Al Michaels, NFL’s primetime voice for 33 seasons: “Howard Cosell deserves Hall of Fame recognition”

Michaels left Brooklyn for LA as a kid the same time as the Dodgers. He always loved Vin Scully and idolized Curt Gowdy and Jim McKay

It’s Al Michaels season. Excuse me, it’s NFL season. What the heck’s the difference? They’re one of the same.

The names NFL and Michaels are essentially interchangeable. As the voice of primetime pro football since 1986, there’s no NFL play-by-play name or visible face more recognizable than the Brooklyn native who turns 74 this November.

While nimbly opinionated from time to time, Michaels is one of those guys bosses love. He usually comes quietly and goes quietly. From what many can tell, he doesn’t make a fuss of himself.

“It’s all about the game,” Al says. “Why would people scream through a broadcast?”

Indeed, he’s established a stellar reputation for being accurate, informative, thoroughly prepared and getting out of the way of what viewers can see. To use announcer training parlance, he lets the game breathe.

For style, he’s somewhere in the middle between the noted minimalist Ray Scott and the bolder Brent Musburger. Viewers like him because he’s honest. Michaels stylishly connects the intersecting dots; the analysis of Cris Collinsworth, the sideline reports of Michelle Tafoya, the graphics on the screen and the picture selected by the truck.

Like officials, referees and umpires, Michaels goes unnoticed and like the great athletes on the playing field, he makes it look easy. Yes, Al has been an accomplished baseball announcer, has done boxing, basketball, hockey, golf and more. Still, mention his name to fans today and it’ll trigger thoughts of the NFL.

Are you surprised? This is his 33d season as the league’s primetime voice.

Al and I spoke recently about Howard Cosell, who’s glaringly missing from the list of Pete Rozelle Media Award winners at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  

“Howard and I only did two football games together, a couple of Pro Bowls,” Al quickly points out. But he got to know the sharp-tongued Cosell from years doing baseball together and can regale you with Cosell stories for hours. The unflappable veteran covered quite a few of them in his enjoyable autobiography, You Can’t Make this Up.

As for the Hall, “There has be a place for Cosell,” Al says. “Howard should be recognized for what he meant to the game in the 70s and 80s. If there’s no consensus to give him the Rozelle Award, the Hall should find another way to honor him. It can create an exhibit of the first couple of decades of Monday Night Football. Cosell meant so much to the broadcasts those years.” And those years are when the NFL’s popularity swelled.

A young Al Michaels and Howard Cosell (r) broadcasting baseball

Al says, “An exhibit in Canton would give visitors an opportunity to stop, look and absorb Cosell’s style and get a sense for his personality. Perhaps there can be video too which would reinforce a little of Cosell’s contribution. There has to be a place at the forefront for Howard. He was an important part of the NFL’s television history. It shouldn’t be ignored.”

I asked Al how much politics are a part of the Rozelle selection equation. “Look, Willie Mays wasn’t a unanimous choice to the Hall in his first year of eligibility. There was a writer for instance who held back because Mays wouldn’t grant him an interview when he requested it. From an NFL players’ perspective, look at Terrell Owens (who waited three years).

“I don’t know the precise criteria that’s been established by the Hall, whether it’s a majority vote or some other process, but it wouldn’t surprise me if politics play a role.” After we wrote a piece about Cosell being snubbed all these years, quite a few fans expressed their disbelief on social media.

Howard Cosell loses it on his radio show when his microphone acts up

Truth be told, Brent Musburger is another conspicuous name missing. During the years when Cosell was the cynosure of primetime football, Brent Musburger was building large audiences for CBS’ NFL Today. He, Jimmy the Greek and others in the studio became appointment viewing each Sunday. Brent helped foster a whole new generation of viewers for pro football studio programming. Musburger was in essence an NFL television pioneer of sorts who too has been shunned by Hall.

Al also waited inexplicably for his well deserved recognition. Michaels had done 27 seasons of primetime NFL games before his Rozelle recognition in 2013.

While deserving, Chris Berman got in before Michaels who by my count has now called ten Super Bowls. Berman received the award in 2010. Word was that Berman overextended his welcome at the podium where his acceptance speech took forever to wind down. Organizers then seriously considered ending speeches for Rozelle winners.

