Keith Jackson, Legendary Hall of Fame Broadcaster, Dead at 89
Keith Jackson, the legendary broadcaster whose voice became synonymous with big-time college football and more, passed away on Friday evening at the age of 89. He was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2009 and, if imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Keith Jackson was perhaps the most flattered broadcaster ever to sit in a booth.
A versatile play-by-play man who covered everything from baseball to boxing, his distinctive Southern twang was most associated with college football. He took the ABC announce booth every football Saturday for more than 30 years, during which his trademark “Whoa, Nellie!” became the stuff of legend.
“There isn’t a football announcer in the world that at some point or another doesn’t try to imitate Keith Jackson,” said former ABC Sports VP Dennis Lewin. “That’s the greatest compliment you can have, when everybody’s taking a little piece of you and imitating it.”
“Keith became the gold standard for the announcing of college-football games,” said legendary ABC/NBC producer/director Don Ohlmeyer in 2009 when Jackson was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. “Some of his phrases have become the stock and trade of the business. He’s the standard by which others are measured.”
Born on a west Georgia farm in 1928, Jackson grew up listening to sports on the radio and riding a horse to school. He spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps before enrolling at Washington State College, where he suggested to a member of the broadcast-school faculty that he might do a better job calling the school’s football games than the current talent. That faculty member handed Jackson a tape recorder and asked him to prove it.
Prove it he did, beginning with his very first broadcast, a 1952 WSC-Stanford football game on the 5,000-W campus radio station.
After graduating in 1954 with a degree in speech communications, Jackson spent 10 years at KOMO radio in Seattle and in 1958 he did the first live sports broadcast from the Soviet Union to the U.S., a crew race between the University of Washington and a Soviet team. In 1964, he moved to ABC Radio West as sports director and continued freelance work with ABC Sports before becoming full-time in 1966. He also worked as a radio news correspondent during those years, covered the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, and in 1965 worked a baseball telecast with Jackie Robinson in the afternoon and covered the Watts riots that same night in Los Angeles. He did his first college-football play-by-play for ABC in 1966 and soon thereafter became known as the nation’s college-football voice.
“When I was a boy, we didn’t have all this pro stuff,” he said in an interview with SVG in 2009. “All professional sports of any consequence were located in the big cities in the North, so those of us who enjoyed the game of football followed college football.”
Jackson enjoyed college football on the air for more than 30 years, drawing viewers in with his folksy style of announcing. His entertaining and original lingo immediately won fans over, no matter what school they supported.
“Not only is he a classically talented football play-by-play announcer, he’s got that quality that you can’t teach people: he’s very likable on the air,” Ohlmeyer says. “He’s got one of the great sets of pipes in the business.”
Jackson always captured the atmosphere and pageantry of the game, punctuating his enthusiastic play-by-play with endearing terms like “the big uglies,” referring to linemen, and the unparalleled “Whoa, Nellie!” With Keith Jackson in the booth, a football game immediately became an event.
“It was always fun to be in Keith’s presence in a college-football town the night or two before the game,” said former ABC Sports producer/director Doug Wilson, “especially when you were up in the Northwest, where he went to college. He walked on water up there.”
Jackson never strayed from his Southern roots, however, keeping stardom at arm’s length. Whenever road life brought the ABC Sports team to Los Angeles, he always invited the entire crew to his home for a cookout.
“Keith is as down-home, great a human being as you’ll ever come across,” Lewin said. “Everybody who ever worked with Keith would run through a wall for him, because he would do it for you.”
Despite his Mr. College Football moniker, Jackson’s repertoire was not limited to the gridiron. He also called NBA and college basketball; Major League Baseball, including eight World Series; boxing; auto racing; and the USFL. He was the voice of the 1972 Olympics during the Mark Spitz show. All together, he called 10 Summer and Winter Olympic Games and was a regular on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, for which he traveled to 31 different countries.
When the NFL granted ABC the first prime-time slate of games, Jackson did the play-by-play the first season of Monday Night Football, working with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. In addition, Jackson worked 11 World Series and League Championship Series in baseball, NBA and college basketball, boxing, all three seasons of the USFL and auto racing — NASCAR, USAC and Formula One, including seven Grand Prix of Monaco races.
“I haven’t missed anything except ice hockey,” Jackson said. “And they didn’t have ice hockey in the South when I grew up.”
In 1999, Jackson became the first broadcaster to be awarded the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame Gold Medal, its highest honor. The same year, he was named to the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and The Edward R. Murrow School of Communication at Washington State University awarded their alumnus with the Murrow Award for top leaders in the communication industry. Jackson received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association and he was also named National Sportscaster of the Year five consecutive times, by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association. Jackson is also in the National Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame, the NSSA Hall of Fame and the Southern California Sports Broadcasters Hall of Fame. In 2009, he was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Jackson spent his retirement years in Sherman Oaks, CA, with his wife of of more than 60 years, Turi Ann Johnsen. As of 2009 he had not been to a football game since his final broadcast, the 2006 Rose Bowl.
“I was in the business 54 years,” he said. “I only had two real jobs, one wife, and no debts, which proves I don’t know a damn thing about show business.”
Perhaps not, but, in six decades broadcasting sports, Jackson proved he knew plenty about being a husband, father, friend, coworker, and as likable an announcer as has ever taken the microphone.