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1999 NFF Gold Medal Recipient Keith Jackson Passes Away
Legendary sportscaster humbly established himself as the voice of college football during his 40-year career.
Published: 1/13/2018 10:00:00 AM

Keith Jackson, the legendary broadcaster at ABC and the 1999 NFF Gold Medal recipient, passed away Jan. 12 in Los Angeles. He was 89.

“It’s hard to put in words what Keith Jackson meant to college football,” said NFF Chairman Archie Manning. “He had that unique folksy tone, coupled with his colorful and descriptive trademark phrases, that made him the perfect sports broadcaster. We feel blessed that he became a staple on Saturday afternoons, and so many of his play-by-play calls are etched in our memories. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends, and they should know that we are all universally grateful for his significant contributions to our sport. He will be missed.”

"He was a great friend to so many people, and he always made time for charitable causes, especially the National Football Foundation," said NFF President & CEO Steve Hatchell. "He had one of those uniquely magnetic personalities, and that’s why we wanted to be around him all the time. We all loved him.”

College football and its millions of fans caught a lucky break in 1966 when ABC Sports, after a careful search, decided Jackson was the right man to be the play-by-play announcer for the Network's coverage of the collegiate game, cementing a marriage made at the 50-yard line. Rarely, if ever in the broadcast industry, has an announcer been so closely identified with the sport he covers. For more than four decades, Jackson stood as college football's most eloquent spokesman, a role to which he brought dignity, integrity and clarity.

He described his role as “to amplify, clarify and don’t intrude,” and his poignant silences often added more to his broadcasts than his signature calls and catchphrases.  His career also included auto racing, college and pro basketball, 10 Olympics, four World Series, the Wide World of Sports, the NFL's "Monday Night Football" and being the first American play-by-player announcer to call a sporting event in the former Soviet Union.

On Dec. 7, 1999 at the NFF Annual Awards Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, Keith Jackson became the 42nd recipient of the National Football Foundation's highest honor, the Gold Medal. The presentation added his name to an exalted group of Gold Medal recipients that includes seven U.S. Presidents, three generals, three admirals, a member of the U.S. Supreme Court and a galaxy of some of the great captains of industry.

The NFF was honoring him at the time of his putative retirement, but Jackson would go onto to call games for another seven years, mostly on the West Coast near his homes in Los Angeles and British Columbia. His final call would come fittingly during the 2006 Rose Bowl game when Texas upset USC in what many consider one of the greatest games in college football history.

Jackson started his career of broadcasting football, both radio and television, working the football games of his alma mater, Washington State University. From that first football game broadcast in 1952 Keith, unknowingly, started his audition for the top spot with ABC Sports. For certain, he paid his dues.

Once Jackson was tabbed by ABC Sports to assume the top role, he quickly endeared himself to both the college scene, including coaches and players, and, more important, the viewers who tuned in for more than 500 broadcasts he handled. What was it that made this man so special? What were the attributes of style that made him so durable, so easy to listen to? Can we ever forget Keith's personal signature: "Whoa, Nellie” or his call of the “Big Uglies”?

Keith's partners in the ABC Sports broadcast booth over the years included such great football coaches as Bud Wilkinson, Ara Parseghian and Frank Broyles, all of them enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. But it was Bob Griese, the Purdue All-America quarterback and also a member of the Hall of Fame, who worked with Keith the longest, 12 years.

"One of the first things I learned about Keith is that he has never had an ego problem,” said Griese in shedding light on why Jackson was so clearly embraced by all at the time of the NFF Gold Medal presentation in 1999. “Just as important, the man truly loves the game of college football. He is a happy man doing what he loves to do.

"Something I admire about Keith is that he has a feeling for the young men who play the college game,” Griese added. “He has never criticized a player. He especially loves the time before the game, the collegiate atmosphere, the bands, the mascots, the cheerleaders, the whole excitement.

“He is a very intelligent man. He is an excellent writer. He has been in the public eye, but he is a quiet man, a private man. He is a gentleman who cherishes the privacy of his home and he has an uncommon love and appreciation for his wife, Turi, and their children, Melanie, Lindsey and Christopher. Believe me, I have really enjoyed his company, whether we were having dinner on the road or getting ready to do that day's broadcast."

Jackson is the only man to receive five straight Sportscaster of the Year Awards. He was the first to receive the Amos Alonzo Stagg Award presented by the American Football Coaches Association. His inductions include the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame, the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame and the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. In 1994 he was honored with television's Emmy Award. In 2015, the Rose Bowl stadium radio and TV booths were renamed the “The Keith Jackson Broadcast Center.”

The NFF conducted the following Q&A with the legend before he accepted the Gold Medal in 1999.


