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By Mike Kupper,
Keith Jackson, the folksy voice of college football who for decades wove backwoods wit throughout his Saturday afternoon broadcasts on ABC, died Jan. 12. He was 89.
ESPN first announced his death. Other details were not immediately available.
In a 54-year broadcasting career, Mr. Jackson covered a wide variety of sports for radio and television, but he was best known as ABC’s voice of NCAA football — and for the homespun phrases he used.
To Mr. Jackson, linemen were not guards and tackles, they were “the big uglies.” Running backs did not drop the ball; there was a “fuumm-bull!” Of an undersized player, he might say, “He’s a little-bitty thing, a bantam rooster. But he’s young. If he keeps eatin’ his corn bread, he’ll be man-sized some day.”
And, of course, there was “Whoa, Nellie!” — his signature phrase.
Or was it?
Strangers in restaurants, airports, stadium parking lots and downtown streets would sidle up to Mr. Jackson and bellow, “Whoa, Nellie!” However, he always maintained that he might have used the phrase a time or two early in his career but that mostly it was the work of impersonators, primarily fellow broadcaster Roy Firestone, who were responsible for the spread of the phrase.
Despite his protests, however, Mr. Jackson enthusiastically proclaimed, “Whoa, Nellie!” in a beer commercial late in his career.
He was so entrenched in college football that ABC would not let him retire the first time he tried. He announced before the 1998 season that it would be his last because, at 70, he was tired of getting on airplanes.
But he was back in the booth in the fall of 1999, lured by the network with a promise of keeping him close to his home near Los Angeles by restricting his assignments to the Pacific time zone. He finally called it a career after the national championship victory by the University of Texas over the University of Southern California at the Rose Bowl in early 2006.
If Mr. Jackson was highly regarded by viewers and listeners, he was equally respected by many coaches.
“He’s my hero,” former Iowa coach Hayden Fry once told the Associated Press. “He stands for all the good things associated with college football.”
Keith Max Jackson was born Oct. 18, 1928, near Carrollton, Ga. He practiced broadcasting as a youngster growing up on a farm.
“My grandma once told my mama,” he recalled, “ ‘the kid’s walking crazy around the cornfield, talking to himself.’ I was calling ballgames.”
Mr. Jackson served a four-year stint in the Marine Corps and was attending Washington State University on the GI Bill, studying criminology and political science, when he listened to a student broadcast of a football game. He reportedly thought he could do better, said as much to the professor in charge of the broadcasting program, and was handed a tape recorder and told to go cover something. He chose a high school basketball game.
“They turned the lights out at halftime,” he told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 1999. “I didn’t have the foggiest idea what to do, so I just told stories.”
By 1952, Mr. Jackson was calling Washington State games on the school station. After graduating in 1954, he went to work at KOMO-TV in Seattle.
His proudest achievement there was accompanying the University of Washington rowing crew to the Soviet Union, where he became the first American to call a live sports event in the country despite serious hassles over equipment, censorship and accessibility to the site.
Mr. Jackson joined the ABC radio network in 1965, freelancing TV assignments before settling in permanently at ABC when Roone Arledge needed someone to call a parachute-jumping segment for “Wide World of Sports” in 1968.
ABC quickly put him on college football and the fit was nearly perfect. After announcing his retirement in 1998, he was honored wherever he went to work games. At the University of Michigan, the marching band spelled out, “THANKS KEITH.”
On the air, Mr. Jackson kept his opinions to himself, concentrating on the action. His broadcasting philosophy was a simple one: “Amplify, clarify and punctuate, and let the viewer draw his or her own conclusion.”
He was roundly criticized for ignoring an ugly incident late in the 1978 Gator Bowl game, when Ohio State coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson player Charlie Baumann after Baumann had intercepted a pass near the Ohio State sideline.
Recalling the scene for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1999, Mr. Jackson said that because the sideline was crowded with players and officials, “the fact of the matter is, I didn’t see [the punch]. . . . If people go back and listen, I said, ‘Let’s look at the tape and see what happened.’ ”
Mr. Jackson rose above that incident, later winning an Emmy and being inducted into two sportscasting halls of fame. Besides his college football work, he called college and pro basketball games, major league baseball, auto racing and the Summer and Winter Olympics. In 1970, he was the first play-by-play announcer for the “Monday Night Football” NFL broadcast on ABC.
Survivors include his wife, three children and three grandchildren.
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