Legendary announcer Keith Jackson held Nebraska football fans in high regard

Legendary announcer Keith Jackson held Nebraska football fans in high regard
Keith Jackson interviews Tom Osborne before Nebraska's game at No. 2 Washington in 1997. (World-Herald News Service)

There’s a room named after legendary play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson in the Memorial Stadium press box.

Jackson, whose signature phrases like “Whoa, Nelly!” made him the down-home voice of college football during more than five decades as a sportscaster, died Friday. He was 89.

Jackson was the lead commentator for many moments in Husker history. He called Nebraska’s victory over Oklahoma in 1978 — when the Huskers forced six fumbles to snap a seven-game losing streak to the Sooners — the 1974 Sugar Bowl and the 1997 win at No. 2 Washington, among countless other classics.

He became such a regular presence in Lincoln that when Memorial Stadium underwent a renovation in the late ’90s, there was a particular part of the press box dedicated to him — the bathroom in the TV broadcast booth.

Don Bryant, the longtime NU sports information director, said Jackson told him at the time he was pleasantly surprised that he would have access to a bathroom in the booth rather than have to use the facilities open to the rest of the working news media. Seeing an opportunity to have some fun with his longtime friend, Bryant had an engraved sign hung next to the door of the TV booth bathroom: “Keith Jackson Toilet Facility.”

Jackson seemed to always hold Nebraska fans in high regard. In a 2010 interview with The World-Herald, Jackson said his favorite memory from calling Nebraska games was seeing how gracious Husker fans were in defeat, like in a 1985 loss to Florida State or to Washington in 1991.

“Maybe it’s because I’m an old country boy,” Jackson said, “but I respect that from a crowd, who will say to the winner, ‘Well done.’ ”

Jackson also recorded a video tribute to Nebraska fans that was played during the celebration of Memorial Stadium’s 300th consecutive sellout in 2009.

“300 consecutive sellouts? Are you kidding? Wow!” Jackson said in the video. “And some of the guys from that first Bob Devaney team are here today to join the party as well. These are the guys that sowed the seeds. They’re the ones that set the discipline standard. They’re the ones that opened the door to this historic day. 300 consecutive sellouts. The whole nation of college football stands in admiration.”

Jackson covered many sports, but he was best known for college football. A native of rural west Georgia, his smooth baritone voice and use of phrases like “big uglies” for linemen gave his game calls a familiar feel.

He might be best known for his “Whoa, Nelly!” exclamation, but he didn’t overuse it during games. Borrowed from his great-grandfather, a farmer, the phrase was also part of a commercial Jackson did for Miller Lite in the mid-’90s.

In a Fox Sports interview in 2013, Jackson said his folksy language stemmed from his rural upbringing and he became comfortable with the usage through the years.

“I would go around and pluck things off the bush and see if I could find a different way to say some things. And the older I got the more willing I was to go back into the Southern vernacular because some of it’s funny,” Jackson said.

Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive of The Walt Disney Co., said listeners “knew it was a big game” when they heard Jackson’s voice.

“For generations of fans, Keith Jackson was college football,” Iger said.

Jackson’s death comes just three weeks after that of another sportscasting titan — Dick Enberg, known for his own excited calls of “Oh, my!” during a 60-year career.

Today’s college football broadcasters paid tribute to Jackson on social media.

Kirk Herbstreit said in a tweet that Jackson was “everyone’s favorite CFB broadcaster.”

“Can close my eyes and think of so many of his special calls. Thank you Keith for all the memories and the grace in which you provided them,” Herbstreit wrote.

Desmond Howard, who returned a punt for a touchdown at Michigan in one of Jackson’s best-known calls, tweeted that he had a hard time expressing how much Jackson meant to him, his alma mater and college football.

“May his family find some comfort in knowing how much joy he brought us for so many years and that his legacy endures,” Howard said.

After serving four years in the Marine Corps, Jackson broadcast his first college football game in 1952 as an undergraduate at Washington State. He worked in radio and television before joining ABC Sports in 1966.

Jackson first announced his retirement in 1998 but returned to work. He finally retired after the 2006 Rose Bowl and is a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Turi Ann.

Funeral arrangements were not announced.

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