He still is and ever will be.
This won’t be a maudlin muddling through memories of Jack Cristil. If only because, as I told a mutual friend at Tuesday’s visitation, we’d worry about hearing that Voice growling at everyone attending to knock off the sentimental stuff. Or as he so often delighted in quoting the blunt instruction of Dudy Noble upon Jack’s 1953 hiring, “to cut out the bull.”
That there just might have been the most absolutely unnecessary orders ever given by an athletic director to the program’s play-by-play man.
Because, Jack always cut out the bull, applying razor-sharp tones and talents to telling us about the Bulldogs.
I did not attend today’s funeral proper due to prior appointment. But that worked out even better since Tuesday I could spend a couple of hours at Steve Holland’s fine establishment in Tupelo. There I could visit, commiserate, and just laugh a lot with his daughters; my State senior-year classmate Kay and younger sister Becky who worked in sports info as a student herself. It was utterly fitting too that while their father was correctly attired in gray suit, maroon tie, MSU pin, Jewish skullcap…he also held a microphone in the left hand and cigarette in the right. Unlit of course.
That’s our Jack as I knew him for, what, most of 35 years? Which sounds like a long time, but does not seem so today. All the more for those who worked with him even longer and knew him far better. This is a rough week for the closest companions, and a sad one for the rest of us who suddenly have a void in our emotional image of Mississippi State. Never mind he last broadcast a Bulldog game in February 2011 and there’s a generation already present which has only heard the Voice dubbed-over video clips.
Jack’s career…and by the way, while in their time most Bulldog coaches get referenced by first or last name, only he achieved such permanent stature. Say ‘Jack’ around this state, for that matter around much of the SEC still, and identity is automatic. Sure, a tenure of nearly half-a-century cemented his name in memory. But many college broadcasters have lengthy careers; what made Jack special was, well, himself. The consummate professional, as respected by peers as beloved by Bulldog fans. That type has always been rare and probably becoming extinct.
Which is why my first thought upon his retirement returned in greater force upon news of his passing: not only will we never hear anyone better than Jack, we won’t hear or know his like again. I guess I could pontificate about how Jack’s exit coincided with a shift in his industry to something he did not care to be or do. But that’s not really what today is about beyond stating as all Bulldog fans of appropriate age are preaching to this generation, that they can never know what they will miss.
That’s OK. Other voices will tell the team’s tales and do it well. There is still only one Voice.
There is no small personal irony here, in that for all the years and seasons and teams and games in our over-lapping eras…I really didn’t get to hear his broadcasts often. Especially his forte of football, since after all I was at the game in all but maybe 20, 25 instances. Basketball, much more so, but it is football which counts first and most in MSU memory. Thus I must yield to you fans for the fortune of hearing Jack in his prime. Which, by all reliable accounts, comprised his entire career. I’m not sure many peers who worked about as long as Jack would have the same said of them at the end.
So just about all listening I can recall goes back to high school and college years when this faceless Voice would rattle off down-and-distance with the spot, then something like “takes the snap, hands the ball to Joe Blow…HE CANNOT GO!” with background thunder as if he’d cued the crowd from his booth. You know, considering how many State fans were plugged-into Jack in the stadium, maybe he really did. Think of that a moment if we dare, how his era spanned folk in all hills and hollers of our state spinning dials for scratchy AM signals to college kids at the stadium hearing the live-time feed on phones. Whatever the technology, the Voice stayed steady.
It is sort-of amusing for me to realize even now that for all the years familiarity, even those occasions when I shared the stage and live-mikes with him, I don’t think I ever approached him without just a teeny inner tingle of “that’s Jack!” Now I did learn, especially in the later years when one of my jobs was to floor-manage the football and basketball call-in shows for the Network, not to start talking games and teams. Jack did have the luxury of switching-off from sports the instant the live line was killed. Which was to my own benefit as during breaks I got to absorb Jack’s thoughts on just any other imaginable topic. Opinionated? Need you really ask?