Al’s a man of routine. He did Monday Night Football for so many consecutive years for ABC. When the package migrated from ABC to ESPN, the NFL crowned NBC with a bejeweled Sunday Night Football package, one rich with scheduling bells and production whistles to upstage MNF in prime. Al initially said that he planned to continue with ESPN because broadcasting on Mondays was what he was accustomed to doing.

NBC’s Dick Ebersol, responded by saying he had Tom Hammond in the network’s stable and was prepared to give him the gig. The NBC boss also talked with Joe Buck about Sunday nights. But Buck decided to stay at Fox where he was also doing baseball.  Eventually, Michaels and NBC came to terms and he’s been there since the network launched SNF in 2006.

Talking of routine, Michaels is also known for having dinner at his favorite LA neighborhood restaurant, Toscana in Brentwood. He’s often seen there a few nights a week. Funny, when Toscana celebrated its 25th birthday, Michaels addressed those in attendance saying, “My wife and I don’t cook. Because of Toscana, we’ve been able to convert our kitchen into an extra bedroom.”

Al and his family had moved to California from Brooklyn at roughly the same time the Dodgers did, after the 1957 season. And other than his assignments as a young adult in Honolulu, Cincinnati and San Francisco, Southern California has been his home all these years.

In Brooklyn, Al grew up within walking distance of Ebbets Field. When attending games there, he stared at the broadcast booth. His goal was set immediately. He wanted to be another Vin Scully. If not Vin, maybe Connie Desmond (Vin’s early sidekick in Brooklyn). He also loved listening to Curt Gowdy call Red Sox games. It was the trio of announcers Al loved; Scully, Desmond and Gowdy.

He later developed an appreciation for the famed voice of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Jim McKay. He was my “great tour guide,” Al says.

Michaels with Joe Nuxhall, covering Reds games in the early 70s

Gowdy worked under Mel Allen in New York during the Yankee seasons of 1949 and 50. He later voiced Red Sox games and was loved throughout New England. In time, Curt became the Voice of NBC Sports when it had baseball, football and the Final Four. As fate would have it, when Michaels broke into the big leagues as the Reds’ announcer he found himself sitting next to his idol Gowdy in 1972, calling the Reds – Oakland World Series on NBC Television. Al was all of 27 at the time. In fact, there were those who heard him do that series and immediately said he sounds just like Scully, whom Al had listened to his entire life.

Desmond’s undoing was alcohol. The New York Times’ George Vecsey called him “vastly underrated.” Desmond had started under the Dodgers’ Red Barber who himself noted, “Connie had a warm personality, and a pleasant voice. He knew his business impeccably.” After he was let go by the Dodgers, Desmond was known to randomly reach out to announcers and writers asking for handouts. He really hit rock bottom.

Out of curiosity, I asked Al about Marty Glickman, a New York broadcast icon. After all, Michaels was devouring as much radio play-by-play as he could when he was a kid in Brooklyn. “I listened to Marty but I was young. I can’t say that I remember much about his broadcasts.” In the 50s, Marty was doing the Knicks and the football Giants in New York.

As far as his own style, Al says, “It’s about the right blend, it’s about enhancing the viewer experience. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel and the broadcast shouldn’t be a talk show either.”

“I look at the broadcast as music. The game is the melody and announcers are the lyrics.”

Bottle those LA announcers, those who’ve lived or worked there. Bottle it with SoCal’s beautiful weather and you’ll have it made. It’s been a citadel of broadcast greats; Scully, Chick Hearn, Keith Jackson, Dick Enberg and Michaels.  Cap it with Bob Costas who lives there parts of the year too.

Sounds like heaven to me.

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David J. Halberstam

David is a 40-year + industry veteran who served as play-by-play announcer for St. John's University basketball in New York and as radio play-by-play voice of the Miami Heat in South Florida. He is the author of Sports on New York Radio: A Play-by-Play History and The Fundamentals of Sports Media and Sponsorship Sales: Developing New Accounts.

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Dale Cook
Dale Cook
5 years ago

Simply THE best ever.

5 years ago

I covered sports on the air for many years, until 1995. Cosell was a piece of work, and responsible for one of the most embarrassing moments in my life. Long, and funny, story. But about a year after he retired from broadcasting, I wrote a column that, to my surprise, I’d come to miss him. He defnitely should be in the Hall of Fame.