Keith Jackson: One of history’s best reporters

Tuesday, January 19, 1999
Topeka Capital-Journal

This is another name-dropping column, another chapter in the story of my life among the bigshots. The big name in this one is Keith Jackson, who retired earlier this month from ABC after a 47-year career that established him firmly as the top college football announcer in the land, and one of the best reporters in sports history.

Keith also was involved, at about the mid-point in his career, with producing and directing sports shows for television, and that’s when I got to know him pretty well.

In 1970 I was running NCAA Films, and as part of the college football package on ABC we produced a Sunday morning highlight show of top games played the day before, plus an annual prime-time special to open the season.

The 1970 special just about named itself. There were so many good quarterbacks returning that season that the title of the show almost automatically became “The Year of the Quarterback.” It also was the year Jackson played about all the positions behind the camera, as well as in front of it, in putting the show together.

I started out asking him to narrate it once it was in its final form, but the more we talked the more it became clear he was interested in doing a lot more. In the end we agreed he wouldn’t quite do it all; he’d merely produce, direct, write and narrate the show, plus do much of the editing.

We started in the production facility in Los Angeles owned by Arthur Rosenblum, now a legend himself in the business. We looked to see what film we had, and what we’d need to do the show, and we literally had to fight our way through a lot of smoke.

Keith was almost a chain smoker of Marlboro cigarettes, Arthur was hooked on cigars made in the Canary Islands, and I smoked anything that would burn. All of us were trying to quit, but only Arthur was serious about it. He’d send his secretary out in the morning to buy him two cigars, and would say, “That’s it for the day.” A couple of hours later, and two or three more times a day, she’d go for two more.

It was determined that all of the top quarterbacks had to be interviewed for the show, and Keith would handle it. Before he could talk with them all, however, we ran into a time pinch, and he told me I’d have to do the final two, John Reaves of Florida and Pat Sullivan of Auburn, who would go on to win the Heisman Trophy in 1971.

To save time and money, we arranged for both of them to go to Miami, where they’d be interviewed on the beach. Since Keith had coached them, and the film crew, by phone on what he expected, and had gone over it several dozen times with me, it went well, except for one thing.

Reeves, a tall, handsome model of what a quarterback should look like, brought along an exceptionally pretty young woman, and wanted her to appear at least briefly with him on the beach. I agreed, figuring we could edit her out and explain later. Keith took one look at her, and she stayed in.

The Jackson show was good, but the network never was wild about these prime-time specials, even when we featured its then-new stars, Burt Reynolds and Lee Majors, as hosts. I learned one reason why when I was screening one of them for the ABC brass in New York. At one of the commercial breaks, when the card came on the screen saying “Place commercial here,” a voice from the back of the room said, “What commercial?” It was Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports.

Keith tried again to move behind the camera for us a couple of years later. NCAA Films was trying to peddle a package of features that included all NCAA sports, including water polo and field hockey. Ford Motor Co. expressed an interest, and invited us to New York to make a half-hour pitch to a large gathering of company executives and their advertising agency.

I was smart enough to call Keith and ask him to help with the presentation, and to consider being heavily involved in the package if we sold it. He came and did a masterful job for us, and we in fact celebrated a likely victory. It wasn’t until several days later we learned our proposal had lost by what was called a narrow margin.

Keith quit at age 71, admitting he isn’t the horse he once was. Before his last game he told an interviewer that when he stepped back to examine what kind of job he was doing, he “saw some cracks.” The interviewer also said Keith lost half a lung in the early ’90s, so he must have quit smoking.

It would be wrong for me to use the old show-biz line and say Keith is “a very dear friend of mine.” It wouldn’t fly, anyway, because when Pete Goering interviewed him last November and told him “Snider said hello,” he replied, “Is he still alive?”

It also would be wrong to say the high point in his career was the “The Year of the Quarterback.” That came last season when he was introduced at a Michigan game and a crowd of 111,000 gave him a standing ovation. Some goodbye. Some man.

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