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Keith Jackson and the origin of ‘Whoa, Nellie’

Keith Jackson was credited with coining a lot of phrases, some that might not have even been his. (Getty Images)

Keith Jackson, the iconic voice of college football for more than four decades, died late Friday night, according to his family. Jackson was 89.

The folksy broadcaster, who was born in Roopville, Georgia, called his last game for ABC Sports in 2006, the Rose Bowl, or as Jackson originally termed, “The Granddaddy of them all.” Texas’ 41-38 victory over USC turned out to one of the greatest college games of all-time, a fitting finale to a brilliant career.

Known for his no-nonsense, melodic call, Jackson coined several phrases throughout his 50-plus years in broadcasting. Listeners would yearn for a “fummmbbbbbbalahhh, AlllllahhhBAMah.”

But the phrase most associated with Jackson is one even he seemed a bit baffled by. “Whoa, Nellie” and Jackson were synonymous, but Jackson was never sure why.

This reporter spoke with Jackson in 1992 and asked him about the origin of “Whoa, Nellie.” Here’s what Jackson told me: “I don’t know if I’ve ever used that phrase. I mean, I look out at the horses in my corral and not one is named Nellie.”

So where did Jackson think the expression originated?

“Roy Firestone,” he said.

Jackson was referring to the ESPN sports host who doubled as a standup comic and was one of the leading Jackson impersonators.

Then, in his down-home, deadpan voice, Jackson added: “I was sitting in the Atlanta airport the other day with my wife Turi. This [guy] noticed me. He put out his hand to Turi and said, `You must be Nellie.'”

I asked Jackson what he would do after the announcing gig was up. He said: “I’m a goofy old goat. I’ll probably still go out and watch a Division III game and get a kick out of it.”

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In later years, Jackson changed his tune a bit and credited “Whoa, Nellie” to his great grandfather, a craftsman from the South who used it as an idiom of frustration.