January 17, 2018

Keith Jackson, R.I.P.

H e was one of the very last of the Big Game Announcers, that genre I occasionally talk about (usually in obituaries, unfortunately). I know, many people might include Al Michaels, but to tell the truth I've never warmed to him; he's competent enough, probably more than competent, but the key word is "warmth," and I never felt it coming from him. Others might call Joe Buck a Big Game Announcer, but while I think he's better than his critics say, I don't include him in the list, either. Certainly Mike Emrick and Martin Tyler, probably Brent Musburger, perhaps Marv Albert, but after that the pickings are, as they say, slim.

Besides, this isn't about them. It's about Keith Jackson, who died last Friday after 89 (hopefully) good years, many of them spent creating memories for the millions of people who listened to him on baseball games, football games, basketball games, auto racing, golf, even boxing matches. It seemed as if he worked with everyone during his time on television; he called the first season of Monday Night Football and if anyone could have controlled Dandy Don and Cosell, it would have been him. ABC didn't want that, though - they were looking for a show. He also worked with Cosell on Monday Night Baseball, and though I really liked him on that, there's no doubt his home was with college football.

It was college football in which his greatness was made manifest. He sounded as if he was made for college football, with that down-home delivery and enthusiasm that nonetheless never went over the top. It's also true, though, that college football sounds as if were made for him; fumble, touchdown, Rodney Allison of Texas Tech - for other announcers those might simply have been functional words, but for Keith Jackson they became the paint and the brushes that artists use to craft their work on the electronic canvas.

For all of the palpable excitement in Jackson's voice, the love of the game, the Whoa Nellies and Fum-BLEs and Hold the Phonnnnnes for which he became so famous, he always remembered the golden rule of the golden age of sportscasters - you are never bigger than the event you cover. That shone most clearly in his decision to retire in 2006, despite ABC wanting him to continue, because he was disturbed over the increasing number of mistakes he was making during broadcasts. It's easy to see why he'd do that, even though Jackson at 85% was probably better than most other announcers at 110%.

He wasn't out to score points with a crack at the expense of someone down there on the field, just as he wasn't acting as if he were trying to win an audition during open mic night at the Improv. He called a game for the benefit of the viewers, and it was to them that he spoke, enveloping them all in his color and humor. He was authoritative and insightful, with a grace and elegance that merged smoothly with his passion to produce a perfect background to the unforgettable events he covered.

Yep, there weren't many like Keith Jackson, but then that's how it is with all the greats. He was a one-of-a-kind, and we were the beneficiaries.  TV  


  1. Excellent, poignant tribute, Mitchell. He was the voice made for college football...

  2. From 1971 (when he became ABC's lead play-by-play man on college football) through 1983, Keith Jackson often ended-up calling the only live college football telecast anywhere in the country for a particular Saturday.

    Until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1984, the NCAA had a very restrictive policy on the number of college football games that could be telecast live. Under that policy, only networks could carry live regular-season college football games, and usually, just one game a week could be televised live.

    There were a few weeks during the season where there would be four or five regional telecasts, but each locality ended-up with one game that week; and just a couple of a times a year where there would be a college football doubleheader, with those two games again being the only live college football telecasts.

    While ABC did have other announcers who did play-by-play of college football from 1971 through 1983, the other announcers usually did just two or three or regional games a year. One might do four or five games (two or three regional plus the first game of the two doubleheaders telecast each season).

  3. Keith also did the play by play for ABC's coverage of the USFL. NFL Films keeps trotting out Brett Favre's imitation of him when former Oklahoma tight end Keith Jackson played for the Packers. Keith also did some of the shows for the Big Ten Network.


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