Al Michaels on everything from calling O.J. after the murders to Bill Simmons
No working sports broadcaster can match the resume of Al Michaels. He’s called multiple Super Bowls (he’ll do his ninth this year), World Series and NBA Finals, hosted eight Olympic Games (six winter and two summer), three Stanley Cups Finals (2000-02) and some Indy 500s. He’s done major college basketball and football games, even championship bouts (including Hagler-Hearns). Most famously, he was the lead broadcaster for the most memorable sporting event of the 20th century (The Miracle on Ice). Those of a certain age will remember that Michaels also had a starring role in 1994 on the ABC News coverage of O.J. Simpson’s famous Bronco ride, where Michaels debunked the greatest prank call of all-time to a live news event.
What you might not know is one of Michaels’ earliest jobs was for Chuck Barris Productions, where he worked as a booker for The Dating Game. Or that he played an attorney on Hawaii Five-O. Or that he was paid $5,000 for his work in Jerry Maguire. The NBC Sports broadcaster, along with SI’s Jon Wertheim, has written a memoir (You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television) about his life in broadcasting that debuts Nov. 18. An excerpt from that book on Michaels’ relationship with Howard Cosell ran last week on SI.com.
Below, is Part 1 of a two-part interview (Part 2 will run on Tuesday) I conducted last week with the 69-year-old Michaels on a variety of topics.
How would your career be different if the Soviets ended up beating the Americans at the 1980 Winter Games and there was no Miracle on Ice?
Perhaps somewhat different but one of the interesting things is I had already done two World Series and an Olympics on national television. I did the 1972 Sapporo Games and I was also the Reds announcer and was folded into the NBC coverage for the 1972 World Series. I also did the 1979 World Series for ABC. So I was off and running in a manner of speaking but not as fast as I wanted to be.
The irony was the Olympics took place in February 1980 and I had signed a five-year deal with ABC which began in January 1980. So I was two months into a 60-month contract and a lot of people were saying after the Olympics, “Now you really have to renegotiate and you’ll be making a lot more money." But that never crossed my mind. I had signed the deal. My assignments did not change very much until 1982-83. In 1983, when I ascended to the No. 1 game in baseball for ABC, it had almost nothing to do with Lake Placid. I would say for what it is worth most of the feedback from Lake Placid took a number of years to come. I think I would have had pretty much the same career but this is the calling card and something that everyone will refer back to and talk to me about. It brings people so much pleasure to talk about. It brings me pleasure to talk about it as well.
That game was arguably the greatest sporting event in the 20th century for an American sports fan. What kind of mementos, if any, did you keep from the broadcast?
Nothing. My wife Linda was out on the street that Saturday (the day after the Miracle on Ice game) and wound up buying a painting of the U.S. playing the Soviets. She comes back to show me and says, “Look at this. They have already painted a scene from last night’s game!” I said, “Honey, they are wearing the wrong uniforms. This is from some previous U.S.-Soviet game at a previous Olympics. We got duped.” I think that painting wound up in our garage (laughs). Somebody asked if I kept the headset for the broadcast. I didn’t and I should have. But I believe somewhere in some storage facility in Santa Monica might be the sweaters that Ken Dryden and I were wearing on the air.
You have always loved to sneak in gambling references on NFL broadcasts.
Yes, you refer to your Rascal tendencies in the book. Have you ever heard from your bosses or the NFL about dropping the occasional gambling reference?
No. The only time was when [then-ABC Sports president] Dennis Swanson asked me not to before the San Francisco-San Diego Super Bowl in Miami after the 1994 season. The league was sensitive that the spread opened at 19 and I think it went to 18 or 18 ½. So Swanson said to me -- and not really seriously -- that the league is really sensitive to the big spread so if you can just avoid it. And I did … until the end of the game.
The game was 49-26 San Francisco so you have a 23-point differential and there is one play left in the game. San Diego had the ball at the 35-yard line and Stan Humphries is going to launch a pass into the end zone. That’s when The Rascal could not help himself. I said “Humphries launches one into the end zone and all over America hearts are beating furiously. Incomplete.”
Are broadcast outlets and the NFL being too puritan about this? Why not acknowledge the spread?
I think some of us do. Look Brent Musburger is great. He just out and out tells you what the spread is. I like to play around with it. I don’t think it is necessary. To say on the air the Steelers are a six-point favorite once in a while it is germane to what I am trying to point out, so I will say the Steelers are favored by about a touchdown. I find it more of a fun thing because there has always been this perception it is verboten and we are not allowed to talk about it.
