I have no early memories of Mississippi State athletics that do not include Jack Cristil. That’s a statement that can likely be made by practically every living MSU fan. The news of his passing has brought back a flood of early memories, back to a time when my Mississippi State fandom centered around a voice on the radio.
Like most fans, my first exposure to Mississippi State athletics came via the radio and the voice of Jack Cristil. Jack was Mississippi State to me. His voice was distinctive and comforting, and his way of describing the games made me feel as if I were actually there.
I grew up in rural Oktibbeha County in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Unlike today, there was typically just one football game on TV on a given Saturday, and it was likely to be a national telecast of top ranked teams. If you wanted to follow the MSU game, radio was the medium you turned to.
Although he had no way of knowing it, Jack Cristil was one of my best friends. Jack and I spent many a fall Saturday afternoon together, as he described Bulldog football from such far away places as Gainesville, Auburn and Tuscaloosa. Of course, there was the occasional night game, primarily when State played LSU, but Saturday afternoon at 1:30 pm was by far the most common game time of that era.
Growing up in the country meant I often did not have friends my age to play with. I had to invent ways to entertain myself. But that was no problem on Saturday afternoons in the fall. When game time arrived, I would grab my trusty transistor radio and my football and head for the front yard. The radio would be tuned to WSSO AM 1230, and as the rich baritone voice of Jack Cristil vividly described each element of the game, I would attempt to re-enact it. Every Bulldog pass, catch, run, fumble recovery and touchdown was replayed in my front yard, just as Jack described them.
One of the hallmarks of Jack’s broadcasts was his credibility. There was no doubt that Jack was pulling for the Bulldogs, yet he always managed to maintain an air of objectivity. He referred to the team as “Mississippi State” or “the Bulldogs”, never “we” or “us” as so many broadcasters do today. This is one reason why Jack is universally respected, even by fans of our rivals.
Jack had a number of phrases that were exclusive to him. An athlete who stood exactly six feet was the “six tall” running back, cornerbacks were known as “sidebacks”, and a punter would aim his punt to the “coffin corner” of the field. And of course, the goal of every drive was to make it the “land of milk and honey.” Jack’s influence on current MSU broadcasters is evident too. Jim Ellis still uses the “six tall” term, and I hear many similarities between Jack’s cadence and style of delivery in Bart Gregory.
Whenever my family and I would be away from home on game day, one of the most important tasks for me was to find a station that was carrying the State game. In the family car, I would carefully scan the dial, listening for that distinctive voice that meant Mississippi State was on the air. Many times, I remember sitting in the car by myself, just to listen to a game that could not be heard any other way. Jack gave me a lifelong love for the art of the radio broadcast. Even today, when traveling by automobile takes me away from a major televised sporting event, I’m okay, provided I can find a quality radio broadcast of the event. In many ways, I actually prefer the radio to TV.
I remember vividly the night Jack announced his retirement. It was a day that we all knew would come eventually, but it was still a punch to the gut. The Bulldogs had just lost a bitterly disappointing home basketball game to LSU, but my disappointment over that game was quickly forgotten as Jack explained that medical issues were forcing him to step down as voice of the Bulldogs. I actually cried. Part of me hoped somehow he would continue forever. Thankfully, the Bulldogs rose to the occasion a few days later at Tennessee and gave Jack a chance to say “Wrap it in Maroon and White” one more time.
Rest in peace, Jack Cristil. And thanks for the memories, sir. You will live forever in this Bulldog’s heart.