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6 memories of Keith Jackson, the man who made every town a college football town

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The sport’s greatest voice passed away at the age of 89.

KICKOFF CLASSIC Photo by Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty Images

Keith Jackson created the map of college football for the rest of us.

by Spencer Hall

Keith Jackson could wander. It was more fun when he did. He did it more frequently as he got older. He would note a lineman’s big ass or pause in the middle of an otherwise flawless, minimalist broadcast to say, “My, oh my, have airplanes changed the way we lived.” Sometimes the judge, in the middle of an otherwise perfectly overseen trial, would stop and ask the plaintiff about their hydrangeas.

The wanderings were rare. He was, more than anything, intensely focused. At his best, he felt like a medium. An experience came through him, not around him or in spite of him, and always, always in perfect rhythm. Listen to Desmond Howard’s punt return against Ohio State.

Do you hear how innately rhythmic his voice is, both in the lilting lulls during the kick, and then when he quickens the pace and — instead of narrating — punctuates the moment with single notes? How he works with the crowd exploding around him, not against it? Jackson’s delivery came in triplets when he got excited, always falling downhill off a big first syllable, the perfect blend of two gifts he received early in his life: a burly accent straight out of Roopville, Georgia, and a polish added by years as a broadcaster in radio and television.

That training meant calling everything ABC threw at him, but college football was different. One of Jackson’s gifts that made him so, so good at college football games was to make the viewer feel at home wherever the game might be. Ann Arbor became the Big House, Nebraska became the friendliest town in the world, and even beneath “the broad shoulders of the San Gabriel Mountains” you could feel at home, because ... well Keith did, didn’t he? Nowhere wasn’t home on a Saturday if Keith was calling it, because he had a map with a single line connecting everything.

This was all part of a whole to him. The things with names had definite pronunciations only Keith could nail; the things without names would be given them in time. The language of this sport — right down to the love for the great, the ugly, the undersized, the local, and the brutal — is his.

I can’t drive that point home enough. The words that come out of our mouths and onto a screen or the page about this sport aren’t bad imitations of Grantland Rice or Dan Jenkins. For a half century, the lexicographer of the sport was Keith Jackson, and everyone else came in at a distant second at best. Everything I have ever written about the sport contains a deranged, badly degraded permutation of his diction and cadence. It is base DNA, and for at least two generations, the rest is just mutation after mutation.

One more gift: he never lost his accent. I swear it came out 3 percent harder when he called college games. It made him a welcoming, unintimidating guest from a definite somewhere, but never so much of a somewhere as to overwhelm or exclude.

Looking back, it should have come out a little bit harder when Keith Jackson called a college football game. Accents always come out harder at home.

He made every college town sound like his college town.

by Brian Floyd

My favorite clip of Keith Jackson isn’t a call or a moment, but a monologue.

Jackson, nearing the end of his career, waxes poetically about Pullman, home of Washington State University. This was 2002, my senior year of high school. I grew up in a family of Cougs, rooting for the team, but had never seen Pullman.

It didn’t fully make sense until years later, but the feelings of nostalgia in Jackson’s voice could just as easily be my own, years after graduating. It’s the best description of Pullman I’ve heard.

Jackson made his way to study broadcasting in the middle of wheat fields in Washington. He took a path many from Washington State hope to take: local radio, then local news in Seattle, then toward the pinnacle of college football broadcasting at ABC.

He called plenty of iconic moments, but above that was his ability to set a scene, stakes, and surroundings. He was describing Pullman in the clip above, but could just as easily rip off a soliloquy about part of Nebraska, California, Iowa, or Louisiana. He was great at setting up the moment, then letting it unfold for you without too much of him — maybe with a “Whoa, Nellie.”

A kid from a dirt farm who went to college at a land-grant school in Washington was a perfect voice for his era. He was an alumni of my school, and someone we continue to hold up with pride. But he could just as easily have been one of yours.

All his little references to places and nicknames were his way of telling you that you belonged.

by Bill Connelly

In 1998, when I was a Mizzou sophomore, the Tigers had their best team in almost 20 years. They went to play top-ranked Ohio State in mid-September, and nearly 20 years later, I only remember a few things about the game. I remember current Mizzou head coach Barry Odom forcing a Joe Germaine fumble in the first half, that it was returned for a touchdown, that the Tigers led by one at halftime, and that Ohio State had the Mizzou option swallowed up in the second half and pulled away for an easy win.

Most of all, I remember “a burly bunch from Boone County.”

That’s what Keith Jackson called Mizzou in the pregame, and I not only remember the phrase nearly 20 years later, I remember how it made me feel. I was absolutely giddy. My team was not only in a game important enough to get KEITH JACKSON on the call, but he had a nickname for us. He knew where we lived!

He was the best at the little wink. Keith always gave you an extra piece of information to let you know that he was paying attention, that your team mattered. Maybe it was the county in which your school resides, the river that runs by your campus or stadium, or the home town of your left guard.

He was always intent on letting the game be the star, preferring to let the action unfold. But when he set the table, he made sure you knew you were welcome at it.

For most of us, the legend begins and ends with the Rose Bowl.

by Richard Johnson

The last time I saw Keith on television, it was in the most fitting setting: the Rose Bowl broadcast booth, alongside Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit. It was inside the press box that bears his name at the venue he’d dubbed The Grandaddy of Them All, the same place where he called Peyton Manning’s first game ...

... and Bo Schembechler’s last.

