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Remembering Keith Jackson

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He was the voice of college football. And nobody did it better

KEITH JACKSON Getty archival photos

“Whoa, Nellie!”

The catchphrase of the greatest college football announcer will never be heard again. Keith Jackson passed away on Friday.

You hear of the passing of notables all the time. I know someone impacted my life when, upon hearing of their demise, my face tightens and I utter a soft, “Awww”. It happened when I heard of Jackson’s death.

For those of us of a certain age, we remember a time when there were, perhaps, two college football games on. In total. For the week. On Saturday afternoon. Period.

The NCAA had a contract with ABC and for most of my youth, the play-by-play was handled by Chris Schenkel. And Schenkel was good. He harkened back to a simpler, less frenetic time. I recall Schenkel using the phrase, “Ah, the pomp and pageantry of college football.” It sort of makes you think of guys in straw hats, raccoon coats, waving pennants, and driving in 1935 convertibles.

But he was no Keith Jackson. Jackson was listed as the best play-by-play announcer in a Bleacher Report story in 2013. It said “If the history of college football were a storybook, Keith Jackson would be its narrator.” And I won’t argue that. How many people can be credited with actually coining phrases? Jackson has a bunch. Besides his legendary “whoa, Nellie”, it was Keith Jackson who called the Rose Bowl “the granddaddy of them all”, who called Michigan Stadium “The Big House”, and who referred to linemen as “the big uglies”, something their mothers undoubtedly shuddered at but which each and every one of them wore as a badge of honor.

No game was unimportant for Jackson. And he never forgot that he wasn’t bigger than any game. Unlike some announcers who, in some ways, feel they are as much a part of the game as the players, Jackson called the game so that the viewer knew that you were watching something special. For Keith Jackson, it was all about the game.

There are few announcers today who are the wordsmiths that Jackson, Dick Enberg (who also passed away last December and for whom I uttered “awww”), and Vin Scully were. As Scully would say, they “painted the word picture” so that the viewer or listener knew exactly what was going on and what it looked and felt like to be there. You just don’t find that anymore.

It was Enberg who, in a 1998 story in The Chicago Tribune, said that Jackson was a great play-by-play guy because he was a great writer. “Young announcers ask me why certain play-by-play men are successful,” said NBC’s Dick Enberg, who also can turn a phrase. “I tell them because they learned how to write. Keith is a terrific writer. Keith’s phraseology is unique. And all those phrases are there because he uses them.”

Today, and with other announcers, Jackson’s homespun and colloquial phrases just wouldn’t work. But for Keith Jackson, who exuded the “rah rah” spirit of college football when he called a game, they were perfect. And he respected and loved that spirit, as he described what he would miss when he retired - the first time - from announcing college football. Again from that Chicago Tribune piece:

“What am I going to miss?” Jackson began. “I’m going to miss the hour before kickoff. It’s a special time if the producers leave you alone to enjoy it.

”The hour before kickoff is when the festival comes to be,” Jackson said, his voice growing softer for effect. “There’s no time more heroic than for the leader to lead his charges out of the tunnel and into the arena. It’s just like the pharaohs did with their men. There’s something about it that has been with mankind as long as there has been mankind.

”There’s the coming together of the crowd. Maybe friends haven’t seen each other for 10 years, or maybe two weeks, or maybe yesterday. But they’re all coming together for the festival.”

If you’re a college football fan, you have a recording in your head of Keith Jackson. You can hear his voice, whether calling a great run, describing a big hit, or just talking about the beauty of the setting that is college football. The voice was unique. And special. In 2010, the Big Ten Conference employed Jackson to host a 20-episode series called Big 10 Icons for the Big Ten Network. It highlighted what the Big 10 Conference considered the league’s top 50 student-athletes.

Jackson’s second and final retirement occurred in 2006, eight years after his first. A retirement from an incredible career that included announcing 16 Sugar Bowls and 15 Rose Bowls during his time at ABC. His last broadcast was the USC-Texas BCS Championship game from the Rose Bowl. And, if that wasn’t enough, the Rose Bowl’s radio and TV booths are named “The Keith Jackson Broadcast Center”.

The Sporting News described Keith Jackson saying he was “like Edward R. Murrow reporting on World War II, the voice of ultimate authority in college football.” And former Head Coach Lloyd Carr described Jackson as “a symbol of all the good things in college football”.

And they were right.