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Friday, October 12, 2007
Cristil's wrapped it up in maroon and white since 1953

By David Albright
ESPN.com

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- If you close your eyes and listen carefully, you can hear a little bit of Jack Cristil all across the Magnolia State each fall.

The voice of Mississippi State football has been a constant for better than half a century, so it's no surprise that there are imitators across the radio dial, calling high school football games from Aberdeen to Yazoo City.

Jack Cristil
Jack Cristil has been the "Voice of the Bulldogs" since 1953.

They try to copy Cristil's simple, even cadence that clearly describes the action and leaves the hyperbole behind.

It's something the Memphis, Tenn., native has been doing since 1953 in this SEC outpost.

Through 10 football coaches, nine school presidents and eight athletic directors, there has been exactly one voice calling the fortunes, and more often, failures of Bulldogs football.

Ask anyone with an allegiance to Mississippi State about the legendary voice, and they will likely have a story and a smile about the iconic Jacob S. "Jack" Cristil.

"I grew up listening to him," broadcast partner Jim Ellis said. "I can remember listening to him when I was 6 years old. I can still remember the first broadcast that I remember hearing him. It was 1955 in a game that State and Kentucky played. I was on my living room floor and my dad was listening on the couch and we scored a touchdown on a long pass play and took the lead. … I can remember the excitement of that."

Cristil was hired for $25 a game by legendary Mississippi State athletic director C.R. "Dudy" Noble 55 years ago. At the time, no one could imagine how long Cristil would hold onto his role as the "Voice of the Bulldogs." Between football and men's basketball (which he started broadcasting in 1957), it's around 1,800 games, and counting.

"When I was a sophomore in high school, I used to spot for him and he would do a [Friday night] high school game in," Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton said. "And then we would get in the car and drive to Gainesville or Georgia and do a [Saturday] afternoon game and drive back after the game. This has been part of his life, and even though he had a full-time job until he retired, this was his passion and this is what drove him and he's still going strong."

Mississippi State's Cristil Clear Voice
Jack Cristil has been "The Voice of the Bulldogs" for 55 seasons. Listen to a few of Cristil's classic calls over the years.

Mississippi State's upset win at Auburn in 2007
Mississippi State's Snow Bowl win over Texas A&M in 2000
MSU's 17-16 upset win over No. 8 Alabama in 1996
Don Smith's TD run in MSU's 27-23 upset win at No. 8 Tennessee in 1986
MSU's failed wind-blown FG attempt vs. Ole Miss in 1983

For his skill and longevity, Cristil has many honors and awards to his name -- including an honorary doctoral degree in creative and performing arts. He has also been named Mississippi Sportscaster of the Year a record 21 times and is the only non-coach/athlete inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

On the first Saturday in October, Cristil made the drive down from his home in Tupelo and arrived in the Bob Hartley Press Box nearly two hours before kickoff. He wore a maroon Mississippi State polo shirt on a hot and humid fall day that seemed better-suited for preseason two-a-days than it did for the sixth weekend of the 2007 season.

As he entered the MSU radio booth situated at the 30-yard line between the upper and lower decks in the west stands, Cristil began his final preparations for the game against UAB.

• Steno pad to chart the game. Check.
• Two-deep lineups with color-coded push pins to note who's in the game. Check.
• Yardage wheel to figure distances on kicks and long plays. Check.

There was still time for a quick lunch and a few smokes before Cristil started the 90-minute pregame show at noon sharp across the 32-station network that stretches into four states.

"It's homecoming on the campus of Mississippi State University … welcome to Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field …"

There's an economy of words to Cristil's call, and that's due in part to the marching orders he received from Dudy Noble back in '53.

"When he hired me he said, 'Boy' -- I found out later that if he didn't know your name he called everybody 'boy,'" Cristil said. "He said, 'Boy, here's what I want you to do. You tell that radio audience what the score is, who's got the ball and how much time is left and you cut out the bull----.' So I've always tried to tell 'em who's got the ball, what the score is and how much time is left."

Jim Ellis and Jack Cristil
Jim Ellis (left) listened to Jack Cristil growing up before becoming his radio broadcast partner.

As a reminder, Cristil taped a small piece of white paper to the ledge in front of his broadcast location and he wrote three simple words: Score. Time. Station ID.

"My whole philosophy is I'm a very poor substitute for a person being at the game," Cristil said. "Consequently, if they take their time and whatever expense is involved to tune into the radio broadcast, then they're entitled to hear that game and visualize as best they possibly can through your description.

