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It may come as a surprise to viewers of ABC's college football telecasts that Keith Jackson of Carrollton, Ga. and Washington State U. now resides, not in Norman, Okla. or Ann Arbor, Mich., but in the Greater Los Angeles area. ("I live here," Jackson says, "because I need access to a major airport.") It just seems that Jackson must live in some big, old frat house, so firmly established is he as the voice of college football. Dave Cawood, the NCAA's director of public relations, says, "We think he's so identified with college football that even when people see him working on another event, they associate him with college football."
"I think college football is a reflection of Middle America," says Jackson, who long ago dropped his Southern accent for intonations that might best be described as Middle American. "That's the kind of stock I'm from and that's where I think the strength of the country is. You go into a college football town, and you will find three generations of a family sitting together. It's a rallying point for the university, the community and the families."
In the midst of his sixth season telecasting college football, Jackson, 50, is regarded as an outstanding play-by-play announcer. He knows the rules, calls a game that satisfies even those purists who chart the flow of the action and transmits enthusiasm for the sport, though he may not be quite as steeped in gridiron lore as Lindsey Nelson. He has credibility with the viewer, is relatively free of clich�s and treats each game as something less than the Armageddon Bowl. His critics acknowledge that Jackson attends to the basics, that he sets the scene well and evokes a sense of the drama that puts viewers right in the stadium, but fault him for a disinclination to discuss the negative—"I don't believe a 20-year-old kid should be criticized for making a mistake," he says—or the controversial.
No wonder that until last year Jackson was rarely the target of zingers by TV critics. But then came the infamous 1978 Gator Bowl, and the punch by overwrought Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes seen 'round the world—seemingly by everybody but Jackson in the ABC booth.
Jackson insists that the crowd of players, coaches and hangers-on cluttering the Ohio State sideline obscured his view of Hayes' poke at Clemson Middle Guard Charlie Bauman. Jackson didn't see it when it happened, and he couldn't check his monitor for a replay of the blow. Producer Bob Goodrich, working on a short budget, had chosen not to have a special replay machine at the Gator Bowl, so ABC couldn't reshow the picture of the punch that went over the air live and was taped in studios all over the country and repeatedly replayed on news shows.
The only replay available to Jackson was the end zone replay that showed Hayes coming down the sideline readying a swing. Because Jackson says he never saw Hayes hit Bauman, he was unable to talk about it on the air, despite frantic pleas by Goodrich in the truck and ABC bigwigs who called in from afar urging him to do so.
"I never saw Hayes hit him until the next day," Jackson says. "Nobody actually told me Hayes hit him. I heard somebody say, 'He hit him.' I said, 'Who?' and then we were live. I still feel I can't report what I don't see."
There were heated meetings about the incident at ABC, and critics outside the network charged that Jackson had become so much a spokesman for college football that he shied away from mentioning such an unsavory occurrence; that he didn't see it because he didn't want to see it; that a reporter frequently has to re-create what he doesn't see. Jackson says he had no reason to protect Hayes because he never particularly admired Woody, but he is resigned that the incident won't go away. "You live with it, that's all," he says. "I'm the visible one, so I guess I have to take the heat."
Jackson has usually avoided such situations because he is so well prepared. He arrives at the site of the week's game a couple of days ahead of time and makes it a point to sit down with assistant coaches.
"There are two guys I like to talk to: the offensive line coach or coordinator and the defensive secondary or linebacker coach," he says. "If they don't know what's going to happen, it isn't going to happen. And it's easier and more informative to get two hours with assistants, because the head coach has to be a politician and he's up to his eyeballs in people."