Keith Jackson, Legendary Voice of College Football, Dies at 89

Keith Jackson - H 2015
AP Images

Keith Jackson - H 2015

In four decades at ABC, the Georgia native also did the first season of 'Monday Night Football,' 10 Olympics, World Series games — and log-rolling.

Keith Jackson, the sonorous voice of college football on ABC whose folksy, rumblin,’ stumblin’ descriptions of the game made him a favorite of viewers for decades, has died. He was 89.

Jackson, who did play-by-play on the inaugural season of Monday Night Football before giving way to Frank Gifford, died late Friday night in Los Angeles, his family told ESPN.

The Georgia native, who spent four decades with ABC, retired after the 1999 Fiesta Bowl but returned to the college football booth the following fall, mostly sticking close to his home in Sherman Oaks. His last broadcast assignment was a doozy, the 2006 Rose Bowl game in which Texas, led by quarterback Vince Young, downed undefeated USC to bring home the national championship.

Jackson was the first to coin the University of Michigan’s 112,000-seat stadium “The Big House,” and he referred to the Rose Bowl game — which he did for many years on New Year’s Day — as “The Granddaddy of Them All.”

With his drawl and homespun style, Jackson was a warm, comfortable addition to America’s living rooms, coming to you each autumn from such fabled college outposts as Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Happy Valley in Pennsylvania.

“Enormous sacrifice and discipline are required to get ready for the season and every game,” he said. “Each Saturday offers its own special excitement. College football is special because it can boast of four generations of fans, something you do not see in the pro game."

To him, a burly offensive lineman was a “hoss.” (At a commanding 6-foot-3, he was a hoss himself.) One of his most famous phrases, “Whoa, Nellie!” was taken from his grandfather, Jefferson Davis Robison, who used to blurt out that expression when he was angry.

“The best way to get somebody’s attention,” he said, “is with a little quiet and then yell at ’em.”

Jackson also called several World Series games and covered events in 10 Olympics; he was on hand when swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in 1972, when Bruce Jenner took the decathlon in 1976 and when speed skater Eric Heiden raked in five golds in 1980. Jackson also worked alongside Bill Russell on NBA games and with Dick Vitale on college hoops.

One of the more notable games he did was the New York Mets’ 16-inning victory over the Houston Astros in the clinching game of the National League Championship Series — the last baseball game he would ever do.

Asked once about his job, he said: “You know what? You gotta feel like you’re in cotton doing this for a living.”

And for Billy Wilder, Jackson got to call a Browns-Vikings game for CBS that saw a Cleveland running back bowl over a sideline cameraman (Jack Lemmon) in Municipal Stadium at the start of the hilarious The Fortune Cookie (1966).

“It looks like Boom Boom Jackson has not only racked up 55 yards but also one of our cameramen,” the announcer tells the 30 million TV viewers watching.

The son of a dirt farmer, Jackson was born on Oct. 18, 1928, and raised outside Carrollton, Georgia, some 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. He served as a mechanic in the Marines Corps, spending a couple of years stationed in China, then used the G.I. Bill to attend Washington State University, where he decided on a career in broadcasting (following in the footsteps of another WSU alum, Edward R. Murrow).

Jackson called his first college football game in 1952 for the 5,000-watt campus radio station (Stanford, led by Bob Mathias, beat WSU) and landed a job at KOMO-TV in Seattle, where he did the evening news and served as a sportscaster.

Jackson’s network television debut came in 1957 when he appeared on NBC’s Wide, Wide World, a popular Sunday afternoon documentary series that was hosted by Dave Garroway. He worked with Ted Koppel at ABC Radio as a news correspondent in Los Angeles (he covered the Watts riots) and launched a sports talk show on “news and conversation” station KABC.

Jackson announced his first college football game for ABC (Clemson vs. Duke) in 1966, when he joined the TV sports division full-time. Later, he did everything from demolition derby to log-rolling on Wide World of Sports.

When Roone Arledge was unable to secure the services of Gifford, who was under contract at CBS, he turned to Jackson in 1970 to handle play-by-play on Monday Night Football alongside Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. (Gifford would join the telecast the following year.)

In one of his season’s most ignominious moments, Jackson and Meredith were forced to go it alone during a November game in chilly Philadelphia when an inebriated Cosell vomited on Meredith’s cowboy boots near the end of the first half and was unable to continue.

Amid a stretch of winning five straight Sportscaster of the Year awards, Jackson replaced Chris Schenkel in 1974 as ABC’s No. 1 man on college football. His broadcast partners included Bud Wilkinson, Ara Parseghian, Frank Broyles and Bob Griese.

He and his wife, Turi Ann, met in 1951 when both were students at Washington State, and they married on campus in 1952. A stranger once approached her and said, “You must be Nellie.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include their children Melanie, Lindsey and Christopher.

"For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football," Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said in a statement. "When you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game. Keith was a true gentleman and a memorable presence."

In September 2014, Washington State honored him when it renamed a communication building the Keith M. Jackson Hall at The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication. He donated more than $1 million to his alma mater.

“I am delighted to the bottom of my soul that today could happen,” Jackson said.