There are certain phrases by legendary broadcasters that are so iconic they’ve been bound together for eternity.
People will always remember that Walter Cronkite finished his nightly newscast with, “And that’s the way it is,” and that Edward R. Murrow always closed with, “Good night, and good luck.”
And when people hear the words “Whoa, Nellie!,” they think of retired college football announcer Keith Jackson.
But if Jackson had his way, that wouldn’t be the case. In fact, he’s still trying to figure out how the two got so intertwined.
“I never did use it that much, just a couple times when Grease (Bob Griese) and I were (broadcasting) together,” Jackson, now 82, said this week from his home in Sherman Oaks, CA. “Bob Griese used it more than I did. I don’t know how that thing got hung on me. The media likes to hang things on you and that was my bad luck, I guess.”
“Eh,” Jackson replied. “I haven’t used it – I never did use it much – and I haven’t used it in a long time. It’s amazing how it’s hung on.”
It’s done more than hang on. It’s taken on a life of its own. People always ask him how and when it started – neither of which he knows, although many claim it was actually coined by a local Los Angeles broadcaster named Dick Lane.
They’ve incorrectly speculated that Jackson had a goat back in his home state of Georgia named Nellie and a stranger once even approached his wife of nearly 60 years, Turi Ann, and said, “Excuse me, you must be Nellie.”
“Whoa, Nellie!” or not, Jackson and his voice are still deeply missed by college football fans, many of whom haven’t heard it since his final telecast at the 2006 Rose Bowl between Texas and USC.
Speaking from his home now, Jackson doesn’t use the booming baritone voice that he’s known for, but his Southern accent and stoic way of saying things is unmistakable. He seems perplexed as to why anyone would be interested in knowing what he’s doing now and agrees to be interviewed only if it doesn’t take too long.
But once he loosens up, Jackson talks for over a half-hour. He uses a self-deprecating sense of humor and rattles off names, places and events over his illustrious broadcasting career with the memory of an elephant.
There’s certainly a lot to recall. His broadcasting career dates all the way back to his time as a student at Washington State after serving for four years in the Marine Corps and growing up in rural west Georgia. Calling his first college football game in 1952 for the campus radio station, Jackson was hired permanently by ABC Sports just 14 years later in 1966, which was also the year the network acquired broadcasting rights for college football.
While Jackson covered just about everything while at ABC – including 10 Olympics and the first season of “Monday Night Football” – he will always be best known as the voice of college football for his role as ABC’s lead play-by-play man.
He was so beloved that former USC head coach John Robinson once said of Jackson, “For my life, he’s been the Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow of the sport. College football is better because of him.”
Jackson originally retired after the 1999 Fiesta Bowl but came back before the following season to the delight of college football fans because ABC allowed him to cut down on travel by staying on the West Coast to broadcast games.
But those hoping Jackson would reconsider his second retirement after the ’06 Rose Bowl haven’t gotten their wish. Five years later, Jackson said he still has no regrets about leaving.
“I have not ever considered coming back again,” Jackson said definitively.
So what is Jackson doing with his time?
Well, he doesn’t like to travel, explaining that he’s “been everywhere twice.” The two places you’ll most likely find him are on his porch or playing golf at the famed Los Angeles Country Club, where Jackson is a member.
Jackson’s still on his game even if he’s no longer a five handicap.
“I can still break 80,” Jackson said. “I had a hole-in-one three weeks ago.”
He likes watching golf on TV and has enjoyed following the United States women’s soccer team in the Women’s World Cup.
As for college football, Jackson hasn’t attended a single game in retirement and doesn’t plan on it. When he flipped the coin before the 2010 BCS National Championship Game between Texas and Alabama, Jackson walked out of the Rose Bowl afterward and went home to watch the contest.
“I watch some (college football) on television, I’m just not glued to it,” Jackson said. “It’s not a passion that it once was because I did it 54 years.”
But he recalls his college football experiences fondly, especially right before kickoff when he’d sit in the press box and watch the bands perform while people filed into the stadium. He mentions Michigan Stadium – which he coined “The Big House” – and the Rose Bowl among the most special venues he’s visited. Jackson also mentions his affinity for Nebraska fans because of the way they even cheer their opponents.
“I enjoyed college football because every week was a festival,” Jackson said.
But he doesn’t miss everything about college game days: “I have a history of having trouble with parking attendants. I don’t know why, but I do.”
Jackson actually still has one broadcasting gig on the side. From a Los Angeles studio, he will be voicing over the Big Ten Network’s “Icons” series on the most legendary coach from all 12 schools. You can expect a spot on that list to go to Penn State head coach Joe Paterno, who is still coaching despite being two years older than Jackson.
“I love Joe and Sue Paterno,” Jackson said. “They’re as nice of people as I ever want to know.”
And of course, people have been nagging Jackson for an autobiography on his life and experiences, such as being the first American sports announcer to broadcast an event from the Soviet Union.
“If I could get someone like John Grisham or someone like that to sit down and write a book with me, I’d love that,” Jackson said of the best-selling author. “And John might even consider it if I could catch up to him and ask him.”
Just don’t expect it to be titled, “Whoa, Nellie!”
Most popular on LostLettermen.com: