Keith Jackson, the voice of college football broadcasts for almost 40 years whose “Whoa, Nellie!” exclamation at big plays was widely imitated, has died. He was 89.
He died Friday, the sports network ESPN said on its website, citing his family. No other details were provided.
Though best known for his work on National Collegiate Athletic Association football, Jackson was a wide-ranging member of the ABC Sports broadcasting crew, working World Series baseball and National Basketball Association contests, as well as 10 winter and summer Olympic Games. He also traveled to 31 countries to report for “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” ABC is now part of Burbank, California-based Walt Disney Co.
“Keith became the gold standard for the announcing of college football games,” said Don Ohlmeyer, an ABC Sports producer and director before becoming an NBC executive, according to the website of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. “Some of his phrases have become the stock and trade of the business. He’s the standard by which others are measured.”
Roone Arledge, then-president of ABC Sports, made Jackson the play-by-play announcer for the first season of ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” in 1970, in the broadcast booth with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. Jackson was “ a rolling-voiced Georgia farm boy” with “a majorly impressive voice,” Arledge wrote in his memoir.
Before season two, Arledge replaced Jackson with Frank Gifford. Arledge said he wanted to add “a respected member of the football establishment” to counteract Cosell’s criticism of players and teams. Jackson learned of his firing in a newspaper article and was “furious,” wrote Arledge, who admitted that he had avoided telling Jackson face-to-face.
Arledge then made Jackson the lead announcer for NCAA football, replacing Chris Schenkel, and Jackson reigned over college game days from 1972 to 2006.
He said football was his favorite sport. “Baseball is a game of geometry, while football is a game of explosive emotion,” he was quoted as saying in a 1978 article in the Tuscaloosa News. “Every emotion known to mankind is in that 60 minutes — pride, pain, dedication, satisfaction, fear.”
In 1998, after he announced plans to retire, he was treated to a season-long farewell tour of college campuses. “I’ve had a good run, and it’s time for the next generation,” Jackson said just before his final broadcast of that season, the Fiesta Bowl.
By the following autumn, though, he’d reconsidered and returned for several more seasons of broadcasting. Jackson retired for good after calling the University of Texas’s victory over the University of Southern California at the 2006 Rose Bowl, the national championship game.
Georgia-born Jackson exuded a folksy Southern charm and spoke with a deep sonorous voice that neatly balanced the often-frenzied environment of college football games. He called the Rose Bowl “the granddaddy of them all” and Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor “The Big House.” He spoke affectionately of hulking defensive and offensive linemen as “the big uglies.”
Jackson picked up his best-known saying from his great-grandfather. “He’d do something or drop something or whatever, and oftentimes you’d hear him say, ‘Whoa, Nellie,’ that kind of stuff, and that kind of stuck to the scruffy little kid following him around,”’ Jackson said in a 2013 appearance on Fox Sports’ “Fox College Saturday.”
“The older I got,” Jackson added, “the more willing I was to go into the Southern vernacular, because some of it’s funny.”
At other times, he expressed frustration about his close association with “Whoa, Nellie!” and said his broadcast partner, former professional quarterback Bob Griese, liked the expression more.
“I don’t know how that thing got hung on me,” he was quoted as saying in a 2011 interview with LostLettermen.com, a college-sports website. “The media likes to hang things on you and that was my bad luck, I guess.”
Jackson was born on Oct. 18, 1928, and raised in tiny Roopville, Georgia, a farming community near the border with Alabama. “It was rustic, and it was tough,” he said of his upbringing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2007.
Jackson spent four years in the U.S. Marines, including time in China, according to an ESPN biography. He graduated from Washington State College (now Washington State University) in 1954 with a degree in broadcast journalism. While at college he picked up his first broadcasting experiences, calling the school’s football games on the radio.
He worked at ABC affiliate KOMO in Seattle for 10 years, first on radio and then on TV, before moving on to the ABC Radio Network and joining ABC Sports in 1966. One of his first assignments, for “Wide World of Sports” was covering a parachute-jumping event in Seattle, according to the Journal-Constitution.
The National Football Foundation, which oversees the College Football Hall of Fame, gave Jackson its Gold Medal in 1999 for bringing “dignity, integrity and clarity” to his role as “college football’s most eloquent spokesman.”
With his wife, the former Turi Ann Johnsen, Jackson had three children, Melanie Ann, Lindsey and Christopher.