Keith Jackson, recognized for decades as “the voice of college football” and one of the most distinguished alumni of Washington State University, died on Friday. He was 89.
For anyone reading this who is older than 20, Jackson was the soundtrack to your college football fandom while growing up and into adulthood. His Georgia roots, combined with a deference to the pageantry of game, produced a powerful, understated style that hasn’t been replicated since he retired from broadcasting in 2006 after 52 years — 40 of them at ABC Sports.
“Amplify, clarify, punctuate, and stay the hell out of the way,” he said of his approach.
He is perhaps best known for punctuating big plays with his signature, “Whoa, Nellie!”, and is credited with dubbing Michigan’s stadium “The Big House” and calling the Rose Bowl “The Grandaddy of Them All.”
“Ted Husing made one of the most knowing comments ever, I think, to me — at least stuck to me: Never be afraid to turn a phrase,” Jackson said while explaining the origins of “whoa, Nellie” back in 2013. “If you make it interesting enough, they may not know what you just said, but they’ll look it up! And he’s right. So I would go around, and pluck things off the bush and see if I could find a different way to say some things, and the older I got, the more willing I was to go back into the southern vernacular, because some of it’s funny.”
Fittingly, his final broadcast was the epic 2006 Rose Bowl, in which Texas defeated USC to win the national championship in one of the greatest college football games ever played. His call of Vince Young’s game-winning play was as Keith Jackson as it gets:
“Silence is an interesting thing. A lot of things go on when things are quiet,” he once said, while chuckling and stretching out his words — as he so often did. “You don’t have to fill every second with a syllable.”
Throughout his distinguished career — which included 15 Rose Bowls, 16 Sugar Bowls, 10 Olympics, MLB playoffs, the NBA, Monday Night Football, and even unlimited hydroplane races — Jackson maintained his connection to WSU, from which he graduated in 1954.
“(I was) freshman class president, and I drove the garbage trucks some days for walking around money,” Jackson said.
His appearance in this university promotional video in 1981 explored his feelings for his alma mater:
“You know, when we get old enough to look back and reflect upon our experiences and achievements, I guess most of us can recall a special teacher, a coach, a particular class in school or a place that we lived that left a lasting impression on us,” Jackson said. “All these things come tumbling back into the mind and memory when we recall our years at WSU.”
Sometimes, when the Washington State Cougars were good enough to be on the national stage — remember, he was the big game broadcaster when many games had no TV broadcast at all — Jackson got a chance to sing Pullman’s praises in front of the entire country.
When one is making a first trip into the Palouse country, it might be easy to ask out loud, ‘Where is everybody?’ Especially if you come from an urban region, and out here in the rolling wheatland, it’s different. The air’s sweet, you can hear the bird’s song, and the natural process includes all four season with gusto.
You find Washington State University on a collection of hills, adjacent to the town of Pullman, and in the eyes of an old alumnus, it is still a happy find, for one who came from afar and who stayed long enough to have a life picked.
And once in a while, the WSU Cougars sit on top of the Pac-10 Conference football standings in November.
And, yes, he was on the call his alma mater’s first Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years.
WSU renamed the west wing of the Murrow Building “Jackson Hall” in 2014, prompting Eric Johnson of KOMO-TV — himself a Murrow alumnus and the torchbearer at the station where Jackson got his start as a broadcaster from 1954-1964 — to produce this tribute, in which he said, “(Jackson) never dominated the flow of a game, but moved with it, around it; a football bard with the eye of a poet, and the timing of a dancer.”
At the renaming ceremony, Jackson said: “I came here for a program in academics that I forsook — and I’m glad I did. It was a comfortable place after one year for me. I just simply admitted right then and there, and committed right then and there, that this was my kind of place, my kind of people. And you still are — even though the place is getting bigger and bigger, the people are keeping up.
“I’m delighted from the bottom of my soul that today could happen because it caps another time in a life, mine and hers, and we’ll go home, proud to have been here, and proud to keep on remembering.”
Said then-President Elson S. Floyd: “When our students and faculty members and community members traverse this campus and they come (to Jackson Hall), we want them to understand enough that a great partner, a great friend, a great contributor, a great American, has been here and has made an imprint.”
The next day, Jackson sat down with Bob Robertson during halftime of WSU’s game against Portland State.
At the time of the renaming of the building, Jackson had donated more than $1 million to the university to support both the Murrow College and WSU athletics, and also played a major role in the construction of the Lewis Alumni Centre. He received the Alumni Achievement Award in 1975, the Regents Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1978, and the WSU Foundation’s Outstanding Service Award in 1982.
Jackson is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Turi Ann — whom he met at WSU — along with three adult children and three grandchildren.
He will be terribly missed. Share your favorite memories of Jackson below.