PULLMAN – Raising a flag is easy when you’ve been a standard-bearer for most of your life.
Especially when you’ve come home to the place where it all began, to “my kind of people,” sportscasting legend Keith Jackson said Saturday night after he tugged at the rope that hoisted the Washington State University flag above Martin Stadium.
It was a weekend that also tugged at Jackson’s own heartstrings: The WSU School of Communication renamed a building in his honor and a crowd of 30,874 cheered as he stood at the stadium entrance under the WSU banner.
“I’m very proud, very proud to be a Cougar,” the 85-year-old Jackson said before returning to a stadium that he barely recognized from his days as a student broadcaster in the 1950s, when the press box was so cold that “I nearly froze my tail off.”
Instead, the young Jackson worked his tail off, from the Palouse to the Puget Sound to the big time. By the time he retired eight years ago, the one-time WSU freshman class president was in a class by himself: He was the voice of college football.
Fifteen Rose Bowls, 16 Sugar Bowls, made all the more memorable by his golden voice and memorable phrases such as “fum-BLE,” “hold the phone” (after a penalty) and the oft-quoted, more-often-misunderstood “Whoa, Nellie.”
That one originated from his youth on a farm in Georgia, where his grandfather would mutter the phrase for no special reason. “That kind of stuck to the gruffy kid who followed him around,” Jackson said.
And for no special reason, it stuck in the minds of millions of college football fans, who followed Jackson during a career that began with a radio broadcast of a WSU-Stanford football game in 1952 and ended in 2006.
In between, Jackson reached to his Pullman past even as he reached for the stars. He began as a political science major, which must have served him well in Moscow in 1958 for the first American athletic foray in the Soviet Union, a rowing contest that thawed the Cold War at least briefly.
But he found his true calling at the broadcasting school, honing his skills under the legendary Edward R. Murrow and perfecting them in radio and television, from football to basketball to the Olympics.
Many times during his career, he credited the school with teaching him “all the little things” that made him a legend.
In the process he became the school’s favorite son – but one who repaid the honor many times, with promotional spots for the school and more than $1 million in donations to both sports and academics.
They intersected again this weekend, as Jackson and his fellow graduates from the class of 1954 returned for their reunion. On Friday, the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication named its broadcast building for Jackson.
“Beyond Murrow himself, I can think of no alumnus who better deserves to have a building in our complex bear his name,” Murrow Founding Dean Lawrence Pintak wrote in making the request on behalf of the college’s faculty.
At the ceremony, Jackson recalled, “It was a comfortable place after one year for me, I simply admitted then and there that this was my kind of place, my kind of people – and you still are.
“I’m delighted from the bottom of my soul,” he told the crowd.
On Saturday, he was back in the stadium where it all began. At halftime of WSU’s win over Portland State, he awakened the echoes with radio broadcaster Bob Robertson, chatting about the Cougars and delivering a parting message to the crowd:
“I’m delighted to come back home, and my thoughts are, who wouldn’t want to go to school here?”
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