Look, ESPN is picking games against the spread and a lot of sports-talk shows do it. It is out there and the league knows it’s out there, but they certainly have to take a stand because you don’t want some gigantic scandal. The league knows it is a multi-billion deal and creates extra interest in the game as does fantasy football.
You have done The B.S. Report with Bill Simmons on three occasions including this summer after your beloved Kings won the Stanley Cup again. Would you like to venture a guess as to whether he will re-sign with ESPN next year?
(Laughs). These internecine battles only have a certain level of interest to me but I sort of stay abreast. So when there is infighting or a civil war going on I am sort of amused by it. On Bill, I have no idea. Look off the top of my head and more generically than Simmons’ specific case, the attachment with ESPN is huge because ESPN is huge. Now, do you want get out from there and do it on your own? That is the big issue.
One guy who did that was Jim Rome, who was able to have from what I understand ownership in his radio show. That is where the payday is. You either go through your life working for someone and getting a paycheck. And it can be a damn good paycheck and I am not complaining as someone who has always been a salaried employee, or you can go out and become an entrepreneur. It is a risk but Bill obviously has some good counseling around him.
You were once very close (and colleagues) with O.J. Simpson. You regularly played tennis at his house and you and your wife Linda frequently had dinner with O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson. When you step back and look at O.J. today from the O.J. you knew 20 years ago, how surreal is it?
I think everything became surreal after that night in June 1994. You could not believe what you were hearing, none of us could who knew him. You could not believe how it played out and I still can’t believe it right now. You don’t think as you are going along in life that you will know the people part of what some consider the murder of the century. This is something you read about or hear about that takes place in a foreign land or on the other side of the country. Now, it involves your friend and in your neighborhood and you know everyone involved except Ron Goldman.
The whole thing was bizarre, surreal and unbelievable, name the adjective. Even the verdict was shocking to everyone. Then, in his post-acquittal life to go out, to walk away and be able to at least in the eyes of the justice system be told you are innocent and be allowed to go back to a regular life of sorts, to wind up getting into the stupid trouble he got into, that is really astonishing to me.
In the book you talk about your friendship with the late Robert Kardashian, one of O.J.’s closest friends and his defense attorney. He actually told you that O.J. was staying with him after the murders (and not at home as most people reported) and you chose not to betray the information given to you by a friend in confidence. Yet you wanted to give your employer (ABC) the right information about Simpson. That was some kind of balancing act for you, right?
I had to play it down the middle. I have a friend (Kardashian) and I have friends of that friend, and I know what is happening. But I am also very loyal to my network and I wanted my network to have the correct information as much as I could facilitate it for them. Ted Koppel (who hosted some of ABC’s coverage) was terrific. I spoke to him multiple times a day over those few days. The murder happened on a Sunday, I believe. O.J. was back home on a Monday, and Tuesday and Wednesday it was crazy with thousands of people and broadcast trucks in front of O.J.’s house. I’m watching everyone cover this, and everyone is making a big deal about O.J. being in the house. But he wasn’t in the house and I knew he wasn’t.
Not only did I know from Kardashian but I had actually talked to O.J. on the cell phone. I always loved Ted because he always wanted to get everything right 1,000 percent. I didn’t want Ted to come on Nightline and have him start saying when will O.J. come out of his house. So I wanted to share with him something that I knew, but I couldn't tell him how I knew or where he was. I just said to Ted that you just have to trust me. He’s not in the house. And what Ted did that night as I recall was not be definitive where he was when everyone else was saying he was in the house.
Wow, you actually talked to O.J. during that week. How would you describe those conversations?
I talked to O.J. probably three times on his cell phone between late Monday afternoon and Thursday. The calls were similar to when I visited him in jail. He’d say I can’t believe they think I did it. He was upset about the way things were being covered, and in particular, how NBC’s local coverage was covering it given he was working for NBC at the time. I got the feeling he was fixated on how it all was playing publicly.
You debunked arguably the most famous prank call in television news history when a Howard Stern fan -- posing as “Mr. Robert Higgins” -- was able to get through to ABC News host Peter Jennings and tell Jennings (and millions of Americans) that he was watching O.J. Simpson, slumped down in his Ford Bronco. ABC was lucky you were a Stern fan.
