Legendary sports commentator Keith Jackson, best known for his folksy manner and unique sayings on college football during his 40 years with ABC Sports, passed away Friday evening at the age of 89.
Jackson worked a wide variety of events for ABC’s Wide World of Sports as well as Major League Baseball, NBA and 10 Olympic Games, but the oft-honored – and imitated – Jackson came to be synonymous with college football. His down-home, baritone delivery was punctuated by such memorable phrases as “big uglies” (large linemen), “fum-blllllllllllllllle!” and his best known exclamation, “Whoa, Nelly!” He is credited with nicknaming the Rose Bowl as “The Granddaddy of them All” and Michigan Stadium as “The Big House.” He retired after the 2006 Rose Bowl.
“For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football,” said Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company. “When you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game. Keith was a true gentleman and memorable presence. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Turi Ann, and his family.”
Jackson, a longtime resident of Sherman Oaks, Calif., and Pender Harbor, British Columbia, Canada, is survived by Turi Ann, his wife of 63 years.
Jackson was born October 28, 1928, and raised on a farm near the Georgia-Alabama state line, riding a horse to school and intrigued by sports broadcasts on radio. An only child and raised in humble circumstances, he served four years in the U.S. Marines, including time in China. He attended Washington State College with the intent to study police and political science, but graduated in 1954 with a degree in broadcast journalism, learning his trade in the same studios that produced Edward R. Murrow, among others in the broadcast industry.
As an undergraduate in 1952, Jackson broadcast his first college football game — Stanford at Washington State. The visitors won 14-13 when the Cougar holder fumbled the snap for the extra point.
After graduating, Jackson spent 10 years at ABC affiliate KOMO in Seattle in news, sports and production, at first in radio and then television, including a time as the news co-anchor. 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. He covered the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, and in 1965 he worked a baseball telecast with Jackie Robinson in the afternoon and covered the Watts riots that same night in Los Angeles.
Forty Years with ABC Sports
Jackson’s work on ABC’s Wide World of Sports took him to 31 countries and included 10 Olympics, including covering two of the greatest gold medal winners in the history of the Olympic Games. In 1972 Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in swimming, and in 1980 Eric Heiden won five individual gold medals in speedskating. 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.
The sport he is most identified with by far was college football and for years his voice on a telecast meant it was the day’s biggest matchup. His affection for the sport came from his youth. “When I was a boy, we didn’t have all this pro stuff,” he said 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.” Over the years, he worked with Jack Jensen, Lee Grosscup, Bud Wilkinson, Ara Parseghian, Frank Broyles, Lynn Swann, Tim Brant, Bob Griese and Dan Fouts.
At the end of two contracts – after the 1986 and 1998 seasons – Jackson believed he was headed to retirement, but within months, and without missing a college football assignment, he re-signed with ABC. He continued calling games, mostly on the West Coast before leaving the booth for good following the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC.
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.