John McGrath: For generations, Keith Jackson was the voice of college football

Despite rumors to the contrary, Keith Jackson didn’t invent the Rose Bowl.

He was born in the fall of 1928, a few months before California’s Roy Riegels acquired the lifelong nickname “Wrong Way” by returning a Georgia Tech fumble to the edge of the Bears’ end zone, where their quick-kick punt out of trouble was blocked for a safety. By the time Jackson was old enough to speak — I suspect his first word was “Whoa,” and the second was “Nellie” — the Rose Bowl was entrenched in American sports lore.

But until Jackson described college football’s original bowl game in that rural Georgia twang of his, it was not known as “The Granddaddy Of Them All.”

The 89-year old Jackson died Friday, ending a life distinguished by a succession of right-way runs. Among the first was his decision, upon serving four years in the Marine Corps, to pursue a broadcast journalism degree at Washington State. Following his graduation, Jackson spent 10 years in Seattle as television sports anchor at KOMO.

When ABC bought the rights to become college football’s sole national network, in 1966, Jackson was poised for a 50-year career as college football’s most recognizable voice. Imagine that: A half-century of Saturday afternoons replete with marching bands and twirling batons and tubas glowing in the sun.

No wonder Jackson’s first decision after his widely publicized 1998 retirement was to scuttle the retirement. With a voice like that, as sweet as Tupelo honey, saving face was not a priority.

Similar to his recently deceased broadcasting colleague Dick Enberg, Jackson defined versatility. When the Yankees’ Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game decided the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers, Jackson had the call. When Bucky Dent’s home run against the Red Sox put the 1978 Yankees on their way to a second consecutive world championship, Jackson had that call, as well.

He did play-by-play for NBA games with Bill Russell. When swimmer Mark Spitz made Summer Olympics history by winning seven gold medals at Munich, in 1972, Jackson was there. When speed skater Eric Heiden made winter Olympics history by winning five gold medals at Lake Placid, in 1980, Jackson was there.

When ABC launched Monday Night Football, in 1970, Jackson occupied a middle seat, between Howard Cosell and Don Meredith, in a TV booth that both polarized and intrigued fans. From their inception, the Monday Night broadcasts were watched more for the sideshow of the color commentators than the actual games, and when the play-by-play job was turned over to Frank Gifford the following season, it enabled Jackson to devote attention to his true love, college football.

The best quarterbacks throw an occasional interception, the best running backs sometimes fumble. In Jackson’s case, the best college-football broadcaster of all time didn’t see Woody Hayes throw the 1978 Gator Bowl sideline punch that got the legendary Ohio State coach fired the next day.

The production truck informed Jackson, but he chose not to mention the ruckus to the national audience that had witnessed it. A 20th century coaching icon was facing an abrupt and ignominious conclusion to his career, and Jackson carried on as it it had never happened.

Jackson justified his silence on broadcast journalism ethics — because he don’t see the punch, he didn’t he believe he was qualified to talk about it — but a major story was afoot on the Ohio State sideline, and the play-by-play broadcaster went into Pinball Wizard mode.

Hey, nobody’s perfect. Achieving perfection at something in this crazy world indicates a life well-lived. For Keith Jackson, perfection was a folksy voice that told us to relax on a couch for a few hours on Saturday afternoon and the savor the joy of college football.

Jackson’s insistence that a broadcaster should be subservient to the action on the field was underscored throughout his career. Instead of bellowing and reciting pre-scripted calls practiced at home, he understood the most electrifying sound on any sports telecast is that of the crowd reacting.

Jackson grew up on a farm outside the west-Georgia town of Carrollton, not far the Alabama border. I don’t know if he was in any kind of condition to watch the epic national championship game between Georgia and Alabama, decided four days before his death, but I hope so.

The teams put on a show that reminded us why college football, for all its warts, is so captivating.

“The NCAA can make anybody cynical,” Jackson once told Sports Illustrated. “But I’m not. It’s still fun to see new generations enjoy the game peaceably. I get there an hour and a half before the game and watch the bands practice, the people carry on. You let it seep into you.”

Because Jackson let college football seep into him, it seeped into the rest of us, too. When he was ABC’s primary play-by-play voice, there weren’t 12 different games showing on TV at the same time. There was only one, tethering fans to a voice that brought to mind one of an old friend, or a beloved relative.

A Granddaddy.

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