Keith Jackson, ABC’s signature voice of college football, remembered for his love of the game’s pageantry and his Georgia-rooted, country boy flourishes on autumn Saturdays through five decades, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
In a statement on Twitter on Saturday, Robert A. Iger, chief executive of the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, confirmed Jackson’s death.
“For generations of fans, Keith was college football,” Iger said.
Jackson had recently returned home from the hospital after surgery, a spokesman for ESPN, which is owned by Disney, said Saturday.
Jackson worked at 10 Summer and Winter Olympics and on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” He was the play-by-play man for the inaugural season of NFL “Monday Night Football” and was at the microphone for baseball, pro and college basketball, and auto racing.
But he was best known for ranging the collegiate football map, from Ann Arbor to Tuscaloosa, from Columbus to Happy Valley, the home of Penn State.
“You always know it’s a big game when Keith’s there,” Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach, once said.
Jackson had the same reputation among his colleagues in the booth. As former quarterback Bob Griese, Jackson’s color commentator for many years, recalled: “At our first game, he said to me, ‘All right, what do you want to do?’ I said: ‘You’re the guy who’s been here. You’re Mr. College Football.'”
Even after decades in the job, Jackson retained an old-fashioned, wide-eyed love for the college game.
“The NCAA can make anybody cynical,” Jackson once told Sports Illustrated. “But I’m not. It’s still fun to see new generations enjoy the game peaceably. I get there an hour and a half before the game and watch the bands rehearse, the people carry on. You let it seep into you.”
The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, now known as the National Sports Media Association, named Jackson sportscaster of the year five consecutive times, from 1972-1976.
Jackson once told The New York Times how broadcaster Ted Husing inspired his breezy style, advising him: “Never be afraid to turn a phrase. If you can say something in such a way that’s explanatory, has flavor and people can understand it, try it. If it means quoting Shakespeare or Goethe, do it.”
He was more partial to the lingo of his native rural South.
Jackson’s “Whoa, Nellie!” punctuating an exciting play was his best-remembered good ol’ boy touch, though he maintained that he didn’t use it all that often.
He said he had a mule named Pearl while growing up on a Georgia farm but attributed the expression to his great-grandfather Jefferson Davis Robison, who evidently plowed many a field holding the reins of a mule.
“He was a farmer and he was a whistler,” Jackson told The Los Angeles Times in 2013. “He loved two phrases: ‘Dad gummit’ and the other was ‘Whoa Nellie.'”
Jackson informally christened the University of Michigan’s cavernous stadium at Ann Arbor “the Big House”; he relished broadcasting the Rose Bowl game, “the granddaddy of ‘em all”; and he admired the enormous linemen, who were “the Big Uglies in the trenches.”
Keith Max Jackson was born on Oct. 18, 1928, in the western Georgia town of Roopville, and he grew up nearby, just outside Carrollton.