On Monday, I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Ellis about the passing of his longtime broadcast partner of Jack Cristil.
I shared several of Ellis’ quotes in my story in today’s print and online edition of the Daily Journal that you can read here. But unfortunately there was not enough room to share all of Ellis’ thoughts in my story.
I’ve provided a transcript of the 12 minute interview here.
On Cristil’s death…
“It’s hard. I know him on two levels. I know him as a broadcaster and grew up listening to him. I idolized him as a kid. Once you get to know him you know him on sort of a different level. The things I think about more than the ballgames with Jack are the times we’d sit around before a ballgame on a Friday evening just having conversations and telling stories.
“He’s one of the best story tellers that I’ve ever been around. He told many colorful stories from his childhood, his days broadcasting Class D baseball in Greenville, Miss., and places like that. He told great stories about his family and things that have happened to him as a broadcaster.
“But some of his best stories were his World War II stories. He had tons of World War II stories. He worked in the Air Force and got planes ready to go out on missions. He had some really great stories about that.
“I just enjoyed the comradery. I was a novice broadcaster really when I started dealing with Jack and he always treated me really good. I had a great relationship with him. I broadcast with him for over 30 years. Jack had a temper but he was always good with me. I think in over 30 years we probably just had no more than one or two conflicts. We always got along.
“Jack was one of those people who loved his friends and if you were his friend, He was going to take care of you and be there all the time. I learned so much from him because he was so much of a consummate professional. He was wound tight on every game because the broadcast meant a whole lot to him. He wanted it to be a good broadcast.
“He didn’t have a great deal of respect for television announcers because they did all the stuff around the game. He thought the game was what should be talked about and the picture on the field was what should be painted and leave all that other bull alone. That was how he believed the game should be done.
“He was serious about doing a good job whether we were playing a Howard University or a Samford or somebody like that or if we were playing Alabama. He wanted that broadcast to sound good. If you worked with him, you found of quickly that he wanted you to get your job done right. Everybody was on their toes and I think that’s the reason he usually had a good broadcast is because of that.
“He was his own worst critic. He told me early on ‘don’t worry what other people say about you. If they pat you on the back don’t worry about it. If they tell you you’re sorry and did a bad job, be your own critic’. He said ‘you know if you did a good job or if you did a bad job. Occasionally listen back to your broadcasts and sort of decipher that’. He said ‘be your own critic. You can’t worry about what people say because if we’re winning they’re going to love you and if we’re losing they’re going to hate you so it really doesn’t matter’. “
Is there a call that stands out?
“The 6-3 ballgame and the fumble call (against Alabama in 1980) is forever etched in my memory. I think the Cincinnati game when we were going to the Final Four (in 1996) and the excitement of it. He loved basketball and I’m not sure basketball wasn’t his favorite sport. He loved calling basketball and he really enjoyed that run to the Final Four because he had a team that he thought was good and were a fun team to watch and be around.
“To go through and beat the teams they did like Connecticut and Cincinnati in back-to-back ballgames in that Regional in Rupp Arena was really special to him. I think the Final Four was a little bit of a downer really because we really thought we’d beat Syracuse and didn’t. But he really enjoyed that run to the Final Four that year and it was special for him.
“I think he really enjoyed when Jackie Sherrill came in and really turned the program around football-wise. He enjoyed that success. He had been through a lot of pretty bad seasons and we had about six or seven good seasons during that 10 year stretch and I think Jack enjoyed calling those ballgames. When we played folks like Florida and Alabama and expected to win the football game, I think that was a little bit of a new feeling for him and he enjoyed that point in time and you could really sense that.
“No matter what the game was, doing that broadcast was more important that the game to him. He loved Mississippi State and wanted them to win worse than anyone but win or lose, he wanted that broadcast to be a quality broadcast and the picture to be painted and when he walked away from there he wanted to feel good. I’ve got a lot of great memories with Jack.”
Are there any plans for the South Alabama game to remember Jack?
“We haven’t really talked about it yet. We’ve got to sit around and talk about it. I certainly am going to talk about Jack on the broadcast. We can script all we want to about his death and who he was but emotionally, that’s the part to me that’s special.
“I’ve got so many good memories with him and it’s on two levels. There’s a ton of Mississippi State folks who may not know him personally and maybe never shook his hand that have great memories of Jack Cristil because of the work that he did and they should have. But those of us who were around him have great memories of Jack Cristil because of the person that he was and meant to us.
“But I definitely will talk about him on the broadcast but I haven’t really thought about what yet.”
Knowing Jack like you did, what would he think about all these tributes if he could talk today?
“I think he would like it from a distance. As long as he didn’t have to be in the middle of it, he’d be fine with it. He loved the fact that Mississippi State people loved him. He loved the university and loved being the voice of Mississippi State. That was his identity and he loved all of that.
“But he was not a person that loved being in the middle of a big crowd and those type of things. If he could just sit over in the corner and watch all this with a twinkle in his eye, he’d really enjoy it. If he had to be in the middle of all the festivities, he’d be waiting to see when he could go outside and smoke a cigarette.”
What was it like doing that first broadcast without him and what advice did he give you?
“Jack had always done football but I’d done a great many basketball game without Jack. In fact, I almost did a whole season for Jack when his wife Mavis was really sick. He did about the first 10 or 12 games and then took the rest of the season off so I’d done a great many basketball games without him.
“I’d also done a lot of basketball games because he’d be on football. But honestly, when Jack retired and was forced to because of his health, at that point he was so sick that he wasn’t worried about giving me advice. He’d given me plenty of advice over the years and he figured if I hadn’t absorbed it by then it wouldn’t do much good giving me any more.
“He believed in playing the game down the middle. He said ‘don’t try to paint a rosier picture or a bleaker picture than what’s taking place out on the field. Just describe the action’. He did not believe that a broadcaster’s opinion should be inserted into the broadcast. He said ‘the game ought to tell the story itself and let the listener decide what they think of the ballgame’.
“For most of his career he was able to stay with that standard with what he always told me. He said ‘Radio is about describing what’s going on because they can’t see it. TV’s about explaining what they just saw. It’s a whole different thing’. I’ve tried to sort of do that and been the way I’ve tried to broadcast.”
How many times do you replay that advice in your head before a broadcast?
“I always remember it. I remember how professional he approached it. When he got to the stadium he was all business. He really didn’t care to have a lot of people around him cutting up because this was business and it was time to go to work. He felt like that was his workplace.
“He hated when someone would come up behind him while he was doing a broadcast. I’ve never seen him any more upset than when someone would come up behind him and tap him on the shoulder when he was in the middle of a broadcast. We almost had two or three incidents over that. That was his workplace and he was working and did not want to be bothered.
“I’ve got some great stories about some of that but most of them I can’t share. But that was his workplace and he was going to do his job and didn’t want to be bothered.
“He was somebody that was always true to himself. The advice he gave was what he did. He was a one of a kind and a guy who had a big impact on my life for sure.”
When did you start working with him?
“1979 was the first time ever. I was a general flunky when I first started in the booth doing the pre and postgame show and that was it for the first three or four years. I started doing a little halftime stuff and in 1983 I started doing color on basketball.
“I started in ’79 with him and didn’t start doing color on football until Jackie Sherrill came.”