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Whoa, Nellie! Keith Jackson’s banter made him a broadcast legend

Keith Jackson defined the sound and feel of college football with his folksy personality, and even folksier sayings.

Keith Jacson was the voice of college football

Keith Jacson was the voice of college football for ABC. Photo Credit: ABC Sports

Keith Jackson was a throwback to an era when national sportscasters aggressively multitasked, and he was no exception, calling everything from Olympic swimming to baseball to the NBA to “Monday Night Football.”

But none of that was the first thing that came to mind on Saturday when word circulated that he had died at 89. The first thing was college football, of course.

With the exception of baseball and Vin Scully, never have a sport and a play-by-play voice been better suited to one another than Jackson and college football.

Over four decades at ABC, the home office of the sport before every network carried it, he defined the sound and feel of the game with his folksy personality, and even folksier sayings.

By Saturday afternoon, “Whoa Nellie” was trending nationally on Twitter, a platform that did not exist when Jackson retired after Texas’ 41-38 victory over Southern Cal in the 2006 Rose Bowl, one of the best games college history.

That also was the final event for ABC Sports as a separate brand before ESPN absorbed it later that year.

It was fitting, because no one embodied that network’s once-proud sports division better than Jackson, including this oft-forgotten historical quirk: In 1970 he was the first play-by-play man for “Monday Night Football.” Frank Gifford succeeded him the next year.

Anyway, back to college football. This surely seems odd to people under 40 or so, but there was a time when the television dial was not flooded with college games. There were only a few, and Jackson always seemed to call the biggest ones.

Several of his trademark phrases survived his retirement, and now will survive him.

“Fummmbllllle!” That’s Jackson.

“Big uglies,” for offensive linemen. That’s Jackson.

Michigan Stadium widely is known as “The Big House.” That’s Jackson.

The Rose Bowl is “The Granddaddy of Them All.” That’s Jackson.

Jackson was part of a fading generation of iconic baby boomer voices, following a line of departed stars that most recently includes Dick Enberg, who died last month. Oh, my.

It is not as if the 21st century lacks sports voices blessed to call a variety of big events, from Al Michaels to Joe Buck, Jim Nantz and Mike Tirico.

Fans who currently are young might well write moving, nostalgic tributes to them some day in the future. So it goes. But it is not the same as it used to be.

Jackson was of another era, when every game seemed special, because we had so few of them to choose from, and his voice immediately signaled that it was time to pay attention.

Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, which owns ABC, summed it up in a statement upon Jackson’s death, saying, “For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football. When you heard his voice, you knew it was a big game.”

But Jackson was something different even compared to his contemporaries. His voice had just enough of the South in it as a native Georgian to speak college football’s language, but not so much that it turned off the rest of us.

Even for a sports fan of a certain age, it is a bit of a surprise to read his resume and recall just how many things he covered. The USFL? The AFL? NASCAR? Formula One? Boxing? Cliff diving?

Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS between the Mets and Astros? Yes, that, too.

But it all seemed beside the point on Saturday. As remembrances poured in on social media, they were variations on a theme: He was the soundtrack of college football, period.

Jackson recalled that as a boy there was not much “pro stuff” around. That was for the big cities in the north. So he bonded with college football.

He attributed his “Whoa, Nellie,” to his great-grandfather, a farmer who used that phrase in the fields.

So that apparently is who Jackson often thought of when he watched college football. The rest of us think of Jackson.