Keith Jackson hears the complaint all the time. "Media people from the younger generation come up and say, 'Army-Navy, harrumph, why cover that?' " relates the college football announcer for the last quarter century at ABC.
Jackson's always at the ready: "It's simple, really. There's hardly a household across the land that hasn't been involved with someone who attended one of the service academies. I tell people, 'Look at your background,' the game is us."
Fort Benning, Ga., the summer of 1958. I'm standing in line waiting to take my turn over the bayonet course, kibitzing with the classmate in front of me. "I'm Dave Bourland," he says. The previous fall he was Army's quarterback.
A few years later, the Cadets are playing the Midshipmen on the television when an in-law informs me Army's captain, ferocious leader of the "Chinese Bandits," Dick Novak, grew up down the street from where we're sitting.
OK, Keith, I'm sold.
"From my travels around this year," continued the down-home announcer, "I think the college game is coming back. Athletic directors, publicity people and the like tell me the public's appetite for the game is headed up after the TV saturation of the mid-'80s.
"Just as the 30s' and 40s' generation are back into buying tickets, I think we're going to see the return of some of the traditional rivalries to great popularity . . . and what will ever be bigger than this one?"
With Jackson, hardly a word or sentence goes by that doesn't remind him of a story.
"Let's see, first time I ever saw Navy play," he started. "Oh yeah, never forget it. It's 1944 and they [the Mids] have a heckuva team coming in to play Georgia Tech. They've got Bobby Jenkins, Clyde Scott and that gang and Tech has this little guy kicker, Dinky Bowen. Wouldn't you know it, Bowen kicks a field goal at the end and Georgia Tech wins, 17-15."
That was as a spectator. It wasn't long before Keith enlisted in the Marine Corps and got to playing some service football down south: "We were playing Fort Benning one day and they had a guard by the name of Jack Green [captain of Army's 9-0 national champs in 1945]. Mr. Green ended up breaking my nose. He taught me quite a lot that day."
Next time Jackson crossed paths with an academy, he had survived the Corps, put in his time in college and was doing delayed broadcast TV of University of Washington games in 1960.
"The Huskies had won two straight Rose Bowl games, beating Wisconsin and the Sandy Stephens bunch from Minnesota when the Middies came to Seattle with Joe Bellino," he recalls.
"It was a terrific game but Joe was having a lot of trouble withcramps. He was down, writhing on the field after every other play. After one play, Bob Peterson, an old trainer for Washington, goes out, leans over and talks to Bellino and the people from Navy. I'm seeing this because I put the field glasses on them.
"Then ol' Pete goes into his pocket, takes out some scissors and proceeds to cut Joe's pants at the back of the knee. Darned if Bellino doesn't get up, make a 52-yard run and Greg Mather ends up kicking a field goal from the 15 to beat the Huskies, 15-14."
The unofficial historian of the collegiate game was rolling now: "It's been a tough week for me getting over the death of old friend Dave Nelson [ex-Delaware coach
and longtime leader of the game's rules committee]. Dave and I worked games together for a couple of years and he had one of the most subtle wits I've ever seen.
"One day we're out in Columbia and Dan Devine is coaching Missouri against Pepper Rogers and Kansas. It's a rout that ended up 69-21. When it got to 56-7, Dave very seriously says into his microphone, 'I think we should start thinking in terms of mileage, not yardage.' "
Another role Keith Jackson has inherited as a result of his long and involved association with the game is that of fix-it man. Consequently, he's always ready to forward ideas relative to problems besetting college ball.
For instance, assuming a national playoff is inevitable, Jackson says, "As far as I'm concerned, the only way to do it is to form a blue-ribbon committee and, after all the bowls are over, have them come up with the two teams that will play for the national championships.
"That committee would be comprised of an odd number of coaches with no TV or anyone from the promotional business having any say. I can think of only three instances over the last 30 years when there might have been arguments for more than two teams being worthy."
Army and Navy tee it up Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia with Bob Griese joining Jackson at the ABC microphones. No, it's not Miami-Florida State or some of the other biggies the announcers have sat in on, although you'll never be able to tell from their enthusiasm. Tighten your chin straps, folks, here we go.