Keith Jackson Dies: College Football Voice Known For “Whoa, Nellie” Was 89

Bruce Haring

Keith Jackson, the voice of college football for four decades, died Friday night. He was 89. ESPN, the sister Disney company to ABC where Jackson spent much of his career, confirmed the death with his family.

Jackson was the lead broadcaster on ABC-TV’s college football broadcasting for more than 40 years. He retired with the 2006 Rose Bowl, where quarterback Vince Young led his Longhorns to the national championship over USC. Some call it the greatest college football game ever. He was also part of the first National Football League Monday Night Football broadcasting team for ABC.

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His signature phrase for a big moment, “Whoa, Nellie!”  was repeated to him ad infinitum in restaurants and other public places by fans throughout his career. Jackson later claimed that his use of the phrase wasn’t as prevalent as some remembered, and that its popularity lingered because of impersonators spreading it.

“This ‘Whoa, Nellie!’ thing is overrated,” he said on more than one occasion. “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.”

Jackson’s voice became the embodiment of college football. In an era without the proliferation of games from every part of the country that is today’s normal on a fall Saturday, a Jackson appearance certified that your game was indeed a big game. He was so entrenched that ABC convinced him to stay on the job well past his previously announced 1998 retirement, promising him that he would only call Pacific time zone games, which would get him back to his Sherman Oaks, CA home the same day.

Jackson was born Oct. 18, 1928, in Carrollton, Ga., a small town near the Georgia-Alabama border. Although he always had broadcasting aspirations, practicing calls to imaginary games as a boy, he finally got his chance at an actual broadcast while attending Washington State.  A professor in charge of the broadcasting program gave him an assignment, and he chose a basketball game at nearby Pullman High.

From there, Jackson began calling the Washington State Cougars games on the school station. Post-graduation, he went to work at KOMO-TV, a new ABC affiliate in Seattle, combining sports and news broadcasting.

Jackson joined the ABC radio network in 1965, getting his big break there when someone was needed to call a parachute-jumping segment for “Wide World of Sports” in 1968. He quickly moved to college football and became a staple of the game. Upon his announced retirement, many teams honored him at the games. In one instance, the Michigan marching band spelled out, “THANKS KEITH.”

“If I’ve helped people enjoy the telecast, that’s fine,” he said of his work. “That’s my purpose.”

Jackson won an Emmy and was inducted into two sportscasting halls of fame. Beyond college football, he worked college and pro basketball games, Major League Baseball, auto racing, Summer and Winter Olympics and, in 1970, was the first play-by-play announcer for NFL’s “Monday Night Football” on ABC.

It was college football, though, that set him apart. As Penn State coach Joe Paterno once noted, “You always know it’s a big game when Keith is there.”

Survivors include his wife, Turi Ann Johnsen, and children Melanie Ann, Lindsey and Christopher, plus several grandchildren.

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