Cawood Ledford, the man who spoke for so long to so many Kentucky basketball and football fans, had very little to say after his last game broadcast in Rupp Arena 25 years ago.
After beginning his broadcast with his signature “Hello everybody, this is Cawood Ledford from Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington …”, the longtime “Voice of the Wildcats” talked for only 38 seconds to the 24,332 in attendance at a postgame ceremony on March 7, 1992.
Ledford, who called UK games for 39 years, told then-athletics director C.M. Newton he would speak only if he wanted to. “I didn’t know how shattered I would feel,” Ledford later said, “but I felt up to it.”
“Hello, band,” he said to the musicians straight ahead who had just played “My Old Kentucky Home” in his honor. “It’s a sad time for Frances (his wife) and for me,” he concluded, “but you fans have made it really a special and short 39 years and I’ll always love you, and God bless you.”
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Ledford had announced his retirement in June the year before, making the 1991 football and 1991-92 basketball seasons his last.
“This is a sad day for all Kentuckians because Cawood Ledford is as much a part of the University of Kentucky athletics program as was Adolph Rupp, as is blue and white and “My Old Kentucky Home,” Newton said.
It was also Senior Day for the basketball team, and fellow Eastern Kentucky native and senior captain Richie Farmer recalled growing up in the mountains listening to Ledford.
“He was Kentucky basketball to me,” Farmer said. “I know a lot of young kids have different kinds of heroes — some of them are basketball players, some of them are wrestlers, some of them are country singers — one of mine was Cawood Ledford.”
Ledford’s final call came three weeks later in the NCAA Tournament East Regional finals against Duke, considered by many to be the greatest college basketball game ever played. Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater deprived Kentucky of an upset and a trip to the Final Four.
“I always thought the best game I ever saw was when Kentucky beat Indiana (92-90) in Dayton in ’75,” Ledford said. “But this one would have topped it, if only that shot hadn’t gone in.”
Ledford started out as the color man on UK football broadcasts, then moved to play-by-play.
The first UK event he called was the Sept. 19, 1953, football game that pitted Bear Bryant’s Cats against Texas A&M.
He also announced boxing matches, the World Series, The Masters, Keeneland races, 22 Kentucky Derbys and 18 Final Fours for the CBS Radio Network.
Ledford, who chain-smoked and drank coffee from daylight until dark, critiqued himself after games. He listened to tapes of his performances, listing the things he did right or wrong. He would take the list with him to the next game, studying it before he went on the air.
“We all pick up bad habits,” Ledford once said. “We don’t know we’re doing these things unless we listen to ourselves.”
He said football was more difficult to broadcast than basketball. “There’s a lot more preparation (in football),” Ledford said. “And there are a lot more people involved. Basketball is a continuous motion thing. In football, you’ve got 22 guys doing nothing! And, then in the same split second, all 22 guys move! It all happens at once and then it absolutely stops. So, you need some help in football.”
Basketball was completely different the Harlan native said. “Basketball was made in heaven for radio. It’s just a good pace and you’re close. You can see the faces.”
Along with former equipment manager Bill Keightley, Ledford is the only person other than an ex-player or ex-coach to have a retired jersey hanging in Rupp Arena.
Ledford died of cancer Sept. 5, 2001, and four months later, before the annual game with rival Louisville and its first-year coach and former Wildcat Rick Pitino, the basketball court in Rupp Arena was named in his honor.