Aloha `oe: Keith Jackson

Welcome to a new post series! Aloha `oe looks back on the lives of some people – famous to many or just to me – whom I have admired and who have had a real impact on my life. The name comes from one of my favorite expressions, learned in my brief stay in Hawaii in 1999. It means a final farewell.

Of course I heard it on a Saturday afternoon: Aloha `oe to Keith Jackson, voice of college football — and one of my childhood heroes.

Jackson (1928-2018) died this January at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. He was 89.

I’m a lifelong sports fan, and my favorite sport growing up was college (American) football. Keith Jackson was there every Saturday, calling the biggest game of the week on ABC, along with former Purdue quarterback Bob Griese.

I watched every Saturday I was near a TV. Jackson’s folksy style had a major influence on my journalism career, as public address announcer at Edgewater High School and commentator for college radio.

He called four World Series, ten Olympics, and ABC’s Wide World of Sports from ski jumping to arm wrestling – but he will be forever remembered for his true passion, as the Voice of College Football.

“The college football game, as such, doesn’t exhibit the skill that pro football does,” he said in a 2011 interview. “But it’s got spirit.”

His calls became the source for some of the modern language of college football. Some of the phrases he invented or popularized (with parenthetical explanation in case you’re not familiar with the sport):

  • FUMBLE!!!!! (When an offensive player dropped the ball and the defense picked it up or fell on it)
  • Hold the phone! (When a penalty was called on a big play, potentially negating the outcome)
  • The Big Uglies (referring to offensive linemen)
  • The Big House (his nickname for Michigan Stadium, home of the University of Michigan Wolverines)
  • The Granddaddy of Them All (his nickname for the Rose Bowl, the first and highest-profile of college football’s postseason games)

Perhaps his most famous moment came in 1991, in a game between arch-rivals the University of Michigan and The Ohio State University. Listen to Jackson describe this play by Michigan punt returner Desmond Howard, virtually guaranteeing that Howard would win college football’s highest award, the Heisman Trophy:

Goodbye! Hello, Heisman!

Jackson was born in small-town Georgia, but fell in love with the West Coast, first as a student at Washington State University and then as a lifelong resident of Los Angeles.

But he never lost his Southern drawl: three generations of college football fans can repeat from memory his folksy pronunciation of certain words: mah-AM-ee, al-uh-BAM-uh, and the word line stretched into two or three syllable. But he never shied away from correctly pronouncing a name like Tshimanga Biakabutuka or Marques Tuiasosospo. I wish he had lived and worked long enough to pronounce the name of current Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

But he’ll always be remembered for most famous turn of phrase:

Whoa, Nellie!

Everyone assumed it was his wife’s name – it was actually a phrase of his great-grandfather, used to express frustration. And speaking of marriage, I’ll never forget his retirement tribute in 1998, where he gave his reason for stepping down – “I’ll be serving as personal chauffeur to Miss Turi Ann Jackson,” his wife of 65 years, with whom he raised three children.

He retired in 1998, and I still remember the reason he gave for retiring – “I’ll be serving as personal chauffeur to Miss Turi Ann Jackson,” his wife of 65 years.

But his retirement felt premature, and he came back at the personal invitation of president of ABC sports – on the condition that he only call games on the west coast to limit his travel. When he retired for good (January 4, 2006), his last game was the Granddaddy of Them All frequently cited as the greatest game in college football history: Texas upset USC 41-38 on Vince Young’s 9-yard touchdown run with just 26 seconds left. And it felt right. Jackson and Griese with the call:

Aloha `oe, Keith. I hope I can bring the same excitement to astronomy that Keith Jackson always did to college football.

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