The rumors of the death of Monday Night Football have been greatly under exaggerated.
The franchise, now in its 39th season, died in 1985, but it’s still on the air, strangely. MNF continues, post-mortem, but only like the deer head on the wall – it’s just … there.
I can fix the date of MNF’s death because it corresponds to when Howard Cosell took his cigar and his ego and went home. Only, he needed to make two trips to carry the ego.
Don’t believe me when I say a television show – and that’s what MNF is, first and foremost – can be dead for 23 years and still be on the air? Then tell me, and no looking away, nothing less than a straight face will be accepted: are Monday nights as fun now as they were when Howard occupied one-third of the booth?
In a way, it’s sort of unfair to compare Monday Night Football now to when it first hit the airwaves, because it’s really an apples and oranges kind of thing. The Cosell version was new, first of all. Nothing like it had been attempted. Pro football was a Sunday afternoon activity. The NFL dabbled in night games, for sure – even using a white football so it would show up better under the lights – but those were anomalies. And they weren’t on Monday nights, anyhow.
So with all this newness at its disposal, MNF could be innovative and ground-breaking on so many levels. And it was.
A three-man booth – that was new. A former player as the play-by-play guy (Frank Gifford replaced Keith Jackson after the first season) – that was new. A good ole Southern boy for comic relief – that was refreshingly new. And a lawyer by trade who never played anything at anytime in his life – that was most certainly new.
Gifford, Don Meredith, and Cosell didn’t just enter your living room; they burst in, like the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull. We’d never heard anything like it before: football, served up with almost as much drama among the announcers as what was taking place on the field below. Maybe more so.
Gifford would deliver his no-nonsense descriptions of what we just saw while Meredith and Cosell were engaged in banter that suggested they either didn’t realize Gifford was with them, or they didn’t care – one or the other.
Cosell had his pet names for his compadres: Gifford was The Giffer, and Meredith was Dandy Don. Privately, he called them other things, and not so endearing. But then, on the air, Cosell was being non-endearing, so it evened out.
There was a drunken night in Philadelphia, when Howard couldn’t finish the game, throwing up in the booth. There was an outburst in Buffalo. He called diminutive Washington Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett, an African-American, a “little monkey.” He railed often against pro sports – the very business that was feeding him, but Howard bit that hand anyway. Frequently. His extravagant, pompous use of the English language was blatant and fed his need to remind everyone of his intelligence.
Off the air, Cosell had disdain for his partners in the booth. He didn’t respect Gifford all that much – not convinced that a “jock” could be a “serious” announcer. Howard thought Meredith was a goofball who didn’t show nearly enough deference to him. That one, he got right – on both accounts. But it made for grand television.
It became a status symbol to be seen on MNF with that motley trio. Vice president Spiro Agnew dropped in. So would the likes of Burt Reynolds, John Wayne, and Bo Derek. One historic night, Cosell interviewed John Lennon, and the ex-Beatle marveled at both the similarities and differences between American football and his native England’s rugby. Sadly, in 1980, Cosell would famously announce the news of Lennon’s death on a Monday night in Miami. I remember it with crystal clarity.
Monday Night Football was something because no other football game in the country – college or pro – was played in prime time. Nothing started on Sundays after 4:00. The colleges kept their schedules to Saturday afternoons.
MNF’s “A-Team” That Will Never Be Matched: Cosell in front of Meredith (left) and Gifford
And there was Howard. Always Howard. People tuned in because they loved him. More people – way more – tuned in because they hated him. Some enterprising company manufactured and marketed Styrofoam bricks – sold specifically to be hurled at the television set whenever Cosell ticked the brick owner off.
All this, and a funny thing started happening on Tuesday mornings. People talked about Monday Night Football – but not necessarily about the game itself.
“Did you hear what Howard said?”
“Wasn’t that great when Don put Howard in his place?”
“I hate Cosell!”
When Meredith left for NBC in 1974, his goofball role was filled by Alex Karras, and Howard and Karras struck up a rapport based on mutual disrespect and loathing. The smarmy Karras was just the guy to take Dandy Don’s torch and burn Howard with it weekly, while the living rooms cheered.
Then it came out that Howard took all those jokes, and all that venom from the viewers, seriously. Too seriously. Which meant, of course, that the jokes and the venom got more frequent, and more caustic.
The forever classy Dave Diles was one of Cosell’s ABC colleagues, back in the ‘70s. A couple years ago, he told me about Howard’s insatiable ego.
“We all believe our own press from time to time,” Diles said. “But Howard took it to such an extreme.”
In 2000, an experiment was tried, 30 years after ABC put the ex-lawyer Cosell in a football broadcast booth. Comedian Dennis Miller was tabbed to join the MNF team. It was a bolder move than when they hired Cosell, because Miller was a known product. And that product, at first blush, didn’t seem to be one that you would expect, or want, with your football on TV.
But I grew to like Miller, because he reminded me of, well, Howard Cosell. I once wrote that if you could somehow have teamed Miller’s smarmy, obscure pop culture references with Cosell’s bombastic, pompous commentary, you’d have had one of the best weekly TV shows of all time, bar none. You wouldn’t have even needed the football game, for goodness sakes.
Miller didn’t last very long – just two seasons. His shtick didn’t work well with the straight-laced Al Michaels and the vanilla Dan Fouts. No Giffer or Dandy Don, they.
Monday Night Football hasn’t tickled my fancy, or my curiosity, since Cosell left – save the two years of Dennis Miller. It’s just another nighttime football game in an era where there are tons of them. And Tuesday mornings aren’t all that anymore, either.
Oh, Howard would love that: he leaves, and takes a night and a morning with him. Nobody tell him. Please.