Keith Jackson, the legendary sportscaster regarded as the preeminent voice of college football, died Friday at age 89.
Jackson was born Oct. 28, 1928 in Roopville, Georgia, the only surviving child of dirt farmers. He grew up listening to games on the radio. He served four years in the Marines Corps and attended Washington State University on the G.I. Bill. Jackson began his collegiate studies as a political science major but quickly switched to broadcast journalism. He graduated in 1954.
Jackson’s broadcasting career began in 1952 while he was still a student at Washington State. He called a radio game between Washington State and Stanford. After graduation, Jackson worked for KOMO-AM and KOMO-TV. He was the first American sportscaster to cover an event in the Soviet Union: a crew race between the Soviet national team and Washington State.
Jackson was also a radio news correspondent with ABC News Radio. The highlight of his tenure with ABC News Radio was covering the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco with Walter Cronkite. Jackson later became sports director of ABC Radio West before joining ABC Sports in 1966.
Jackson enjoyed what he referred to as “the purity of college football”. He covered the sport from 1952-2006. Jackson’s intelligence and deep voice with its cinematic cadence led former USC head coach John Robinson to consider him “like Edward R. Murrow reporting on World War II, the voice of ultimate authority in college football”. Jackson was also a man of the people. This was evidenced by his use of quirky, colorful expressions such as “Whoa, Nellie”, “Fum-BLE!!!”, “Hold the phonnnnne!”, and “Big Uglies”.
Jackson was credited with the Rose Bowl’s nickname of “The Granddaddy of Them All”. The final game of his career was the 2006 Rose Bowl: the BCS National Championship Game between Texas (led by Vince Young) and USC (with their Heisman Trophy winning tandem of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush). Jackson also gave the University of Michigan’s Michigan Stadium the nickname “The Big House”.
Jackson covered more than just college football. He covered American Football League games and was the first play-by-play announcer of ABC’s Monday Night Football. The season (1970) he spent with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith was the only college football season he missed from 1952-2006. Jackson also covered United States Football League games.
He covered 10 Winter and Summer Olympics games, including the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. Jackson’s news background served him well as he continued to cover the event after 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and subsequently killed.
Jackson covered Major League Baseball. He was on the call when the New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and when the Yankees’ Bucky Dent hit three home runs in a 1978 tie-breaker game against the Boston Red Sox.
Jackson covered college basketball with the loquacious Dick Vitale and the NBA with 11-time champion Bill Russell. He was also a fixture on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Jackson traveled to 31 different countries during his time with the award-winning anthology show, covering popular and obscure sports.
But Jackson will be most remembered for his coverage of college football.
He did the play-by-play for some of the most memorable moments in the sport’s history including Michigan wide receiver Desmond Howard’s “Hello Heisman” moment in the 1991 Michigan-Ohio State game, Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart’s 1994 Hail Mary to beat Michigan (also known as “The Miracle at Michigan”), Florida State’s missed game-winning field goal attempts against the University of Miami (also known as Wide Right I and Wide Right II), and the 2003 Fiesta Bowl between Ohio State and Miami (when Miami was denied a second consecutive national championship because of a bad call).
Jackson retired in 2006, famously saying he “didn’t want to die in a parking lot”. He enjoyed a minor career as an actor, often playing himself or a sportscaster. Jackson also appeared in or narrated several sports documentaries.
He was named Sportscaster of the Year five times by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association and inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1994. Jackson received the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award from the American Football Coaches Association in 1993, the first sportscaster to ever receive the award. The Rose Bowl Stadium’s radio and television broadcast booths were renamed The Keith Jackson Broadcast Center in 2015.
Jackson is survived by his wife, Turi Ann, three children, Melanie, Lindsay, and Christopher, and three grandchildren.