Football and Celebrity in Age of Cosell (Part 3): Mark Ribowsky
For the second episode of “Monday Night Football,” a Kansas City Chiefs-Baltimore Colts game, Howard Cosell breezed into Baltimore with his gut in a knot because of the criticism of his performance the previous Monday.
Luckily, one of his closest cronies, Colts General Manager Don Klosterman, soothed his bruised ego. Later, the great Colts halfback Lenny Moore threw his arms around him, braying loudly, “This man is the greatest broadcaster in the world!”
“Lenny,” Cosell, in character, replied, “you’re exactly right.”
Even so, the flak and rumors that ABC, despite the extraordinary ratings of “Monday Night Football,” might take him off the show were wearing on him. Roone Arledge, the head of ABC Sports, told him it might help if he “held back” a tad rather than going too “Cosellian.” When the game hit the air, it began with an interview of the rapidly aging Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. Cosell waded right in, asking Unitas if he could “still throw the long ball.” Although Unitas took no offense, sportswriters blistered the broadcaster for mortally insulting a deity.
‘Not Coming Back’
Watching it play out, Cosell came to a momentous decision, or so he thought. On the Sunday night before the third game of the season, a Chicago Bears-Detroit Lions tilt, Cosell was drinking his dinner at a Detroit restaurant with the rest of the “Monday Night Football” trio -- Keith Jackson and Don Meredith -- when he told them, “I’m not coming back,” meaning for the second season.
Arledge was at wits’ end. The series was thriving in the ratings, yet Cosell was keeping him from enjoying it. Cosell seemed to be having a nervous breakdown, and Arledge was so sick of him that he was prepared to call his bluff.
“If you want to quit after this game, fine. If you want to talk it over tomorrow, fine,” he told Cosell early in the season. “But give us all a break, and do your thing tonight.”
Halfway through its inaugural season, the underlying context of MNF was already ingrained: It was as if a narcotic had become mass-consumed, a creature comfort for some, maddening for others. Even a seemingly innocuous matter such as the halftime interlude, when Cosell ad-libbed commentary over filmed highlights of select Sunday games, touched off overheated reaction from fans who became incensed if their favorite team wasn’t included in the package. The nasty mail about that led Cosell to pointedly state that the highlights were “chosen by the producers,” not by himself. In any case, it now seemed that, as Arledge would crow, “the show is bigger than the game.”
The proof was that the inevitable blowout games didn’t depress the numbers much for ABC. The third hour would be about as strong as the first. This was solely attributed to the Cosell-Meredith byplay, which in circumstances like those would often become an extended needling session. As with any other high-visibility couple, tabloid-style rumination followed about how they detested each other.
One obvious sore point for Cosell was that Meredith’s mistakes were a bane. During a Cincinnati Bengals-Pittsburgh Steelers matchup, Steelers linebacker Chuck Allen made a nice tackle, prompting Cosell to set up Meredith by saying, “Well, Dandy, our old friend 58 made the play on that one.” Meredith, who had not a clue who No. 58 was, checked his roster sheet -- except he absent-mindedly checked the wrong team and began extolling “our old buddy Al Beauchamp” -- who played for the Bengals. Producer Chet Forte nearly swallowed his lit cigarette.
The most telling aspect of that frenetic first season was that it would be recalled, beyond its general success, primarily for two games on consecutive Mondays -- neither show for the game itself. One was a crucial Cowboys-St. Louis Cardinals game in Dallas. As it was the first time Meredith would call a game by his old team, that became the hook of the show. When Meredith reacted with increasing pique to Cowboy miscues, Cosell turned up the heat. “I wish the viewers could see Don Meredith right now,” he said. “He’s upset, gritting his teeth.”
It was priceless television. Arledge could have burst in joy. He would be even more ecstatic when the ratings came in and showed that a blowout game had lost none of its numbers as the night went on, and even beat a Johnny Carson special on NBC. Could it get any better?
The next game, between the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles on Nov. 23, fell on a frigid night on the tundra of ancient Franklin Field. Cosell came to the park early that Monday feeling, as he later said, “queasy.” How much, or how little, he insulated himself with alcohol would be a matter of speculation a few hours later. Dennis Lewin, an MNF producer, said that up to about 7:30 p.m., Cosell hadn’t had a drop to drink, but that after that he heard -- from Jackson, Meredith and others -- that Cosell had been drinking. Jackson would later confirm that Cosell had consumed “vodka, straight up,” and not one glass. “Howard,” he noted, “could tote a lot.”
Hardly by coincidence, Cosell was upbeat in the game’s first half, playfully attributing to Meredith observations that came as news to the latter. (Cosell would later say that Arledge told him the first quarter of the game “was our best job of the year.”) But then, in the second quarter, came a 180-degree turn. Suddenly, Cosell began to stumble over his words, then slur them. He left sentences hanging in the air. Forte growled that Cosell was drunk. “Take him off the air.”
“Leave him on,” Arledge ordered, hoping that Cosell would get himself together, and Cosell did make it through the half without major embarrassment. During the intermission Arledge, thinking the crisis was over, simply urged Howard to tank up on black coffee.
But when the half ended, standing beside Meredith, an arm around his shoulder, in his other hand a trembling microphone, Cosell began, now famously: “Halftime ... Franklin Field ... ” then, trying to somehow make his mouth pronounce the city they were in, it came out as a slow-motion sound, something like Ful- a-dul-fia. As Meredith bit his lip, clearly amused, he went on, slurring each syllable, “Halftime score ... 13-9 Giants ... Tough game ... Don Meredith, key points ... ”
After Cosell cued a commercial, Arledge had seen enough. He wasn’t going to let Cosell back on the air again that night. And that wasn’t even the worst of it. Cosell, seated in the booth waiting for the second half, now became ashen. His eyes began to roll backward, then he jerked forward, his head nearly crashing into the table in front of him. A groan came from his throat, followed by a stream of vomit that covered the floor, some speckling the brand-new cowboy boots Meredith had bought that afternoon.
Because the game ended in a thrilling finish, the Eagles upsetting the Giants 23-20, most recitations of the incident were fleeting. Even Dick Young went relatively easy on Cosell. In a grab-bag Daily News column, Young wrote, “I understand that Howard Cosell vomited in the broadcast booth and had to leave. It absolutely is not true that he was listening to an instant replay of his comments at the time.” Young had juicier gossip to bite into, or so he believed, reporting the now-old canard that “rumors persist that all is not sweetness between Don Meredith and Cosell. They were supposed to have had a shouting match, off-mike, two weeks ago, with Meredith telling Cosell what to do with his tiresome patronizing and redundant polysyllables. Dandy Don, for the record, assures me that he and Humble Howard are palsy-walsy.”
The first season of “Monday Night Football” proved to be a ratings monster. It ended with an 18.5 average rating (meaning of all households) -- third-best among new shows, behind only two other classics-to-be, “The Flip Wilson Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” It gained a 31 percent share (all turned-on televisions during its hours on the air). And with it, ABC had finally found its means to equality, and soon supremacy, in the network-ratings wars. The brute power of the series was such that programming honchos at the other networks quaked before it. CBS, for example, moved the wildly popular “The Carol Burnett Show” out of its Monday night time slot rather than cross MNF.
Like other classic early 1970s diversions, MNF helped transfer 1960s nihilism into a more meaningful realm based on cultural standards fought for -- and won -- in the wreckage of the previous decade.
(Mark Ribowsky is the author of “Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball.” This is the last in a three- part series excerpted from his book “Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports,” to be published Nov. 14 by W.W. Norton. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1 and Part 2.)
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