Costas: Howard Cosell’s Unmistakable Delivery Imitated by All
Marv Albert: “Everything Howard did seemed major because he was doing it.”
On the eve of Howard Cosell’s 100th birthday this Sunday (3/25), we continue our panel interview in part #3. The Cosell series concludes tomorrow.
Marv Albert – Defacto Voice of NBA
Bob Costas – Encyclopedic, network broadcaster –never lost for the right word
David Falk – Pioneer sports agent
Al McCoy – Forever the Voice of the Phoenix Suns
Don Criqui – Network broadcaster for half a century, current Voice of Notre Dame
Tim Ryan – One of the most versatile network broadcasters ever
Dick Stockton – Network veteran who’s called MLB, NFL, NBA and college sports
Tim Brando – Sepulchral voiced play-by-play announcer of network basketball and football
Chris Russo – Dominant sports talk show host, first on WFAN in New York and now on SirusXM
Warner Wolf – Seasoned broadcaster famous in New York for his “Let’s go to the video tape”
Marty Glickman – (via autobiography) The late play-by-player extraordinaire and coach to the sports broadcast world
Neal Pilson – Yale-educated attorney and former president of CBS Sports
Mike Patrick – 19-year voice of Sunday Night Football
Ralph Lawler – Star-studded and longtime voice of the Los Angeles Clippers
Barry Kipnis – Astute broadcast observer and aficionado for over forty years
Larry Merchant, a long-time columnist and boxing commentator, once said, “Cosell makes the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg Trials.” What would you say was Howard Cosell’s legacy?
Cosell was unique and succeeded by doing well, what he set out to do – which is to entertain his audience. He was often polarizing but he was never boring. Dick Enberg told me once, one of his regrets about sports broadcasting was “Cosell never got the credit he deserved.” I’d second that.
He was unafraid to offer the big opinion. He was verbose, colorful and unique. Many fear treading in any of those waters. It set him apart from all others who have followed. He was as hated as he was loved. And that might be the ultimate compliment. It means people listened to him, noticed him and quoted him. There will never be another Howard Cosell.
He helped give rise to the current ruck of announcers who attempt to make themselves bigger than the event. A guy like Dick Vitale is constantly drawing attention to himself rather than to the game.
For years, Cosell was the most liked and disliked personality on television. For Roone Arledge (ABC Sports, president), to a large degree, it who was most recognizable and memorable.
Covering sports B.F.H.C. (Before Howard Cosell) was mostly sugar and honey. Howard changed that forever.
He was the first of his kind, seemingly willing to say anything to get a reaction and he took credit for the success of Monday Night Football when success belonged to the game itself, not the announcers. Never heard anyone say I can’t wait to hear what Howard says tonight, instead of I can’t wait for the Redskins and Cowboys tonight. He was in the perfect place at the perfect time in our business and to his credit I suppose, took full advantage of it.
Cosell changed the playing field. Fair criticism, especially of other athletes, was permitted after he started it. Tim McCarver might have been the first ex-ballplayer to start to do so.
There were guys who could move the needle; Jim McKay, John Madden, Jimmy the Greek and John McEnroe. Yet when it came to attracting viewership it was Cosell—-He was entertaining, humorous and bombastic.
Short term, Roone Arledge’s decision to put Cosell on Monday night Football was a brilliant gamble. It got tremendous attention which upped the ratings. But sports fans never really accepted him as an expert, just as a novelty. Some loved him, more hated him. All watched.
How about tackling social issues in sports?
Interpreted sports from a larger context. People wanted to hear what he would say. He brought a mix of sports and cultural commentary. He transcended sports.
He was the first guy to undertake social and racial issues. He and Ali were amusing on-air.
Howard took strong positions and Roone Arledge gave him a forum. I believe he was a liberal Democrat. He spoke up on behalf of black athletes in America. He thought that they were entitled to name changes like Cassius Clay to Mohammad Ali. He believed in basic fairness. Today his voice would be less than singular, yet he would have had primacy.
Cosell was a meticulous lawyer who courageously supported Ali, who in the view of many, was considered a war dodger. Those were different times and Cosell’s views, as expressed in measured cadences, were polarizing.
In the 60s, Cosell took a gutsy stand on Ali when America was a divided nation. The union between Ali and Cosell helped both their careers.
He was the first, and maybe the only one who strongly defended Ali when his heavyweight title was taken away from him for refusing to be inducted in the Army on religious grounds. All Cosell did was claim Ali had not received due process under the Constitution. The Supreme Court’s 9-0 decision ultimately backed him up.
How would you define his style?
He wasn’t afraid to get into controversial topics and was stupendous with the big event. If you were a play by play guy you really couldn’t stand him because he couldn’t shut up in the big moment. His bombastic style could be very grating. But no one could ask the tough question better than Cosell. Nobody!
Howard was the lightning rod of MNF and his chemistry with the late Don Meredith made the booth exciting and glamorous for those like yours truly, who aspired for an opportunity in the booth one day. Howard’s healthy ego was honest and motivating for him.
He expressed disdain for baseball and had no feel for the game. After Reggie Jackson advanced a runner on a groundout, Cosell said, “Great job, hitting the ball to the right side,” when fans knew it was the last thing the power hitting Jackson was trying to do.
His delivery was unmistakable. Mel Allen and Red Barber may have been loved. But fans didn’t walk around imitating them. Everyone thought they could impersonate Cosell including comedians like Billy Crystal. In many ways, Cosell was like a cartoon character. He was great material for late night television comedians like Johnny Carson. He couldn’t be a Vin Scully or a Jim McKay. Arledge said, “Let him be Howard Cosell.”
He did the Mets’ pre and post game shows on WABC Radio when the team was born. They were must listens. He would ask direct questions – more significant than what others would ask. Remember, this is before all-sports talk radio or sports talk of any sort.
Everything Howard did seemed major because he was doing it. There was no other personality like him. His delivery and tone were new to broadcasting.
His style was unique. He had that staccato delivery, emphasizing words he wanted to punctuate. His face had a kind of hawk-like appearance which also set him apart from the norm in the profession.
Brilliance? I don’t think so. Educated, intelligent, yes. It was his commitment to his boldness. Howard never compromised it.
For more interviews on Cosell’s lasting influence, check out the rest of the series where even more broadcasters share their thoughts on the inimitable announcer.
Although there was plenty to criticize about Cosell (which I did) he was provocative and one of a kind. It’s a different time now, but there hasn’t been any sportscaster on an national level who evoked the kind of visceral reaction to his commentary or took on issues that transcended sports. If you look up the word “controversial” in the dictionary and you would probably see a picture of him there.