On the list of the 30 winners to date of the Pete Rozelle Award, Howard Cosell’s name is nowhere to be found. From a player’s perspective, it would be tantamount to the Pro Football Writers Association shunning Tom Brady for induction into the Hall of Fame proper.
The annual award ‘recognizes exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.’ In July, when Andrea Kremer was given the honor, I studied the list of past awardees. There was truly no undeserving winner.
The winners are fine. It’s the omissions that are glaring; none bigger than the king of primetime football, Cosell.
Of the media awards given each year by the Halls of the four major pro sports, football’s list is sprinkled with executives. Bill MacPhail of CBS, Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films and David Hill of Fox who helped acquire the network’s rights to the NFL, were all accomplished.
Roone Arledge, longtime head of ABC Sports, changed the viewing routine of football fans and opened the financial spigot of the NFL on television. For decades, Roone was the godfather of television sports, a guru of sorts and mentor to the famed Dick Ebersol who later ran NBC Sports. Roone was duly honored in 2001.
How soon we forget! Likely the most epochal deal in the history of the NFL was struck in 1970 when Arledge and NFL commissioner Rozelle penned a deal to air Monday Night Football on ABC. Over the air network television ruled the roost then, particularly in primetime, which the league had not yet penetrated. The three networks, CBS, NBC and ABC, commanded some 80-85% of television audiences.
Fans rushed to their couches and recliners each Monday night to watch the telecasts. Beginning with the first game on September 21, 1970, featuring Broadway Joe Namath, the broadcasts became a smashing success.
In 1970, baseball was still indisputably America’s pastime. By giving the NFL presence in primetime, Arledge and ABC propelled the league’s wave of growth. In time, interest in pro football surpassed baseball. Historians will identify the advent of MNF as the groundbreaking event that swung the pendulum in the NFL’s favor. Arledge’s NFL deal was covered by Time Magazine when the news magazine really mattered.
In lockstep with the league’s growth, studio shows drew more attention too. The on-air personality who garnered the most attention was the provocative Brent Musburger. He worked with Irv Cross, a Rozelle winner, Phyllis George, a former Miss America and he engaged in fireworks on the set with Jimmy the Greek. Just as he should be a Gowdy winner in Basketball’s Hall of Fame, Brent deserves to be recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was the face of NFL Today on CBS from 1975-89.
Dennis Lewin, who produced ABC Monday Night Football in its heyday and later ran the television office of the NFL says, “I could make a strong case for Brent to get the Rozelle Award. The 15 years he hosted the NFL Today on CBS, the show was the gold standard of studio shows.”
Howard Cosell, a polarizing figure with the sharpest of tongues and a command of the language second to none, was the cynosure of all Monday Night Football broadcasters. He could be entertaining and condescending. He was either loved or hated and often both at the same time.
Yesterday isn’t today. Until the 1980s the networks had no real competition for the nation’s eyeballs. Cable wasn’t born and networks like CNN and ESPN, weren’t hatched until the late 1970s. It would take years before cable audiences reached critical mass. Through the decade of the 1970s, MNF did roughly a 20 rating. To appreciate the significance of the number, in 2017 the show did a 6.4. So in its heyday MNF’s ratings were roughly three times higher than they are today.
In my conversation earlier this week with David Baker, the president of the Pro Football HOF, he would only tell me that Cosell’s name comes up often. “We have an incredible list of winners and a group of very credible media experts who make difficult selections each year.” The Hall won’t release the names of the committee members to avoid targeted lobbying efforts by interested parties. The Hall would not comment on whether living Rozelle winners are on the committee. Baker won’t discount Cosell or Musburger, “Howard Cosell was an imposing personality and Brent a legendary name,” he says.
For the first Monday night game ever, Jets-Browns, ABC did a 33 share! Over a short period of time, Cosell, a galviaizing if not alienating figure, when he chose to be or even when didn’t choose to be, somehow got under the skin of Henry Ford II. The car company’s boss called ABC and threatened to dump Ford’s significant sponsorship unless Cosell himself was dumped. ABC held firm. Word was that Mr. Ford later dropped his threat when he had no choice. The high ratings were too compelling.
The broadcasts had a mystique. Arledge recognized that the primetime telecasts required personalities. The booth the first year teamed Cosell, Don Meredith and Keith Jackson, a best in class, straight-laced play-by-player. After a propitious first season, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Arledge did anyhow. He replaced Jackson with Frank Gifford who jumped from CBS to ABC and did play-by-play. Gifford, a star ex-Giant, had never done play-by-play.
Cosell though was always the star. It didn’t matter if he showed up inebriated and slurred his words, he got the attention. And when John Lennon of Beatles fame was shot and killed on a Monday night in 1980, Cosell extemporized an absolutely brilliant and economized eulogy. Many first heard of Lennon’s death through Cosell on Monday Night Football.
But the Cosell detractors were loud. In response to the constant criticism of Cosell, Mutual Radio began broadcasting Monday night games nationally on radio with Lindsey Nelson. Some fans shut down the sound on television and listened on the radio. That’s how polarizing Cosell was. Polarizing but overpowering and unforgettable!
Lewin who worked with Cosell for years on MNF telecasts says, “Yup…Howard absolutely deserves it, even though he would have said it didn’t matter to him.”
When identifying the top announcers with the greatest command of the language, you think Bob Costas, Vin Scully, Dick Enberg, Jack Whitaker and of course Cosell. The accomplished agent David Falk chuckles, reminiscing, “Howard can turn words. How about, ‘He has a paucity of elevation’?”
In March, we celebrated the 100th birthday of Cosell. Praise from broadcasters and executives sprouted across these pages from the biggest of sports announcers to Wolf Blitzer. The CNN anchor said, “Howard Cosell was blunt and honest and so smart. He knew sports history and he shared all of that brilliantly. And I know he inspired so many journalists to follow his lead. For all of that, I will always be grateful to him.”
At the time I asked Costas about his recollection of Cosell’s football. “Monday Night Football was special then. The NFL was a Sunday afternoon event. You didn’t have night games before it. There was no Sunday night, no Thursday night. It stood apart with special appeal. The halftime highlights were critical. Cosell adlibbed them. It was the dawn of modern day television. It was before ESPN. For many in the country, Monday Night Football was the first place they saw highlights of out of town games and they were presented with the Cosell cadenced narration.”
Mention Cosell to American sports fans during the decades of his visibility and they’ll invariably impersonate his voice. To this point, say it to the Hall’s Rozelle voters and they’ll say, “No, sir.”
(See earlier piece – Pro Football Hall of Fame will consider an award to honor team announcers)