Remembering Keith Jackson: A Visit to Michigan With the Broadcaster


The remark provided Jackson with a chance to quote Fritz Crisler, the former Michigan coach who mentored the young sportscaster. His bourbon-smooth voice mimicking Crisler’s baritone, Jackson said, “Old Fritz, his neck swelling and eyes flashing, would say, ‘What do you propose to do — teach them to lose?’”

The next morning, Jackson drove from his Ypsilanti hotel in a white rental car more than three hours before the noon game time.

“Whoa, it’s a cool day and I’ve never seen this,” he said, seeing traffic back up a quarter-mile from the Interstate 94 exit ramp leading to the stadium.

“Your moment of stress comes when you’re trying to get to the game,” he said. “Last week in Bloomington, we had a blue parking pass to go to the ABC trucks, but this highway patrolman wouldn’t … let … us … go … that … way. I said, ‘I think we’re going — even if we have to run over you.’ ”

Finding the parking lot closest to Michigan Stadium, he prepared to make a left turn. “I’m going in here, so hold your damned taters!” he said.

When he left the car, he clamped a black cap over his silver hair, hoping not to be recognized. He strode along Main Street toward the stadium, wearing a black overcoat, bulling into the breeze like a Big Ugly trampling a nose tackle. His leave-taking was widely noted by fans walking with him or tailgating in the parking lots.

“You are college football to me!” shouted one fan.

“You’re what the game is all about!” called out a second.

“Take a picture with me!” pleaded a third.

“You and I are both retiring,” a policeman told him as he stood at a red light at East Stadium Boulevard. “I’ve got two more weeks.”

“And I’ve got six,” Jackson said.

Jackson quietly offered his gratitude, looking a bit abashed. If he had planned his retirement more meticulously — and not confirmed it publicly before the season — he would have said, “Folks, I’ll see you,” and vanished from public view as soon as he signed off at the conclusion of the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 4.

Upstairs in the broadcast booth, Jackson and Griese prepared for the broadcast. Griese, the stolid, quiet partner, was paired with Jackson 12 years ago. “At our first game, he said to me, ‘All right, what do you want to do?’ I said: ‘You’re the guy who’s been here. You’re Mr. College Football.’ ”

Jackson taped the teaser — “the Penn State front seven will wreck your parlor, and the cornerbacks are the wrecking ball … with those guys up front there are times you think your grandpa could play the secondary” — then rehearsed the commercial announcements that he must recite at nearly every break. He accepts the clutter, but hates it. Off the air, he tweaked them with glee.

About “Sports Night,” a new ABC “dramedy,” he said, “The show The New York Times — God forbid — called the best new show on TV.”

A coming N.F.L. game: “This is the first time Green Bay has played Pittsburgh on ‘Monday Night Football.’ Big deal.”

“Slow down, Hoss,” Griese said. “You’re doing all your good stuff too early.”

With the noon kickoff minutes away, Jackson paused before sitting for the first half. He took a swig from a bottle of water. He looked around the stadium, nearly full with a crowd that would be announced as 111,019.

“Look at this,” he said. “I’m getting goose bumps.”

A Love Greater Than Football

To comprehend Jackson’s decision to retire as college football’s bard, one must sense the love he feels for his wife, Turi Ann.

“This lady and I have never had a September, October, November of our own, not in 46 years,” Jackson said during lunch last Friday. “Next year we’re going to. We always planned it this way. This didn’t just fall out of the sky. We’re thrifty. We can live off our interest, save the principal and let the kids go off and have a hoot.” The Jacksons have three children.

At age 70, his game-calling skills are still better than anyone else’s in college football. “He’s the predominant persona, and I’ve just wanted to fit with him and play off him,” Griese said.

The voice, a sound of the South like Mel Allen’s and Red Barber’s, retains its pop, its lyricism, its wit. “You always know it’s a big game when Keith’s there,” said Penn State Coach Joe Paterno.

But Jackson, who is originally from Carrollton, Ga., will leave TV without remorse. As evidence that he can drop a sport and not look back, he said he has not attended a baseball game since calling the 16-inning, epic Game 6 of the Mets-Houston National League Championship Series in 1986. And when his career ends at the Fiesta Bowl, that will be that.

“We’ve lived the golden years,” he said. “You can’t stop the march to ‘Que Sera.’ ”

He loves college towns — Ann Arbor the most — the camaraderie of friends and the echoes inside Michigan Stadium. He will miss arriving on Thursdays, reading the local newspaper classified ads to check the pulse of the town and discovering that the figure atop the state Capitol in Lincoln, Neb., is a sower.

But when he travels to Columbus or Madison or Happy Valley without Turi Ann, he misses the “long, tall, blond” sweetheart he met when they were students at Washington State, in Pullman, after his four-year stint as a Marine mechanic.

“In my Christmas card to him, I wrote that I want my marriage after 10 years to be as good as theirs after 46,” said Jay Rothman, Jackson’s game producer.

The Jacksons want to wake up, then decide what to do, in Sherman Oaks, or at their retreat in Garden Bay, British Columbia. They want to golf, fish and garden together, and he wants to watch her cook supper.

“That’s as close to heaven as I’m going to get,” he said.

As the Jacksons lunched on potato soup, Turi Ann said:…

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