That place which was the backdrop to the first time I saw him, on the night he delivered the soundtrack to the greatest game I’ve ever seen: Texas over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl (I interviewed his colleagues from that night for this story). I was too young to appreciate the history behind the mic. All I knew was his voice was cool and the game was awesome.

Jackson was the voice of the sport for so many. His speech was folksy and colloquial, yet authoritative. That twangy baritone rumbled until the pitch had to change to announce a “fuuuuuuumble” or to tell Desmond Howard “goodbye” before saying “hello, Heisman.”

How is it that the voice of God could sound just like a lovable country bumpkin?

I remember being at my parents’ house, cruising their omnibus cable package earlier this summer. An old regular season game was playing. It was Ohio State and someone else from the 1970s. The teams didn’t matter. What mattered was Jackson on the call. I’ve fallen into Jackson YouTube holes time and time again. I wasn’t able to appreciate him much live, but I was able to view him as a piece of college football history.

His last Rose Bowl in attendance — Penn State and Southern California, as he would have called the Trojans, did battle in an epic game — wasn’t enough, clearly. The Grandaddy raised the stakes in 2018 for Georgia and Oklahoma’s epic Playoff bout. It is a use of poetic license by me, a writer, to say this, and I don’t care: the Rose Bowl saved its best for Jackson’s last.

We don’t know whether he was able to watch the game. But as Sony Michel crossed the goal line and the team from Jackson’s home state won in dramatic fashion, I hope he gave a private “Whoa, Nellie” for old time’s sake.

He helped make a regional game irresistible to the rest of the country, whether he wanted to or not.

by Jason Kirk

“Kids growing up in the Midwest, playing football in the street, in the snow and the mud, dream of someday being good enough to play in the Rose Bowl. That’s the ultimate in college football for the Midwestern kid.”

That’s Bo Schembechler, who’d announced the 1990 Rose would be his last. His 194–47–5 record as Michigan’s coach had included seven losses in the Rose, each by 10 or fewer points. The Wolverines entered Pasadena with an outside shot at his only national title, if Colorado and Miami lost and voters overlooked Notre Dame’s head-to-head edge to give him a lifetime-achievement No. 1.

But USC won, thanks to a young man with a different lifelong attachment to the Rose.

After scoring the winning touchdown, celebrating with teammates and packing up his hardware, Ricky Ervins did something that probably no other Rose Bowl player of the game has ever done.

He walked home.

Unique among Rose Bowl most valuable players, Ervins grew up less than a mile from the famous stadium, parked cars there on New Year’s Day, and was a star at Pasadena Muir High.

Jackson followed his call of the winning score in the “old-fashioned donnybrook” with a characteristic 53 seconds of silence. The game no longer had national stakes by that point, yet it still meant everything.

The Rose would spend much of the ‘90s delaying the BCS’ institution, preferring to preserve its ties to only two conferences. Jackson’s career would end in a Rose won by a team from neither of the game’s traditional regions (with some people inferring that he hoped for “Southe’n California” to beat the intruders). The last game he attended would be a traditional Midwest vs. West Coast classic, momentarily untainted by the Playoff. And the final Rose of his lifetime would be won in its first-ever overtime by a team from his distant birth state against another interloper whose name you can’t say without hearing him: “OAK-lahomaaa.”

It took us decades to decide Pasadena sometimes belongs to all of America. Jackson didn’t square with the idea, saying the 2003 game missing out on the top three Big Ten/Pac-10 teams “aggravates the hell out of us on the West Coast.”

But of course he was part of the venue’s national legend all along:

“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,” [Todd] 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.’”

That Michigan-USC Rose is the first non-Tecmo football game I remember actually paying attention to, including the ACC games I’d attended and Pop Warner games I’d played in.

“There’s something great about a cool TV grandpa who wanted nothing more than for me to like a fun thing.”

by Dan Rubenstein

My parents didn’t raise me with any sort of college football allegiances, but my dad loves the sport, and we watched a ton on Saturdays. Growing up in LA, that meant a lot of Pac-10, every Rose Bowl, and whatever huge game was on that week. That meant Keith Jackson, who was so essential, I just assumed he was the broadcaster for every college football game. In my mind, the guy who called games was folksy and said, “WHOOAAAAA, NELLIE,” every so often, and no other sport had that.

My favorite two games in the mid-to-late ‘90s were Florida-Florida State (alternated between CBS and ABC because of TV deals) and the Rose Bowl. I loved Florida State’s speed, always had my FSU gear on (3,000 miles away from Tallahassee with zero connection to the school), and needed Keith Jackson to get way more excited about Warrick Dunn than he did Danny Wuerffel.

The Rose Bowl meant going to a neighbor’s house for a New Year’s Day party, where the kids ran around or played video games, some of the adults hung out around the kitchen, and the rest of them (plus me) planted in the living room with the game on one of those thick, projector-type square screens. I don’t have one specific favorite call or moment in those Rose Bowls. My happy place was watching a huge game being played under a warm sky on green grass, with Keith welcoming us into the new year chuckling about the pure size of an enormous lineman or enjoying a big catch in a way that made it feel like he’d never seen one like that, even though he had.

These are all things that, unfortunately, I haven’t really thought about until this weekend. The sport changes quickly enough that we’re all just trying to keep up, and it’s pretty terrific that a more deliberate, warmer voice retired RIGHT before social media began parsing every moment, quote, tweet, whatever.

So with a second to think about him, there’s something especially great about a cool TV grandpa who wanted nothing more than for me to like a fun thing for being fun. That includes chuckling about an enormous lineman.