Keith Jackson was one of the most versatile sportscasters of his generation. During his long, illustrious career he called contests in virtually every major (and not so major) sport, such as, (baseball major and minor leagues), football (NFL, college and USFL), basketball (NBA and college), summer and winter Olympics, boxing, auto racing, golf, speed skating, hydroplane races and ski jumping. But, it was in college football that he really made his mark. For some 50 years, if there was a big college football game chances are Jackson was calling it. To college football fans, he was “Mr. College Football.”
Keith Max Jackson was born in Roopville, GA on October 18,, 1928. His parents were dirt farmers and very poor, i. e. they barely eked out a subsistence on a farm on mostly barren land without any hired help. He was the only child in the family that survived childhood. His favorite leisure pastime was listening to sports on the radio. After high school he enlisted in the marines. Following his discharge he took advantage of the GI Bill to earn a college degree in speech communications at Washington State University.
Jackson broke into the business in 1952 when he called a college football game between his alma mater and Stanford University. He joined ABC in 1964 as a radio news correspondent. In 1966 he joined ABC sports, and he was on his way.
Some of the highlights of his career were as follows:
- He covered the 1964 Republican National Convention with Walter Cronkite.
- Most people do not know that he was the initial announcer on Monday Night Football. (ABC had wanted Frank Gifford, but Gifford was contractually bound to CBS. After one year Gifford became available, and ABC replaced Jackson with him.)
- He called events in ten Olympic Games, including the infamous 1972 Munich Games.
- He was a regular on the renowned Wide World of Sports.
- In 1975, while covering the North American Continental Boxing Championships, he spied a young boxer named Sugar Ray Leonard and labeled him as “one to watch.” As sports fans know, Leonard won a Gold Medal at the 1976 Games and went on to become one of the best boxers of his time.
- He called the historic 16-inning playoff game between the NY Mets and Houston Astros in 1986, won by the Mets to send them to the World Series, which they won as well.
However, as I said, it was in college football that he made his mark. He began in an era when the announcers of most games worked alone, without an analyst. Furthermore, in that prehistoric era there would be very few games on tv, not the plethora of choices we have today. For the most part, he was assigned to the most important game of the week that reached the widest audience. The audience knew that if Jackson was calling the game, it was a big one. In the words of Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, which owns ABC, “For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football.”
He called 15 Rose Bowls and 16 Sugar Bowls. It was he who labeled the former the “granddaddy” of Bowl games. In addition, he is credited with creating the moniker, The Big House, to describe Michigan University’s huge stadium, which seats in excess of 100,000 fans.
Jackson was known for his “folksy,” “down-home” expressions. Some examples, “Whoa, Nellie and “Hold the phonnne!,” when, for instance, an official had thrown a penalty flag on a play. Frequently, he would refer to huge linemen as “Big Uglies,” or “That guy is a ‘hus’ (horse).” Somehow, the national tv audience found these expressions to be charming, not offensive.
In addition to the foregoing, Jackson appeared in several movies, as himself, such as, The Fortune Cookie (1966), Summer of Sam (1999), and The Bronx is Burning (2007); tv shows (Coach) and commercials (Gatorade, Miller Lite and Shoney’s.
Jackson was the recipient of innumerable awards and honors. For instance:
- His alma mater presented him with the (Edward R.) Murrow award for outstanding performances in the communications industry.
- He was inducted into the American Sportscasters and National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Halls of Fame.
- In 1999 The National Football Foundation presented Jackson with its highest honor, The Gold Medal Award.”
- In 2015 the Rose Bowl renamed the stadium’s radio and tv booths “The Keith Jackson Broadcast Center.”
Jackson passed away on January 12, 2018. Rest in peace, Keith. You will be sorely missed.