Whoa, Nellie! Keith Jackson talks Cosell, college football and cotton
Keith Jackson has some stories, all right. Of riding his horse four miles to his rural Georgia high school. Of nights carousing with Paul “Bear” Bryant. Of the time Howard Cosell, smelling like a Russian distillery, set Jackson’s pants on fire during a telecast of “Monday Night Football.”
“He had the cigar, all that vodka,” he recalls. “I almost threw him out of the booth myself.”
It’s not just the stories that are so captivating, either. It’s The Voice, the envy of cellos everywhere. Still sonorous at 84, yet with the clippity-clop of his Southern childhood ... a spoon of Georgia sugar.
How much do you miss The Voice every Saturday, almost seven years after his last game?
I missed it so much I visited Jackson at the Sherman Oaks home he and his wife Turi Ann have been in for 46 of their 61-year marriage. Big sprawling place at the top of a hill, where late-afternoon ocean breezes mimic the chill of a Michigan broadcast booth.
In many ways, Jackson looks better than ever — slender, almost strapping, after surgery for leg problems that almost did him in earlier this year. Much of the roundness in the face is gone. He looks much like he must’ve as a Georgia farm boy, taking off for the Marines at 16, spending a couple of years stationed in China, then coming back to Washington State on the G.I. bill.
In college, he met Turi Ann and switched from political science and criminology to broadcasting, and in a short time would become one of the nation’s busiest sports announcers, a straight shooter, hoping to do for athletics what his hero, Edward R. Murrow, did for news.
But you can’t take the Georgia out of the kid. Along the way, he’d develop his own glossary: The Rose Bowl became “The granddaddy of them all.” The under-credited linemen became “The Big Uglies,” a term he’d convey with respect, as in, “Without the Big Uglies, that fancy tailback goes nowhere.”
Perhaps most famous of all is “Whoa, Nellie!” which he borrowed from his great granddaddy, Jefferson Davis Robison.
“He was a farmer and he was a whistler,” Jackson explains while we watch “Monday Night Football.” “He loved two phrases: ‘Dad gummit’ and the other was ‘Whooooooa, Nellie.’”
Yep, this guy’s got stories all right. And a twinkle in his eye. And a little grape juice in the glass. In many ways, retirement never looked so good.
But I miss The Voice. As with Vin Scully, it became the signature soundtrack for a particular sport. And there are no apparent successors.
A few more observations from Jackson’s six decades in the booth:
—"The ’72 Trojans were the best football team I ever saw.”
—"Bo Schembechler was the best after-dinner speaker I ever heard. He’d even have the old boys in the back of the room snorting and jumping up and down.”
—Legendary innovator Amos Alonzo Stagg “studied the ministry but couldn’t deliver a sermon ... he had heart palpitations. So he became a football coach.”
—"Knute Rockne’s wife wouldn’t come out West [with the Notre Dame team] till they arranged a lunch with Valentino.”
—"The very best place to take a nap is in the back of a cotton wagon.”
OK, that last one wasn’t from his career. That was just real life. Amid today’s stable of too-slick announcers, memories of Jackson’s folksy style resonate even more.
Just the stories of his broadcast booth sidekicks are worthy of a book: Jackie Robinson, Frank Broyles, Bud Wilkinson, Bill Russell, Dick Vitale, Don Meredith, Dan Fouts, Bob Griese, and especially the patience-sapping Cosell.
“Howard did throw up all over Meredith’s cowboy boots,” he recalls of that tumultuous night in the “MNF” booth.
“It was 28 degrees in Philly and Cosell had been drinking for three hours,” he says.
Jackson says he never got nervous before a telecast, yet kept a slip of paper in his pocket with a few prompts, because he’d seen other broadcasters freeze during openings, and those slips of paper would become a security blanket.
Any other tips for today’s broadcasters?
“They talk too damn much,” he says. “You wear the audience out.”
And, even more importantly:
“You must tell the truth,” he says of both broadcasters and coaches. “You must be truthful to yourself and the values of the game that got you there.”
In the meantime, the Rose Bowl game is marking its centennial this year. Let’s hope its organizers, and Jackson’s old employers at ABC/ESPN, make the most of him on this anniversary. After all, he’s getting around pretty well these days.
And like the Rose Bowl itself, he’ll always be the granddaddy of them all.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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