Among Keith Jackson’s many broadcasting skills lived that Sinatra-like sense of timing. If he had to leave us, which he did Friday night at age 89, four days after the end of the college football season seems about right.
Few telecasters have become as identified with a single sport to a national audience as Jackson with college football. The reason might be that he began in an era when every game wasn’t televised, and we had only a few channels from which to choose. It may be that he served as the play-by-play man of the top games as college football soared to new heights in American popularity.
Or it may be it was as simple as Jackson was so good on the air.
His folksy, pull-up-a-chair voice told you a story, but he also thrived in the biggest moments. Take the 1994 Colorado 27-26 victory at Michigan, when Kordell Stewart threw a 64-yard Hail Mary that Buff receiver Blake Anderson tipped to teammate Michael Westbrook for the winning touchdown.
Three wideouts at the top of the picture. Stewart, with time. Lets it go! He’s got three people down there! The ball’s up in the air, caught! Touchdown! Caught by Westbrook for a touchdown! Incredible!
And then, 25 seconds of silence. It was never about Jackson. It was about the moment.
There is no time remaining. (Seven more seconds of silence). There are no flags on the field. Only despair for the Maize and Blue, joy and exultation for the Buffaloes of Colorado.
That’s a graduate class in broadcast journalism.
By that time Jackson had been calling college football games for more than 40 years. Jackson called NFL games, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the Olympics and you-name-it on ABC Wide World of Sports. But he was as integral to college football as the Big House and Ralphie.
I had dinner with Jackson and his beloved wife Turi on the eve of the first BCS championship game, Tennessee’s 23-17 defeat of Florida State in the 1999 Fiesta Bowl. As college football entered a new era of determining a champion, Jackson decided to bow out. He had turned 70 during the ’98 season, he had been calling sports events since his junior year at Washington State, and all he wanted to do was fish and play golf with his bride.
The point of the dinner was to interview Jackson and write a first-person farewell to the game for Sports Illustrated, then my employer. We had a delightful evening. It always struck me as odd that Jackson became identified with down-homeisms such as “big uglies” and “Whoa, Nellie!” I knew him as a courtly man with a reserve that was part Southern manners — he grew up in Georgia — and part shyness. That night, even though he did me the favor of granting the interview, he wouldn’t let me pay the check. He had tolerated being feted that season, but he never took the attention to heart.
“It was a little much to hear myself being called the king of college football since I’m someone who, like Paul Bryant, grew up riding in a two-horse wagon,” Jackson said that night. The Bear’s personal friends called him Paul.
Jackson had a code. He did things the way he thought they should be done. He took heat after the 1978 Gator Bowl because he did not make any comment when Ohio State coach Woody Hayes slugged Clemson linebacker Charlie Baumann. Jackson didn’t see it, and even when the producer in the truck told him what happened, he wouldn’t tell America what he hadn’t seen with his own eyes.
Maybe that’s why America trusted him so much. As much as Jackson mythologized men like Bryant just by doing his job, as much as Stewart’s play lives forever on the internet, Jackson never bought into the myth. He saw the sport’s imperfections, too. He called for the players “who produce all the money” to receive a stipend, nearly two decades before the NCAA approved it.
“In and of itself, college football has no redeeming qualities,” Jackson told me that night. “It’s what you’re doing when you’re 40 that matters. You don’t have to be a damn All-America. All you have to do is test yourself and try. The game gives you that choice. If you ever played football, you learned never to give up. Give up, you’re dead.”
Jackson didn’t give up after that dinner and that Fiesta Bowl. In fact, he unretired shortly before the 1999 season and worked another seven years, almost exclusively on the west coast, near his homes in Los Angeles and British Columbia.
When he retired for good, his timing remained as impeccable as when he called the Stewart-to-Westbrook Hail Mary. Jackson stepped out after what many consider the greatest game of the BCS/Playoff era, Texas’ 41-38 upset of USC in the Rose Bowl.
An iconic call from an iconic broadcaster.
We remember Keith Jackson with one of his most memorable calls. pic.twitter.com/Hl8b1mrigy
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 13, 2018
The sport continued on. It always does. He may not have relished being viewed as the king of college football, but the public felt what it felt with good reason. Of all the coaches and players I have met in covering the game over four decades, few gave me the inner glow I felt when Keith Jackson returned a greeting and used my name.