The legendary Keith Jackson came close to not being an icon of college football.
If not for Roone Arledge’s infatuation with Frank Gifford, well, he would have likely stayed with Monday Night Football.
Youngsters are confused with the word “stay” there.
The very first season of Monday Night Football, which was on ABC then, kicked off with Joe Namath and the New York Jets against the Cleveland Browns in 1970 had Jackson behind the mic.
Yes, Jackson was the first ringmaster of a three-ring circus that had him trying to keep things on track between Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
Arledge, then head of ABC Sports (years later he added the news division to his domain), knew Gifford’s contract with CBS was ending after the 1970 football season.
Jackson was not in favor of the move at the time.
“It pissed me off,” Jackson told me the night before Arkansas and SMU played in Texas Stadium in 1982 while sitting in the bar at the Anatole Hotel.
ABC was doing the game and Jackson did the play-by-play with Lee Grosscup handling the color. As Arkansas’ athletics director, Frank Broyles didn’t do Razorback games and was in Los Angeles doing the USC-UCLA game that day.
“We had a pretty good group that first year on Monday Nights,” he said. “Howard was, well, he was Howard. Don had that cornpone bull*&$#, which was fine and a lot of people really liked it. It was fun keeping it all on track.”
Arledge promised Jackson he would make him the voice of college football as one means of making the transition a little easier to swallow.
“He also gave me some more money,” Jackson said.
As usual, Jackson asked as many questions as he answered as the talk turned to the next day’s game. Most were about how the Mustangs were handling the change in coaches with Bobby Collins taking over for Ron Meyer.
“Bobby started off lost and confused,” was how I described it. “Now he’s just lost and not showing signs of finding his way out of the trees.”
He also wanted everyone’s prediction on the game from the three or four other Dallas-area media guys around then.
It wasn’t unanimous. As usual, Jackson straddled the fence and wasn’t coming down on one side or the other.
The game ended in a 17-17 tie that didn’t leave anyone happy. SMU had scored late on a pass interference call against the Hogs that SHOULD have been called against the Mustangs, so everybody from Arkansas was mad.
As luck would have it, I ran across Jackson as he was leaving the stadium.
“Hell, I guess everybody’s mad now,” he said with that cackling laugh of his. “SMU will be madder about this one a month from now, though, because this one will cost ’em a national championship.”
“Even if they beat Pitt in the Cotton Bowl?” I asked because everybody already knew that matchup was set.
“Yep,” was Jackson’s reply. “The voters are just looking for a reason to not vote for SMU and this tie gave it to ’em.”
He also was deadly accurate about Arkansas.
“Lou’s (Holtz) got a bigger problem, though,” he said. “He’s gotta go down to Austin next week and play the Longhorns.”
That turned out to be true, too, as Texas beat the Hogs badly, 33-7.
Jackson passed away Friday night. It’s not accurate to paint him as a college football announcer because he did everything from the Olympics to baseball.
He was unique in so many ways and always had time to talk to just about anyone, plus he usually had a straightforward opinion on just about anything.
And he was usually right.