Since we’re on a slow news cycle, I thought I’d share a story. It involves an Irish football coaching legend, a doddering fool of an announcer, and yours truly. It’s kinda long, but it’s entertaining. And it’s true.
In the fall of 1978, through a series of circumstances too complex to detail here, I was invited by Ara Parseghian to join him in the press box at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama, while he and Keith Jackson called a game between Alabama and Southern Cal.
The game was broadcast on ABC, with Jackson doing play-by-play, and Ara doing color commentary.
This, of course, was back in the day when ABC had something of a monopoly on college football broadcasts, meaning that we, the viewing public, were at their complete mercy as to which games we could or couldn’t watch on any given Saturday.
And so it came to be that on September 23 of that year, the scheduling gods had decided to air a rare double-header, with Notre Dame-Michigan as the first game, and USC-Alabama as the second.
I remember arriving at Legion Field early that morning and going up into the press box, where I met Ara and Keith and others from the ABC crew. The press pass Ara had given me (which I still have in my collection of memorabilia) allowed me to go anywhere in the stadium, but I decided to stick close to Ara and to the buffet table in the lounge.
The technicians had set up a monitor in the booth and had routed the live feed from the network so that we could watch the ND-Michigan game while we ate lunch.
It turned out that Ara and I sat alone on two folding chairs in front of the TV and cheered on the Irish while everyone else milled about.
Let me say one thing about watching a Notre Dame game with Ara Parseghian … the man is vocal!
At first, I was somewhat hesitant to make any commentary on the game or the play-calling in front of Ara, considering that he’s one of the greatest football coaches of all time … and I’m just some schmuck. But he soon revealed that his thoughts mirrored my own, and so, by the second series, both of us were yelling and screaming and strategizing and cheering and doing all the things one normally does while watching a Notre Dame game (and yes, that includes cursing).
Bob Golic tackled every skunk that came his way, but Dan Devine seemed to be playing it somewhat conservatively on offense, and the game didn’t turn out so well for us.
I vividly remember that with three or four minutes left in the game and ND down by two touchdowns, Devine called a run up the middle on third and long.
Ara expressed my exact sentiments when he thrust his hands toward the screen and yelled, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING???? TRYING TO RUN OUT THE CLOCK????”
We lost the game, 28-14. Even so, I had been afforded the extraordinary gift of watching a Notre Dame football game with Ara Parseghian.
I do remember thinking it strange that Keith never even came over and glimpsed the game, preferring instead to circle the buffet table and gab. And I seem to remember him having, let us say, more than a couple of beers. Only twice did he inquire about the ND-Michigan score … once at halftime and once at the end of the game.
When Ara relayed the final score, Keith looked at both of us, smiled, and cackled something to the effect of, “Well, it looks like the Irish bit off more than they could chew,” which I considered a rather odd comment coming from a man with two biscuits and half a chicken stuffed in his mouth.
Ara furrowed his brow and shot him a look. I stared at the “Big Ugly” and wondered why he would’ve just said such a thing to the two of us.
It would be tempting to say that Keith made an ass of himself at that moment, but that would almost imply that there was a point in time when he wasn’t an ass … and I don’t have any evidence to support that theory. So I’ll go with the “he was born and raised an ass, and simply showed his ass to us” premise.
Anyway, a few minutes after the ND game had ended, the Alabama game began. Alabama, which was riding a double-digit win streak, was ranked #1 at the time. USC was #7 or so.
I sat just to Ara’s right throughout the game, which USC won 24-14. Keith was on his left with an alcoholic beverage nearby. (By the way, despite the loss, Alabama claimed yet another national championship that season, splitting it with Southern Cal.)
Throughout the contest … and this is no joke … Keith kept passing wind. I remember wondering if the mike was picking up the constant sounds emanating from his rumpus maximus. At one point, I thought, “Man, somebody should stick a plug up this guy’s ass, paint ‘Goodyear’ on his side, and let him float above the stadium.”
Fortunately for all present, it was an open-air booth. Unfortunately for Ara, he was sitting closest to Keith.
After the broadcast, Ara turned to me and asked me what I thought (presumably about the game and not about Keith’s flatulence).
I thanked him profusely for his generosity, for his hospitality, and for the unique opportunity to experience a game in that fashion.
“It was my pleasure,” he replied. “After all, you’re a Notre Dame man, and we have to stick together.”
For the record, I also shook Keith’s hand and thanked him, but his response was to say something like “Yeppers” and to walk away. Ass.
Once the large, gaseous one had shuffled off, Coach Parseghian and I sat and chatted while the technicians packed up their equipment.
During the course of our ensuing conversation, I shared with Ara that there was one aspect of all ABC college football telecasts that I didn’t think was fair.
He asked what that was.
“It’s at the very end,” I explained. “Chevrolet has an ‘Offensive Player of the Game’ and a ‘Defensive Player of the Game’ and gives scholarships to their respective schools.”
“What’s not fair about that?” he asked.
At this point, I was thinking that I shouldn’t have said anything. But, I had already begun, so I continued. “Well, it always seems that both the ‘Offensive’ and ‘Defensive’ players of the game are from the same team … the winning team. And that makes sense, but it basically means that one school gets two $1000 scholarships and the other school gets nothing.”
Ara nodded. “I see what you mean,” he said. “But I don’t know what can be done about it. The team with the best players usually wins.”
Being the recent Notre Dame graduate that I was, I had the answer. “It’s easy,” I replied. “Instead of an ‘Offensive’ and ‘Defensive’ player, you just name a ‘Player of the Game’ from each team. That way, both schools are guaranteed to get the scholarship money from Chevrolet.”
Ara smiled. “I like it,” he said.
He called over Keith and explained the idea. Keith looked at Ara, then at me, then back at Ara. He made a sound that was a cross between a harrumph and a fart, turned, walked back to the buffet table, picked up another piece of fried chicken, and stuffed it in his mouth.
ABC eventually dropped the Offensive and Defensive Player awards and, at some point, began naming a Player of the Game from each team. I rather doubt my suggestion had anything to do with their decision, but in the unlikely event that it did, I hope Ara (and not Keith) got credit for it.
Regarding USC and Alabama, I was wishing they’d both lose that game. I continue to wish that each and every week.
Regarding Keith … hmmm … well, not that he was ever a favorite of mine, but from that day on, the mere sound of his voice irritated me, not to mention the blabbering, nonsensical statements he’d make during the course of a telecast.
Of course, the honor and privilege of spending the day with Ara Parseghian – and of watching an ND game with him – far overshadowed anything Keith Jackson could’ve said or done, no matter how asinine.
I only wish we would’ve beaten the skunks that day. After all, there is no substitute for victory.