"A lot of people get on me because I don't lean enough for Mississippi State, but if the guy with the wrong color shirt makes a great play, he's entitled to that information being dispensed to the audience. He is more or less doing his job and doing it very well. And if they were here to see that they would appreciate it. And that's my philosophy."

"Adam Carlson will tee it up … all we're waiting for today is the referee to give the signal … the kick is on the way … and the football game is under way."

After he finished high school in Memphis in 1943 and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Cristil set out to begin his broadcasting career. He studied broadcast journalism at the University of Minnesota in 1947-48 before he returned down south and landed a job as a minor league baseball announcer in Jackson, Tenn.

Cristil moved around from Anniston, Ala., to Clarksdale, Miss., to Memphis on the minor-league circuit before he returned to Clarksdale to broadcast high school football and basketball games on WROX.

In the summer of '53 he sent his audition tape to Noble when he heard of a job opening at Mississippi State College. Fifty-five years later, it's still his home away from home every fall and winter -- with no definitive end in sight.

"I've interviewed for other jobs, and my late wife and I … would discuss these things, but out of deference to the family, and what we thought was our commitment to them, I never accepted these other jobs. So consequently as time went on, word gets around that the guy's down there and he's going to be there until they bury him.

"I'm [going to be] 82 years of age, and I don't make long-range plans. I don't buy green bananas at the grocery store and I don't make plans for lunch next week. I just take it, as trite as it sounds, a day at a time."

"With 5:46 left in the third quarter, it's UAB 10 and Mississippi State 9 … and with time out, it's time in for these messages …"

In addition to his play-by-play passion for M State, Cristil's main occupation was advertising sales for WELO Radio in Tupelo from 1955-85. He then became the sales manager for WTVA television in Tupelo from 1986-95.

The technology has changed during Cristil's 55-year run, but his economic use of words has not.

Over that 40-year span, Cristil saw many changes on the football field and in the broadcast booth.

"The technical end has changed considerably," he said. "When we began, we used to lug in huge pieces of equipment, which was all vacuum tubes. After they invented the transistor, we got it down to the size of a little cigar box and a couple of microphones. And now with the expanded technology it's gone right back to the other extreme. And I'm completely lost in this technological area."

The upside of the technology boom is that displaced Mississippi State fans can now listen to Cristil's call each week via the Internet and satellite radio.

"It's 30-13 for the Bulldogs over the Blazers … the clock is down to zero … you can wrap homecoming up in maroon and white."

"You can wrap it up in maroon and white" is Cristil's signature line. He said he doesn't remember when or how it started, but you can count on hearing it at some point during every Mississippi State victory.

To put it kindly, Cristil has had to watch and describe a lot of bad football in his six decades in Starkville. Not counting this season, Mississippi State has had just 18 winning seasons during Cristil's 55 years behind the mike.

Among his fondest memories are a 13-10 win over Auburn in 1963 and a 6-3 win over then-No. 1 Alabama in 1980 -- and any win over rival Ole Miss.

"Those games you remember," Cristil said. "And you remember the 74-0 shellacking you took [in 1969] from the University of Houston in the Astrodome -- you never forget it."

"Next Saturday, Mississippi State will play Tennessee. That ballgame is scheduled for a 1:30 kickoff. We hope that you're making your plans to be here … and join us following that ballgame for Mississippi State Football with coach Sylvester Croom."

Once the UAB game is over and his postgame radio duties have been completed, Cristil made his way to the Leo Seal M Club Building in the south end zone to meet up with Croom and record the weekly coach's TV show.

Croom arrived 50 minutes after the game in a gray suit with a purple shirt and matching tie. He and Cristil exchanged pleasantries as the lights were adjusted and the levels were checked.

Working without a script, Cristil needed only one take for each of his three interview segments with Croom -- which included quick tosses to breaks and a mention that tickets are still available for next Saturday's Tennessee game. A short 15 minutes after taping started, it's over and Cristil started the 65-mile return trip to Tupelo.

"He is a legend," Templeton said. "I don't think you have to look at the dial, you just turn it and you hear that distinctive voice and you know it's Mississippi State. He has been the one constant for Mississippi State through all these years and he's one of the best there is in the country and has been for many, many years."

Just close your eyes and listen while you still can.

David Albright is the senior deputy editor for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.