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Keith Jackson seems resigned to ESPN TV sports dominance

As Disney's ESPN swallows corporate cousin ABC Sports, the last bites are about to be chewed: Keith Jackson will call an ESPN game.

So will Bob Griese and Brent Musburger, who've called college football only on ABC. They'll each be on bowl games on ESPN, with Jackson working the Dec. 29 Holiday Bowl. He says it'll be no big deal, "as long as we get to do it our way."

Jackson sees ESPN's dominance as simple and inevitable since cablecasters — unlike broadcasters — get subscription fees as well as ad money. Jackson, who in 1970 called the first season of ABC's "Monday Night Football," sees "MNF's" move to ESPN next year as a matter of math: "Disney is going where the money is. The whole industry is acting out of self-defense."

And he seems resigned to the new TV sports styles that ESPN has helped create. "Stand at an office water cooler and you hear every catchphrase known to man and some that aren't," says Jackson, 77. "What used to be common sports vernacular has become a foreign tongue. Sometimes I watch and don't know what they're talking about."

Still, Jackson knows something about the value of catchphrases, having created one of the all-timers. All together now, because you all knew this was coming: "Whoa, Nellie!"

Jackson says he hasn't used it on-air for years. Except, that is, when he was glad to dust it off for current TV ad campaigns for a chewing gum and restaurant chain. "And you wouldn't BELIEVE how much money they paid me."

Jackson, who'll call the Rose Bowl — the Bowl Championship Series national title game on ABC — along with Dan Fouts, isn't enamored of how modernity has affected even ABC's game coverage: "It's so saturated with imagery and plugs that sometimes something happens and you have to wait three minutes to say it. Foutsie turns purple because he has something to say and nowhere to say it."

College football's best-known voice planned to retire after the 1998 season. He hasn't decided whether to retire after this season. He doesn't need advice from critics: "Every week I look at (his) game tape and whine and curse in the mirror. I'm not as quick as I once was."

Still, ESPN executive vice president Norby Williamson says, "Anytime you get Keith Jackson on TV, it's a good thing."

So, is Jackson, who'd certainly add credibility to, say, ESPN's X Games, willing to pop up again on ESPN? "It depends on what is," he says. "But I'm 77 and thrifty. I'm not unprepared."

Michael Irvin's ESPN future remained publicly status quo Tuesday. He's penciled in for a regularly scheduled appearance in Sunday's NFL studio., Williamson said: "Right now we take Michael at his word. And we're there to deal with him as he deals with this."

Irvin is dealing with the aftermath of having been charged Friday with a misdemeanor possession of drug paraphernalia after police pulled him over for speeding in Plano, Texas, and found a drug pipe in his car.

Irvin, on ESPN and ESPN Radio, has said he had the pipe because he'd taken it from a friend who'd just gotten out of drug rehab and was going to throw it away. No other public charges have been made against Irvin, who paid the $250 misdemeanor fine.

Irvin probably didn't make brownie points with ESPN managers, who learned about the incident Sunday from a reporter pursuing the story, by not giving them a heads-up.

Williamson declines to generalize about what types of drug incidents, if any, could cost ESPN announcers their jobs: "I will tell you, philosophically, that on any personnel matter it's handled on a case-by-case basis."

The Indianapolis Colts' win against the Pittsburgh Steelers drew an average of 14.8 percent of U.S. TV households. That is "MNF's" highest rating since a St. Louis Rams-Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2000 game and puts "MNF's" ratings up 2 percent over last year. Although "MNF "often sets a new ratings low each year, albeit as one of TV's highest-rated shows, it might leave ABC this season after a rare ratings uptick.