During the telecast of the 1981 Gator Bowl between North Carolina and Arkansas something strange and wonderful happened. Play-by-play announcer Al Michaels pointedly referred to one player as "a hoss and a half." With those words, the School of KJ-ology was born. KJ-ologists devote themselves to the study and practice of speech patterns originated by Keith Jackson, and as anyone who has listened to the ABC announcer call a college football game or two surely knows, "hoss" is one of KJ's favorite expressions.
To be considered an official KJ-ologist, says ABC's Michaels, all one needs to do is drop a Keith Jacksonism into a broadcast. It doesn't have to be "hoss" or "hoss and a half." An announcer can use expressions such as "Merciful goodness, six points just went a-wastin'," or "They're rockin' and a-sockin' and a-whackin' and a-crackin'," or even the alltime Jackson favorite, "Fum-buuuullll!!!"
The School of KJ-ology has become one of the biggest inside jokes in sports TV. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, Jackson has some distinguished admirers, and they cut across network lines. Members of the tribe, active and inactive, include Michaels, Lee Grosscup, Jim Lampley, Howard Cosell, Don Meredith, Bob Costas, Brent Musburger and dean of admissions Roy Firestone, who hosts Sports Look on ESPN.
It's no coincidence that so many have caught KJ fever. As an original in a business overrun with carbon copies, Jackson begs to be imitated. Mr. College Football at ABC for 13 years and on his way to becoming the network's No. 1 college basketball announcer, he sounds almost as down-home and corn pone as he did when he first arrived at the network in 1964. Who else would open a prime-time telecast by saying, "There's a possum-huntin' moon in the sky"? Besides, Jackson's just a tad too serious, which makes imitating him fun.
If the School of KJ-ology says a lot about Jackson as a broadcaster, KJ's stoic reaction to his kidders, who must get under his skin at times, says a lot about him as a person. Asked what he thought about KJ-ology one August afternoon at his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home, the 58-year-old Jackson said, almost unbelievably, that he'd never heard of it. He may be freewheeling and gregarious at college football socials, but he's a solemn man at heart, and a loner in the world of TV. Bear Bryant was Jackson's kind of guy, not some network bigwig. Perhaps a tad too sensitive, Jackson left the TV business for three months in 1986, possibly because he felt ignored by ABC and bypassed by such younger stars as Michaels and Lampley, two of the ranking KJ-ologists.
Jackson could have publicly lashed out at the network and his rivals the way Cosell had—heaven knows, KJ has been kicked around enough in the past—but friends say he's too private and too loyal for that. Of his many imitators, Jackson says, "It seems to me a waste of time because, one, I don't think I'm very funny; two, I don't think I'm worth imitating; and three, if I were some of 'em, I'd be worried about trying to sound like myself, not somebody else." Says Turi, his wife of 34 years, "They can't sound like you, dear. They don't have the lung capacity."
The word that describes Jackson is roots. He came up out of the red clay of west Georgia and hasn't yet gotten it from under his fingernails. An only child (after the death of a baby sister) of a broken marriage, he was raised by a grandmother on a small farm outside Carrollton, 40 miles southwest of Atlanta. The family was dirt poor, and young Keith picked cotton, plowed fields, even studied by kerosene lamp through junior high school. Jackson got into broadcasting after enrolling, courtesy of the GI Bill, at Washington State in the police science and political science program. After graduation he hooked on with KOMO-TV in Seattle, where he broadcast the evening news and doubled as a sportscaster. It's hard to believe, considering how much he is identified with college football, but Jackson originally joined the ABC network as a newsman, working across a desk from Ted Koppel at ABC Radio in Los Angeles.
Jackson free-lanced for ABC Sports for several years, covering everything from AFL games to stock car races and log-rolling contests. He initially tried to remove that Georgia drawl from his voice, but fortunately for the future of KJ-ology, decided against it. "I came to the conclusion along the way that, hey, that's me. Take it or leave it, that's what I am, and I'm not going to run my backside all over the world trying to be somebody I'm not."
He was a hoss of a worker, and almost every week in the late '60s Jackson would greet TV viewers from someplace different. He was also big—6'3"—and his voice, as he would say, was "always turned up to holler." In fact, Jackson has always carefully varied his pitch. "The best way to get somebody's attention," he says, "is with a little quiet and then yell at 'em."
One of Jackson's often overlooked attributes is his consummate craftsmanship. He's knowledgeable and articulate on TV. "You're there to amplify, clarify, punctuate and then get out of the way," says Jackson, and he fills that bill a lot better than most of his colleagues. As Michaels says, "He puts words together like nobody in this business ever has." The one sport he is weak in is baseball, probably because he never broadcast regular-season major league games on a regular basis and thus lacked the stockpile of anecdotes and expertise necessary to carry him through the yawning innings of a slow game. And because his new contract calls for him to make fewer TV appearances, last October's National League playoffs were probably the last baseball games he will work.