You did well over 500 broadcasts of college football games. Are there a special few that standout in your mind?


"Well, I remember the first game ever in 1952. Stanford beat Washington State, 14-13, and Stanford had Bob Mathias, who went on to win two Olympic Gold Medals in the Decathlon.

I recall a game in 1961. It was the big rivalry, Washington vs. Washington State. Bob Schloredt threw a late, two-point conversion pass to give Washington an 8-7 victory and a trip to the Rose Bowl."

Jackson continued, "I worked the 1967 game between Southern California and UCLA. At stake in that game was the Pac-10 Conference championship, the National Championship, a trip to the Rose Bowl and the Heisman Trophy. USC won all the big prizes, except the Heisman Trophy. O.J. Simpson had two great runs and USC won, 21-20, but Gary Beban of UCLA won the Heisman. The 1979 Sugar Bowl was another standout. It was No. 1 Penn State against No. 2 Alabama and Alabama won, 14-7, with a great goal line stand. For sheer excitement one of the great matches was Miami against Michigan at Michigan in 1988. Michigan had a 30-14 lead in the third quarter, but Miami came back to win, 31-30."

The 1998 Rose Bowl was another one for the memory book. Said Jackson, "My partner that day was Bob Griese and his son Brian was Michigan's quarterback, playing against my alma mater, Washington State. It was a great day for the Griese family. Michigan won, 21-16, and Brian was named MVP of the game, but I think that if the Cougars had not lost star running back Michael Black in the first half, who knows who would have had the party? The 31-31 tie between Florida and Florida State in 1994 was a classic. Heck, there have been so many and I have enjoyed every one, even the blowouts."


Keith, what is it about the college game that has made it so special to you?


"One of the reasons I enjoy and respect the game and so many of the people who have coached and played is the work ethic. Enormous sacrifice and discipline are required to get ready for the season and every game. Each Saturday offers its own special excitement. College football is special because it can boast of four generations of fans, something you do not see in the pro game."


Are there things you worry about? What problems do you see that affect the game?


"I do worry some that societal attitudes will be so influenced by an intrusive and often times abusive media that it will preclude us from having many more coaches who live and work long enough to be called legends, especially at the Division I level. Coaches such as Joe Paterno, LaVell Edwards and Bobby Bowden keep on going. Bless 'em."

Jackson also pointed out, 'A nagging problem for football is the television camera and the slow-motion replays of officials' calls. And I have no answer except to say again that the game is played by people and has to be officiated by people. So much of the official's decision-making is bang-bang and made almost impossible sometimes by the speed of players and the pitch-and-catch game that is played today."


Over the last three decades which rules changes do you think have had an impact on the game?


"I believe the rule change that influenced the game more than any other was freeing the arms of offensive linemen. That helped to accelerate the pitch-and-catch game. Now the public, influenced by the NFL game, demands the entertainment factor. I also think the best new rule change is shutting down the taunting and showboating. That has no place in any sport."


Was your career in broadcasting designed or was there a particular incident that triggered your interest?


After four years in the Marine Corps, I enrolled at Washington State with the intention of studying police and political science. One afternoon in school I was listening to the KWSC radio broadcast of a Cougar game. It was then I decided I might like a crack at doing that. As a lad I had written sports stories in longhand. Story has it that my grandmother said to my mother 'your kid is crazy. He's out there in the cornfield talking to himself.' In truth, I was out there calling games in my fantasy. Eventually, I asked for the opportunity to work in broadcast and was given the chance by Burt Harrison, who taught in Washington State's broadcast school and pretty much ran the 5,000-watt station. I began to learn the techniques in my freshman year and then went after it full bore in my sophomore year."


It is known that you and your wife, Turi, have enjoyed a very special relationship for 47 years. How did all that start?


"I met and married the love of my life at the Golf Clubhouse on campus. I married Turi Ann Johnsen in 1952 and that clearly remains my ultimate good fortune. Turi's folks, mom Gudrun and dad Joseph, were born and raised in Norway. My parents were born and raised in Georgia. When all the folks met for the first time, we had accent on one side and a southern drawl on the other. It was a hilarious scene. We have all survived happily. They are all great people and have been enormously important for me in keeping a rational perspective about life that sometimes can seem almost unreal."

Keith added, "Grambling coach Eddie Robinson, when asked about his 50-plus year career at Grambling, answered that his most important accomplishment was 'one wife, one job.' I'm close. In 47 years, two jobs, one wife. I never did learn much about show business."

Any final thoughts?

"You know, I have admired the National Football Foundation's commitment to young people who participate in amateur football and I think The Foundation's Scholar-Athlete program has enormous worth and, hopefully, will grow across the generations. The emphasis and recognition of academic achievement is important."

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