But what else would we expect from someone with the intelligence and yes the wit Jack brought to everything? The flip-side was a warning not to get on the bad side, the easiest way being to say or do something showing a lack of thought, planning, or execution. Which should make us wonder all the more, how in the heck did Jack endure all the awful football he had to describe for so many seasons?!
Easy. He was as already said, the consummate professional. And a craftsman, a phrase tossed about so casually today as to mean nothing any more I guess. But as someone also in the word business, albeit written compared to his spoken, I know a pro when I hear one. Jack set the standard in his field and it still boggles my MSU mind that it was our little school and our little state which had the astounding blessing of his services to begin with and then for so, so long.
Fortunately this was no robot in the booth. Back in my sports information (now media relations) days, it was fascinating when taking him in-game stats or some sort of Bulldog note and watch—after the latest on-field foul-up—Jack as he paused mid sentence, spun the headset mike safely away to utter a twenty-leven-letter word the FCC would have frowned upon, spin the mike back in place and resume speaking without missing a breath or beat. The controlled flash of ire reminded that while he was a complete pro…he cared about how his team was performing too and wasn’t shy about expressing private displeasure.
Handling public attention? Well, that was a challenge. I know Jack understood all the times a State fan approached to introduce, thank him for representing the school and team so well, to share a story or reminiscence, and so on. He really did understand, not least after all the years spent as a radio station advertising salesman; his REAL job if we get right down to it. But much like a coach once told me how nobody ever asks a salesman at church how many policies he sold the week yet people always ask about the game, even the Voice could tire of talking State sports. And more so about himself. If that meant some fan who once in their lifetime caught a chance to talk to Jack outside the stadium, or sought an autograph or photo while he was prepping for a show came away wondering why he seemed a bit brusque, that too was just part of the package. Put yourself in his situation and you’ll understand, too.
Because this was a gracious guy, graced with a Voice and cadence and delivery which still amaze. Perfection, is all I can say. If ever was a man meant for live radio, it was Jack. He’d have done fine on TV too, though maybe not so much now when audiences seek more banter than broadcast. Not criticizing, please. Times and tastes change and I’ll confess a fondness for good give-and-take in the booth myself over mere down-and-distance. Today technology tells us the score already and classic play-by-play isn’t the same priority. Ooops, there I go discussing what I promised not too…
I think this though does offer one more reason why Jack was the best. He knew his job and did it without trying to be what he was not, nor do what he did not want to do or in a manner he didn’t believe in. He was pure old-school broadcaster and thank heaven for him. Oh, along that line, we can all chuckle at cartoons showing Jack at the Pearly Gates. Well, I suggested, given how much awful football he endured, there surely is a special Press Entrance for our beloved Jewish broadcaster. And he didn’t need to show a credential either; the Voice is enough.
Now. Since everyone of any MSU tenure has a Jack story to share, I’ve picked just one from my private stock. At LSU, 1983. The Bulldogs steamrolled the home team (yes kids, once upon a time State teams regularly won in Baton Rouge!) with John Bond scoring four touchdowns. Mid-fourth quarter a thought occurred to the junior SID on staff, that the great Bondini could be the first quarterback in SEC history to defeat LSU four-straight years. Remember, freshmen redshirted up to ’72 so it wasn’t a long time-frame to check. I asked LSU media staff and they agreed it was probably correct.
So as the horn sounded I hastily scribbled out something like ‘John Bond, first QB to go 4-0 against LSU’ in my awful handwriting, scrambled down to the second floor radio booth and with Jack on-air handed him my brilliant Bulldog note. Jack scanned it while still talking, paused, turned to look at me over his glasses and with a grin said, for all Bulldog Country to hear, “David, I can’t read a word you wrote.” And then kept going with post-game commentary. All I could do was laugh and at first break interpret the note for his pleasure and later recitation.
So yes, even the pro’s pro could let a good Bulldog time get a bit better of him at times. But only at the right times. Just as, in this humbled scribe’s opinion, there never was a better broadcaster for his time and for his…well, OK, in a just world he’d have had better teams to talk about. But maybe that made the good times all the more right for him and for us?
Either way, the Voice will not fade from our MSU memory. A man we loved has left us. The legend never can.