Monday, September 08, 2014

Jack Cristil, R.I.P.

The best play-by-play man you probably never heard of died last night. 

His name was Jack Cristil, and for 58 years, he was the voice of the Mississippi State Bulldogs.  Dwight Eisenhower was early in his first term when Cristil, a native of Memphis, heard that MSU was looking for a new announcer.  In the summer of 1953, he sent an audition tape to Mississippi State athletic director Dudy Noble and barely a month later, Cristil was behind the mike for his  debut, a football victory over Memphis State University. 

It was the first of 636 football games that Mr. Cristil would call for the Bulldogs.  He added basketball to his portfolio in 1957 and spent 54 years describing the action on the hardwood.  He retired after Mississippi State defeated Michigan in the 2011 Gator Bowl, as his health began to fail. 

According to the university's sports information department, Cristil called 60% of football games played by MSU and 55% of the basketball games.  More remarkably, he maintained his wit and grace during some very trying times in the long history of Mississippi State's football program.  At one point in the 50s and 60s, MSU lost to arch-rival Ole Miss 12 years in a row, and fared about as well against other SEC teams.  That made for some long afternoons in places like Tuscaloosa, Athens, Knoxville, Jackson (where the annual grudge match against Ole Miss was played for many years) and Baton Rouge.  

Put another way: at the start of the current season, MSU had an all-time record of 524-555-39, with a winning percentage of .486.  That means Mr. Cristil saw the Bulldogs lose more football games than any other person.  Decades of futility might prompt other broadcasters to seek greener pastures, but not Jack Cristil.  He found a home in Starkville, and stayed there for the long haul, until the man and his voice became inseparable from the university and its sports program.

His long career is even more remarkable when you consider the other voices who have called SEC games down through the years.  The legendary Larry Munson spent 42 years doing play-by-play at the University of Georgia; John Ward was voice of the Tennessee Volunteers for three decades; John Ferguson spent 41 years behind the microphone at LSU, a stretch equaled by Bob Fulton at South Carolina.  Jack Cristil outlasted them all.

Counting down the final seconds to an MSU victory, Cristil was fond of saying you "could wrap this one in maroon and white," and there was no doubt as to which team he was pulling for.  But Jack Cristil was never an over-the-top homer (like Munson); he called the action as he saw it, and when the Bulldogs were faring badly, their announcer wasn't above working the frustration into his account.  When Ole Miss demolished State in the 2008 Egg Bowl 45-0, Cristil offered these gems (among others):

"It's 3rd down and so long, you will need surveying equipment to see how much is needed for a first down."

"There are only 45 seconds left.  Maybe Ole Miss won't score another TD.  In the 1st quarter, that is." 

"Coming up on the end of the quarter.  The third quarter, that is.  We've still got another one to play.  At the end of the third quarter, Ole Miss barely out in front, 38-0."

"Mercifully, the clock continues to run."
"That's it.  Ballgame over.  Ole Miss noses out Mississippi State, 45-0."

And finally, there is this one, made a few times when the Bulldogs had a particularly listless day on the gridiron.  For any announcer who's ever been on the wrong side of a blow-out game--and Jack Cristil saw his share--it represents high art in the play-by-play trade.  (And as far as I know, Sonic is still a sponsor of MSU broadcasts, so even they appreciated the humor).   

As a fan of a certain school in Oxford, I must confess there was a certain degree of schadenfreude in listening to such calls, because you knew the misery was being shared by all who pulled for MSU.  But there was no disputing the talent of the man who called more than 2,000 college football and basketball games and did it with a style and flair that were uniquely his own. 

Jack Cristil was one the greats in that small fraternity of southern football announcers who helped transform the college game into a way of life.  He was, in many respects, the last link to an era when football was an experience shared over the radio, with the roar of the crowd and that unmistakable voice, booming across the AM band on a Saturday afternoon. 

Thanks, Jack, for all the memories, even for those of us who didn't cheer for your Bulldogs.    



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