I loved to listen to the great Southern college play-by-play men on the radio when I was growing up.
There was Larry Munson at Georgia.
There was John Ferguson at LSU.
There was Cawood Ledford at Kentucky.
There was John Ward at Tennessee.
Mississippi State’s Jack Cristil outlasted them all.
When the Bulldogs take on the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, Cristil won’t be behind the microphone.
For listeners across Mississippi and other parts of the South, it just won’t be the same.
“We knew Jack Cristil couldn’t go on forever,” Rick Cleveland of The Clarion-Ledger at Jackson wrote last week. “Here lately, he has sounded tired, worn out — certainly not himself. So maybe Wednesday’s news that Cristil is stepping down after 58 years as the voice of Mississippi State University’s football team and 54 years calling basketball wasn’t totally unexpected. Still, we don’t have to like it.”
Cristil called his final game in Knoxville on Saturday as the Bulldogs beat Tennessee.
Prior to that broadcast, Cleveland wrote: “For many of us, it will be like listening to Sinatra sing his last song. For three generations of Mississippians, our introduction to the Deep South’s regional pastime of college football often has been Cristil’s gravelly, baritone voice telling us about a 6-tall, 180-pound halfback from Amory or Ackerman or Moss Point.
“Doesn’t matter which university you pulled for, you listened to Cristil. You listened because he put you there in the stadium. He described the weather and the setting. Told you which team was going which way. He gave you the uniform colors and the context of whatever game he was describing.
“His voice was so distinct, you could almost taste the cigarettes he was smoking.”
Yes, it took many packs of cigarettes through decades to get a voice like Jack Cristil’s.
Cristil will require four hours of kidney dialysis three times a week and will no longer be able to travel.
Here’s how Ole Miss play-by-play man David Kellum reacted to the news of Cristil’s retirement: “It sort of left me with an empty feeling, to be honest. That’s a weird feeling to even think that Jack Cristil’s not going to be at Mississippi State. He has been extremely good to me. I know that people like to place us in the rivalry and all that, but he has been a really good friend to me.”
Kellum called Cristil “probably the best technician I’ve ever heard.”
He was that and more. You always knew what was going on when listening to Cristil.
“He gave you down, distance, score and how much time was remaining,” Cleveland wrote. “He did it regularly.”
In my 30 years of broadcasting college football on the radio, I’ve tried to use the lessons I learned by listening to Cristil. People tend to tune in and out on the radio. You need to give the score a lot. You need to give the time on the clock a lot. You need to tell what direction the team with the ball is headed so listeners can picture the game in their minds.
Far too few announcers these days remember to do those things.
I was on the broadcast level of the press box at War Memorial Stadium when Mississippi State played Arkansas in football in November 2009. I stood next to the Bulldog broadcast booth and watched through the window as Cristil worked (during the longer timeouts, he would light up a cigarette).
Jim Ellis, who will handle the play-by-play duties in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, worked with Cristil for 32 years.
“You could tell he was a Mississippi State guy, and maybe a little more now, but he was always right down the middle,” Ellis said. “If the other team was doing something good, he would talk about it. If Mississippi State wasn’t playing very good, he would talk about it. … He has always sort of told the story like it was. That’s one thing that endeared him because I hear so many people from other universities say they like to listen to Jack because he’s not so biased like a lot of today’s announcers are.”
Cristil was hired at Mississippi State in August 1952 by Dudy Noble.
Cristil, the son of immigrants from Russia and Latvia, grew up in Memphis and remembers listening to the radio at age 6.
“Here I was in Memphis, and I was absolutely enthralled with the idea that a man could be sitting in some stadium in New York or Chicago or Boston, telling me about a game,” he once said. “It was like magic. I was enchanted by it. It captured my imagination to the extent that I knew right then and there that’s what I was going to do. I was 6 years old, but I knew what I was going to do for a living, and I never changed my mind.”
Archie Manning is an Ole Miss icon, of course,
Heck, that son of Drew, Miss., in the Delta is a Southern icon.
This is what Archie has to say about the voice of the Bulldogs: “Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting at the kitchen table with my daddy, listening to Jack Cristil describe Mississippi State football games. He made the games come alive for me. I loved his voice and the way he described the games. It was like he put you in the stadium. He was, in many ways, my introduction to college football. And, still, when I hear his voice, I think about those afternoons with my daddy. Jack Cristil’s voice, to me, is college football.”
Cristil was living in Clarksdale at the time he applied for the Mississippi State job. He asked for directions to Starkville and headed east in his 1948 Plymouth.
This is how Cristil remembered it when Rick Cleveland paid him a visit back in 2002: “I had envisioned a young, energetic, business-type person in a trim suit and a neat hairdo,” Cristil said. “But Dudy Noble was a big man, over 6 feet tall and quite hefty. He was attired in an old cotton flannel shirt and baggy britches. He had an unruly shock of gray hair that stuck out.
“He said, ‘Boy, I understand you want to do these football games,’ and I said, ‘Yessir, I surely do,’ and he said, ‘Well, we’ve decided we’re going to give you an opportunity. I’ll tell you what I want you to do,’ and I thought to myself, ‘Here come words of wisdom.’
“He said, ‘You tell that radio audience what the score is and who’s got the ball and how much time is left, and you cut out the bull.’ I was aghast, but it turned out to be the best advice I ever got. But that’s all the people want. They want the score, who’s got the ball and how much time is left. They don’t want the bull.”’
Cristil’s father died when the boy was 12.
“What I know about my daddy is that he was strict,” Cristil told Cleveland. “We were Jewish. Both my parents spoke Hebrew and Yiddish as well as Russian. But my father wouldn’t allow anything to be spoken in the house except for English.”
As a boy, Cristil would broadcast imaginary baseball and football games.
“I had a rubber ball, and I would be out in the street bouncing the ball off the house and telling about imaginary games,” he said. “I can’t begin to tell you how many games I must have broadcast like that, but I will tell you this: My high school football coach lived across the street from us, and I’ll never forget how he almost killed me the first day of practice in the ninth grade. He later said he was just paying me back for all those years of having to listen to me out in the street broadcasting those imaginary games.”
Cristil called 636 Mississippi State football games and 1,538 Bulldog basketball games. He lasted through 12 football coaches and eight basketball coaches at the school.
Cristil has a wit that Cleveland describes this way: “As dry as the Sahara.”
One year, there was the sponsored Sonic Drive of the Game as one of the postgame show features. The Mississippi State offense hadn’t had a decent drive that day. So Cristil said on the postgame show that the drive of the game would be “my drive back home to Tupelo.”
He described the weather at the 1963 Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia as “colder than a pawnbroker’s heart.”
One year, a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team was whipping the Bulldogs. Bob Hope was attending the game at Tuscaloosa, but Cristil didn’t know it.
A man walked into the radio booth and said, “Hope is available at halftime if you want him.”
Cristil replied: “Fellow, I need some hope right now.”