It's difficult to believe that Jackson has been a fixture at ABC for 22 years, considering how many bumps have disrupted his ride. Take, for example, the rude and circuitous route he followed in becoming the voice of college sports.
Almost everyone except Jackson forgets that he was the first play-by-play man on
Monday Night Football
, sitting beside Cosell and Meredith when the show made its debut in 1970. He thought his career was riding high when in February '71, just after the end of the first MNF season, he checked into a hotel in Milwaukee and found a stack of 38 phone messages waiting at the desk. The calls were from sportswriters who had heard from ABC that Jackson had been sacked from the show and replaced by Frank Gifford. Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, wanted Gifford's marquee value and grabbed him from CBS as soon as his contract expired.
The firing stung Jackson, but even worse was the atrocious way in which it was handled. "In those 38 messages," Jackson says, "there was not one call from Roone. He says he called, and who knows, maybe he did, but it hurt my feelings for a time."
The Monday Night Massacre turned out to be a blessing for Jackson. He went on to team with Bill Russell on ABC's critically acclaimed NBA telecasts for four years. And in 1974 he became Mr. College Football. For five years running, 1972-76, members of the print and broadcast media voted him National Sportscaster of the Year. The sound of Jackson's voice—energetic and crackling, always up and always on—was perfect for the rah-rah college game, and in a very short time, that sound became the sound of ABC Sports. During that time, of course, Jackson polished his KJ-isms.
Veteran KJ-ologists know that Jackson uses a superabundance of animal and landscape imagery. Punts are "tail draggers," interior linemen are "big uglies down in the trenches," and any rainstorm of consequence is a "gully washer." Running backs "canter" into the end zone. High scoring teams don't just "burn down the barn," they "take a couple of rows of the cornfield" with them. The star linebacker just "pinned his ears back" and "laid a few licks on folks." And as long as a team continues to "dodge the bullet," it figures to be "in the hunt." Some KJ-ologists insist that Jackson invented "in the hunt." The phrase is currently popular with political-campaign managers.
Says Lampley, "He communicates to Middle America in a way that can only be envied."
Over the years, KJ has become something of an evangelist for college football; the game has become part of his roots. Critics accuse him of sugarcoating the sport, but to Jackson, college football is family, tradition, everything that is safe and sacred. He speaks at school after school, telling how the mommies and the daddies and the grandpappies are brought closer together at the stadium. "He's a true believer," says Donn Bernstein, director of college sports for ABC. "He sees it in terms of growth, competitiveness, fair play and all that. He knows there are problems—he's not a naive man. But he prefers to believe in the good things."
With football so precious to Jackson, it's all the more remarkable that when his previous contract expired after the 1986 Sugar Bowl he said to ABC, "I'm a-goin'," and walked into the night. He says he had no idea what he would do, a prospect that rather pleased him, and was prepared to sit out the year, then figure out something. So final seemed his decision that Frank Broyles, his Sugar Bowl TV partner, says there were a few tears when Jackson and Turi bid adieu to Broyles and his wife, Barbara.
Jackson says now that he was fed up with the travel, but the truth is, he had been falling out of favor at ABC. In 1982 he was taken off baseball and put on the pitiful USFL, an assignment he says he wanted. He was relegated to near obscurity at the '84 Olympics in Los Angeles, covering only the snippets of basketball that ABC presented. Meanwhile, Michaels and Lampley were thriving. And finally, Arledge and other members of the ABC brass may have been too busy trying to save their own necks from the chopping block of ABC's new owners, Cap Cities Inc., to tell Jackson whether he was still on the hayride.
"When the money gets bigger and the stakes get higher, the sea gets wider and the sharks in the water grow sharper teeth," says Jackson of the corporate echelons of his chosen industry. His "retirement" ended in April when Dennis Swanson, Arledge's successor as president of ABC sports division, personally signed Jackson to a new three-year deal.