Dr. Saturday

Whoa, Nellie: Keith Jackson mystified by longevity of trademark call

Jim Weber
Dr. Saturday

Jim Weber runs LostLettermen.com, a site devoted to keeping tabs on former college athletes and other nostalgia. Recently, he tracked down legendary college football play-by-play man Keith Jackson.

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Certain phrases uttered by certain broadcasters become so iconic they're 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."

When people hear the words "Whoa, Nellie!", they think of one man: Keith Jackson.

But if the retired broadcasting legend 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, Calif. "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."

Does he even like the phrase?

"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.{YSP:MORE} People ask him how and when it started. He doesn't know, but many claim it was actually coined by a Los Angeles broadcaster named Dick Lane. People have incorrectly speculated that Jackson had a goat in his home state of Georgia named Nellie, and a stranger once 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 understatement remain 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. Anyone hoping Jackson would reconsider his second retirement after the '06 Rose Bowl aren't about to get their wish. Five years later, Jackson says he has no regrets about leaving.

[Related: College football's Top 10 most unruly fanbases]

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 game on TV.

"I have not ever considered coming back again," Jackson said definitively."I watch some (college football) on television, I'm just not glued to it. It's not a passion that it once was because I did it 54 years."

Jackson 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 Big Ten schools. And of course, people have been nagging Jackson for an autobiography on one of the longest and most pathbreaking careers in sports, which also put him in the booth for the first-ever broadcast of Monday Night Football and the first sports broadcast by an American 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!"

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