Keith Jackson, leading college football broadcaster and WSU alum, dies at 89

Keith Jackson, the folksy voice of college football who for decades weaved backwoods wit through Saturday afternoon ABC broadcasts, has died. Jackson got his start calling Cougars games while attending Washington State University.

Keith Jackson, the folksy voice of college football who for decades weaved backwoods wit through Saturday afternoon ABC broadcasts, has died. He was 89.

Jackson died Friday night, according to ESPN and other media outlets.

In a 52-year broadcasting career, Jackson covered a wide variety of sports for radio and TV, including a rowing competition in the former Soviet Union, but he was best known as ABC’s voice of NCAA football — and for the homespun phrases he used in reporting it.

To Jackson, linemen were not guards and tackles, they were “the big uglies.” Running backs didn’t drop the ball, there was a “fuumm-bull!” Of an undersize player, he might say, “He’s a little-bitty thing, a bantam rooster. But he’s young. If he keeps eatin’ his cornbread, he’ll be man-sized some day.”

And, of course, there was “Whoa, Nellie!,” his signature phrase.

Or was it?

Strangers in restaurants, airports, stadium parking lots and downtown streets would sidle up to Jackson and bellow, “Whoa, Nellie!” Jackson, however, always maintained that he might have — might have, mind you — used the phrase a time or two early in his career but that mostly it was the work of impersonators, primarily Roy Firestone, who were responsible for the spread of the phrase.

“This ‘Whoa, Nellie!’ thing is overrated,” he said frequently. “There were all kinds of stories going around. People said I had a mule in Georgia named Nellie. Well, we had a mule in Georgia, but her name was Pearl.”

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Despite his protests, however, Jackson enthusiastically proclaimed, “Whoa, Nellie!” in a beer commercial late in his career.

He was so entrenched in college football, that ABC wouldn’t let him retire the first time he tried. He announced before the 1998 season that it would be his last, that, at 70, he was tired of getting on airplanes. But he was back in the booth in the fall of 1999, the network having lured him with a promise of keeping him close to his Los Angeles Oaks home by…

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