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Reliving Keith Jackson’s perfect call at the end of the perfect college football game

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Ahead of 2017’s Texas vs. USC reunion, SB Nation spoke to the three people who called the 2006 Rose Bowl masterpiece with the legend: Dan Fouts, Holly Rowe, and Todd Harris.

You remember the play, don’t you? Vince Young, Texas’ superstar quarterback, scampers to the end zone to end USC’s 34-game winning streak and bring a national championship to the Horns for the first time in over three decades. It’s universally considered one of the greatest endings and most beloved games ever.

But do you remember the soundtrack to that famous play? Dan Fouts does.

“I can recite it to you,” Fouts told SB Nation. “‘Fourth down, for the national title. Young, going for the corner ... he’s got it.’”

On that night, Fouts was shoulder-to-shoulder with broadcasting great Keith Jackson. Along with the parade, the San Gabriel mountains, and New Year’s Day, nothing is more synonymous with the Rose Bowl than Jackson is.

His Roopville, Ga. twang turned Lendale White’s last name into “Hoo-wite” right before the USC back was stopped on a critical fourth down. Trojan defenders weren’t tired in the fourth quarter; they were “beleaguered,” per Jackson. The Longhorns didn’t have two timeouts left on that final drive; they had two “times out.” USC was “Southern California.” Such was the dignity of his speech.

Part of the call’s greatness: how understated it was. Play-by-play announcers aren’t supposed to be bigger than the game.

The man who coined the phrase “The Grandaddy of Them All” always spoke with reverence about this particular venue. This was how he opened the telecast:

The royalty of college football is in assembly at the Rose Bowl, 2006. Bush, Leinart, Young, and their legion. By consensus, the teams rank 1 and 2, with nary a whisper of dissent. The site for this ultimate showdown in college football is one of the most famed arenas of sport: the Rose Bowl, where the festival of postseason play was started more than 100 years ago in the city of Pasadena, California.

Jackson’s colleagues spoke of his humility, which showed from beginning to end of that game.

“I can remember it clear as day, ‘cause I was standing in the end zone on the goal line,” Harris said. “And I saw Vince Young scramble, and I thought, ‘They’re not gonna get to him,’ and Keith just: ‘He’s got it,’ and he laid out. And the fans — half the fans in the burnt orange and the USC fans were just dumbfounded — and he just laid out and didn’t yap over it and just let the moment play out.”

Both Fouts and Harris said that’s the way it’s supposed to be done; a model for how young broadcasters should call big moments.

“It’s television,” Fouts said. “People can see. Too many announcers now have got to fill the words when they’re not needed.”

Jackson will tell you that the stage is for the players, not some “fat-butted announcer trying to make a name for himself.”

Since 1966, Jackson had been ABC’s voice to go along with the college football things “people can see.”

He’d done just about everything you could do, as far as broadcasting was concerned, but his love was college football. In 1998, Jackson retired for the first time, near the age of 70.

He was talked back into it by ABC, which allowed him to only call games on the West Coast, making travel easier for him and his wife from their Southern California home. He mostly handled Pac-10 games in his second tour of duty, typically paired with Fouts and Harris.

“That might be the best crew that I’ve ever worked with, as far as director, producer, stats people, everything,” Harris said. “The camera people, the audio people. And then to be mixed into that, I literally felt that I’d been elevated to the skyrise penthouse. Keith is what he is on TV. He’s a class act.”

Fouts recalled broadcast booths with lines outside, as people waited to “come in and kiss the pope’s ring.”

Even the traditional Thursday pregame sitdowns with players and coaches had new meaning.

“I remember when Alabama came to the Rose Bowl [Stadium] to play UCLA [in 2000], and several of the Alabama players came and had their sit-down with Keith Jackson,” Harris said. “And I remember distinctly, one of the tailbacks, I remember he walked out of the interview with Keith, and he said to a bunch of his buddies that were waiting in the hall, ‘I just spoke with the voice of God.’”

Rowe only worked with Jackson twice: that Rose Bowl, plus a bowl in San Diego earlier that postseason, so she could work into the crew’s rhythm. Rowe had been added after Lynn Swann left to run for political office.

“I’ll never forget, I had to do a pregame hit, and I tossed it back up to the booth, and I was so terrified. Do I say, ‘Back to you Mr. Jackson?’” Rowe said. “I didn’t know what to call him. I was so scared. I definitely had grown up listening to him my whole life. He was college football to me.”

Rowe calls it, to this day, the most hyped game she’d ever seen.

