Kentucky that he was most comfortable.”

Known as the consummate professional, Ledford’s career spanned five decades, earning the distinction of the most honored and most celebrated sportscaster in Kentucky history. Fans always will remember his trademark phrases, such as “the Wildcats will be moving left to right on your radio dial” and “the Cats have gone to war,” or simply his familiar sign-on, “Hello everybody, this is Cawood Ledford.”

"I've always felt that in broadcasting your total allegiance is to the person twisting the dial and giving you the courtesy of listening to you," Ledford told The Associated Press in 1991. "Sports are the greatest drama in the world because no one knows what's going to happen. And it's your job to paint a word picture for the thousands who would love to be there but can't."

Ledford was voted the state's Sportscaster of the Year 22 times, and was enshrined in the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. His jersey hangs in the rafters of Lexington's Rupp Arena today, the only non-player or coach to receive that distinction.

He was also one of the most renowned thoroughbred racing journalists in the nation. He called the Kentucky Derby for 22 years, won the industry's prestigious Eclipse Award on three occasions, and twice was honored with the Englehard Award for excellence in horse racing coverage.

But it was his calls of UK sports that endeared him to fans across the world.

“Without question, he was a great ambassador for not only UK sports, but the University of Kentucky. His reach was far beyond the bounds of UK and the state’s borders," said Ralph Hacker, who served as Ledford's color analyst for more than two decades and had the dubious challenge of replacing the legend after his final call in March of 1992.

Fittingly, his finale was arguably the greatest game in college basketball history, the classic Duke-Kentucky East Region Final in Philadelphia. After one of the most popular teams in UK history lost the heartbreaking 103-102 overtime thriller, Ledford signed off to countless fans with words he borrowed from legendary UK coach Adolph Rupp upon his own retirement: "For those of you who have gone down the glory road with me, my eternal thanks. This is Cawood Ledford saying goodbye, God bless, and goodnight everybody."

Some of the coaches and administrators who had the pleasure to work with Ledford also expressed their feelings Wednesday upon news of his death.

“Cawood meant as much to fans of Kentucky football and basketball as anyone ever has," UK basketball coach Tubby Smith said. "I struggle to come up with the proper words to describe how good he was other than just saying that he was ‘the best.’ Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”

"First of all, Cawood is one of the finest men I've ever known," said former UK football coach Bill Curry. "In his own dignified way, he found ways to educate me in areas that I needed it. There are some people who have the ability to help others without being pushy or offensive, and Cawood had that kind of tact.

"Carolyn and I deeply appreciate the support that Cawood and Frances continued to give us throughout our time here. No matter what happened, they continued to be consistent friends. We found ourselves saying, 'We hope we can be the kind of friends that Cawood and Frances have been to us.'"

“We are deeply saddened by the passing of a great friend in Cawood Ledford," said former UK basketball coach Rick Pitino. "He was a special man whose class, dignity and friendship I will always cherish. Our sincere sympathy goes out to his wife Frances. We love you Cawood.”

"Cawood was a dear friend for 33 years," said Kentucky Athletics Director Larry Ivy. "He was a valuable member of our athletics family and was the link between our football and basketball programs and our fans for 39 years -- not only in the state of Kentucky, but nationwide.He was the epitome of recognizable class, a true gentleman. Our deepest sympathy goes out to his wife, Frances, and his family, on the loss of a true Kentucky legend."

A graduate of Centre College, Ledford began his broadcasting career at WHLN Radio in Harlan in 1951. He began calling UK football and basketball games for WLEX Radio in 1953, competing with other radio networks for listeners while sharpening his skills working solo. In 1956, he moved to Louisville and began a 22-year career with WHAS Radio while still calling the games for the Wildcats. In 1967, after as many as five different networks were carrying the broadcasts, exclusive rights were granted to UK football and basketball and Ledford was named the Wildcats’ play-by-play announcer.

He worked for a number of coaches at Kentucky. His first season calling football was Bear Bryant’s last season as the Wildcats’ coach. In addition, he called games for Blanton Collier, Charlie Bradshaw, Fran Curci, John Ray, Jerry Claiborne and Curry. In basketball, he worked for the legendary Adolph Rupp until his retirement in 1972. He also called games for Joe B. Hall, Eddie Sutton and Pitino, retiring following the 1992 season along with the outgoing senior class of “Unforgettables”   Richie Farmer, Sean Woods, Deron Feldhaus and John Pelphrey  the team that lost to Duke in overtime in the East Region finals.

Ledford was named the top college basketball announcer in the nation on four occasions and broadcast the NCAA Final Four on a national radio network for 18 years, the most of any announcer in history. He received the ultimate honor, induction in the National Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994. He was the first person, other than a former player or coach, to have his jersey retired in Rupp Arena. He also owns the distinction of being the first person to be inducted into both the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Sports Hall of Fame.
In addition to his work with UK Athletics, Ledford covered minor league baseball, the World Series, the state basketball tournament, The Masters and the heavyweight boxing championship, including extensive coverage of former champion Muhammad Ali.

Other highlights of his illustrious career include:

n In 1992, he was named the Kentucky Sportsman of the Year by the Lexington Herald-Leader.
n In 1993, he was awarded the Spirit of Excellence from Rotary International and he was named a Distinguished Rural Kentuckian by Kentucky’s Rural Electric Cooperatives.
n In 1994, he became only the fifth announcer to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., and received the Kentuckian Award from the A.B. “Happy” Chandler Foundation.
n In 1998, he was one of five recipients of the OAK, an outstanding alumnus of a Kentucky university or college, presented by the Kentucky Advocates of Higher Education.
n In 1999, he was chosen as one of the 50 most significant Kentucky sports figures of the 20th century by the Lexington Herald-Leader and the only member of the media to make the list.
n In 2001, was given the Lindsey Nelson Award, which is presented annually by the Knoxville Quarterback Club to an outstanding collegiate broadcaster who has promoted or advanced the game of college football.
n He was chosen by the Gannett News Service as the best college basketball sportscaster in history.

Ledford was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Kentucky, Centre College and Cumberland College. He has been officially recognized by both the Kentucky and Tennessee Legislatures and in the Congressional Record of the U.S. Senate.

After leaving WHAS Radio in 1978, he founded Cawood Ledford Productions in Lexington. The company published “Cawood on the Cats,” a weekly newspaper covering UK sports, and produced numerous radio and television shows. In addition to his broadcasting career, he authored eight books.

Ledford is survived by his wife Frances, his brother Jim and sister Eloise. Service arrangements are pending as well as arrangements for a memorial service in Lexington.

The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to either the Cawood Ledford Scholarship Fund at the University of Kentucky or the Cawood Ledford Endowed Scholarship at Cumberland College. The UK fund was established to assist former student-athletes in completing their degree requirements. Checks can be made payable to the Cawood Ledford Scholarship Fund and mailed to UKAA, c/o Kathy DeBoer, Memorial Coliseum, Lexington, KY 40506-0019. The Cumberland College fund was set up to assist Kentucky students. Donations can be made to Cumberland College, Office of the President, 6191 College Station Drive, Williamsburg, KY 40769.

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