In covering sports television for nearly 35 years, first at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and then for nearly 30 years at the L.A. Times, I think I got to know Keith Jackson fairly well.
He could be a bit of a curmudgeon at times, but underneath a somewhat crusty exterior was a true Southern gentleman.
One thing I know for sure. Commentators who worked alongside Keith, such as Bob Griese and Dan Fouts, didn’t just like him, they adored him. One other thing: Keith’s wife of more than 60 years, Turi Ann, is about as nice of a person as there is, and no doubt some of that niceness rubbed off on Keith.
A couple of years ago, when I asked Keith to speak at a sports luncheon I was involved with, the curmudgeon side showed. “Do you think anyone will come to hear what this ol’ boy has to say?” he asked.
He came, along with Roy Firestone, and the two together were tremendous. Both confessed that Keith had never said “Whoa, Nellie.” That line was just a part of Firestone’s stand-up act.
“My mule back home in Georgia was named Pearl,” Jackson said.
Said Firestone: “That line came from the old-time wrestling announcer Dick Lane.”
I have lots of stories about Keith Jackson, but the following one here is my favorite.
Keith planned to retire after the 1998 college football season. Although he came back six months later before retiring for good in 2006, in 1998 his impending retirement was a big story that was getting national attention.
ABC had Keith do a conference call with sportswriters from across the country. But since I wrote for a Los Angeles newspaper and Keith lived in Sherman Oaks, I wanted to do an exclusive interview with Keith at his home.
The then-head of publicity for ABC Sports, Mark Mandel, said Keith had grown tired of all the hoopla and really didn’t want to do that. So, I took it upon myself and called Keith to see if I could talk him into granting me an in-person interview at his home.
Initially he turned me down. I then asked if we could at least send a Times photographer to his home. He grumbled for a bit before finally saying that would be okay. “There’ll be a crew from ‘Good Morning America’ here at the house anyway.” I then asked if I could come along with the photographer, and, after thinking about it, he said, “I guess that would be okay.”
I drove myself to the house and, coincidentally, the photographer arrived at the same time, around 11:30. The “Good Morning America” crew was gone, allowing the Times photographer to do his thing. After that, I stuck around and Keith started showing me some of his memorabilia – although there wasn’t as much in the house as you might think.
Keith explained: “Turi Ann told me if I brought home any more helmets, she was going to throw them and me out of the house.”
Then he started telling stories, and I got out my notebook. I was getting an interview after all – and a lengthy one at that. As I recall, it was about when Keith opened a second bottle of one his finest red wines and got ready to pour me a glass. We had already killed off the first bottle and I certainly didn’t need another glass of wine. So, I thanked him and said I needed to get home.
I had gone from no in-person interview to one that was one of the most memorable I ever did.