But the noise was drowned inside the Texas and USC camps. Reggie Bush, Young, and Matt Leinart were mythical on their campuses. Mack Brown and Pete Carroll were patriarchs in their prime, returning swaggering success to blueblood programs.

Texas had won 24 of its last 25 games. USC had won 34 straight. Big stages were nothing new. The Trojans call Los Angeles home anyway, and the Longhorns had played in the 2005 Rose Bowl win over Michigan, an epic game in its own right.

“I would just go to practice by myself and talk with Mack Brown quietly, and you know, we did kinda go about our prep in much of the same fashion, but then the hype around the game was swirling,” Rowe said. “So it was a very unique — it felt like you were in this little, quiet, private bubble, prepping for the game amid chaos.”

Harris and Fouts had worked with USC multiple times, and the trio had called Texas’ win over Oklahoma in Dallas. Brown told SB Nation that Jackson requested to do that game, with at least a thought that it would be his last Red River Shootout.

“Not one time in my many years of having Keith call our games did he ever say anything that we asked him not to say,” Brown said. “He was very quick to say, ‘I would like to have information. I would like to know backgrounds, but also tell me how far I can go.’”

The crew’s prep week in the L.A. area included watching practices, where Brown recalled seeing Jackson with Texas coaching giant Darrell Royal, whose name is on the Longhorns’ stadium, and country singer Mac Davis.

Rowe had memories of going to the Tournament of Roses Parade with her father and walking to the game. On the eve of Texas-USC, she had her time with the legend.

“It was just me and Keith Jackson up in the press booth looking out over the field,” Rowe said. “And him telling me stories about games that he had called, in that booming voice. And it’s just this private moment between me and Keith Jackson and him telling me football stories. That will go down as one of the greatest moments of my career.”

For all of the pomp he brought to the proceedings, Jackson reverted to a younger man as kickoff approached.

Some of his final words before toe met leather: “My only expression is, we’re gonna play football, yippee. I thought we’d never get here.”

Fouts had spent five seasons with Jackson, sandwiched around a stint at Monday Night Football. Jackson had done play-by-play for that series’ first season, and when the two had talked over breakfast one day about Fouts leaving for the NFL, Jackson said, “Ya gotta go.” They reunited in 2002 and did the BCS Championship between Miami and Ohio State.

Before Texas-USC, Jackson hadn’t announced he was calling it quits, but Fouts had an inkling.

“That was the tough part about the assignment, because here is the greatest college football — the voice of college football,” Fouts said. “This was gonna be his last game. The thing about it was, it may have been his best game ever, too. He was all over it. He was perfect that night.”

Right before Young’s Longhorns lined up on that fourth down, Jackson said with a chuckle and a nod to his Bible Belt roots: “I kinda feel like Job. I’m too old for this.” When it was over, Young’s game wasn’t just good; the QB had “stepped beyond the pale.”

As a USC player knelt in the corner of the end zone and confetti rained, Jackson pointed out the “agony of defeat,” just like former colleague Jim McKay did in the famous opening to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, where Jackson had served as a reporter and announcer. Jackson’s last telecast ended with a bridge to the beginning.

The broadcast crew that Harris referred to as a family then sent its granddaddy out in style.

“We sat in the parking lot with all our crew after the game, and Keith had been kind enough to bring a case of his favorite wine, and we kinda unwound,” Fouts said. “We were well aware of the significance of the game.

“I felt really good about Keith’s performance and the performance of our entire crew. As a broadcaster, that’s really what you cared about most. How your team did, not the two teams on the field. Our presentation of that game was as good as the game itself.”

Part of his call from his final game now graces the elevator to the Rose Bowl’s TV booth.

Jason Kirk/SB Nation

Jackson’s call of Young’s TD will remain in posterity for another reason.

That was the last true Rose Bowl to double as a national championship game, for the foreseeable future. The BCS would add a standalone championship to its rotation following 2006. The 2013 season’s title game was at the venue, but wasn’t technically a Rose Bowl. The Rose is now in the College Football Playoff’s semifinal rotation. The Rose Bowl is still special, but it’s no longer for all the marbles, like it was that night.

Harris has had plenty of gigs, but if you gave him the choice of starring in the booth on a smaller game or taking the sideline for a Jackson broadcast, he’d pick Jackson every time.

“I know when I get older, I’ll be one of those guys that people will say, ‘Hey, did you work with Howard Cosell?’ Harris said. “And I’ll say, ‘No, I worked with Keith Jackson. He was the voice of college football, and I’m a better person for it.’”