This is the whole country watching a prank call on network television. In any conversation of great prank calls, it is in the conversation. People know me from a hockey game, from an earthquake, from the O.J chase. The fact that I have done multiple Olympics, eight World Series, eight Super Bowls and a ninth coming this year, is kind of shoved off to the side. It is a hockey game, an earthquake and the O.J. case (laughs). I was trying to parse so carefully what I was saying that when the prank call was over I used words like “lest” and “farcical.' I love being in New York because there’s always fans yelling to me that “It’s totally farcical, Al!”
SI posted an excerpt from the book about your relationship with Cosell. Why did he become so bitter at the end of his life given his broadcasting career was truly legendary?
Well, without being a psychologist, Howard became extremely crotchety. Maybe it was age. I think there was a frustration with the business for him. Maybe he was getting a little bored. In the Monday Night Football booth he did not like working with Frank Gifford. He was always denigrating and diminishing Frank. He was not that crazy about Don Meredith, too. I wasn’t there for all of this but I’d hear him talking about it. He really did not have good things to say about any colleague. Once in awhile, he might be neutral. Something was always eating at him.
I think a lot of it was for some reason, and this is what I wrote, he always felt he was above what he was doing. He would never label himself as a sports broadcaster. I’m not saying he’d label himself as something specific, but he always thought of himself as something above that as a job description. He was going to be America’s conscience or something else. He needed to roil the waters or stir the pot. But he was extremely facile and so if you wanted to come after him, you would not win too many verbal jousts.
Looking at that chapter again, I might have had more fun with it. In my early years, Howard was fun. No matter where we went there was always something. Howard always had to be on stage and dramatic, and would come up with great lines and takes and then take a long drag on his cigar and preen. He was a complicated man who could be charming. He was everything. I did 100 games with him and there was never a dull moment, There were times he was brooding and dark and that was not fun but you could never say it was dull.
Rush Limbaugh was considered for a Monday Night Football analyst role when you were there. How would he have done?
He would have been fascinating. He understood the game and he has unbelievable communications skills. Love him or hate him, you are not on the radio for 25 years, five days a week, three hours a day as he has been and have as big an audience as he has unless you have something. Granted, he is preaching to a certain choir, but I look at him as I look at Howard Stern. They are like Pete Rose. They are the guys who get 200 hits per season over 20 years.
Same question for Charles Barkley?
Charles has some interesting things to say. The one thing about Charles is he is unexpurgated. It is pure. It is what he thinks. He is not pulling any punches. So could he have done Monday Night Football? I guess. He knows enough about [football] but here’s the one thing that is different from a game telecast to a studio. In the studio what Charles must do or what someone who is Charles-like must do is they must create that heat. You say something that is interesting. That’s what his show is, but if you are in a booth doing the game, you must always remember the star is the game.
The game is No. 1. You are an adjunct to the game. In a studio, there is no game. You are the star. That’s why you are there. For the game, you can’t go away from the game and beat your chest. People are there to watch the game. You are there to supplement, not to override or overwhelm.
In the book you tell a wild story about how you ended up getting paid $60,000, topping the salary of Bob Costas, to appear in the film BASEketball. Was that the easiest money you ever made?
It was the hardest money I ever made (laughs). I still have to look at this film. It speaks to Hollywood. I have friends in studio positions and I know how the town works. I think what I was so upset about was I had nearly fallen off the turnip truck again [because he was getting low-balled at first]. I had worked on Jerry Maguire where they had come to Frank, Dan Dierdorf and me to be in the film. The last scene in Jerry Maguire is a Monday Night Football game in Arizona. We filmed for three days.
I looked at the budget of the movie and what it was likely going to earn, and they initially came to us and were offering like $1,100 each. Frank didn’t care one way or another. So I said to Dan: “Dan, we can’t do this.” Dan said they told him that they would invite he and his family to the premiere. His daughter (who was then a teenager) loved Tom Cruise and wanted to meet him. So I’m thinking, "Dan, they can tell you this but what are they going to do: Fly your whole family out from St. Louis? Don’t bank on it.”
So I played the point man role and they upped the offer to $5,000 for each of us. I finally said, “Guys, I’ll do what you want but we are getting screwed.” So we wound up doing it. So here we are in a movie that ended up grossing $270 million and we made $15,000 combined and we are all over the last 10 minutes of the freaking movie. I felt like I got duped. So to get duped with BASEketball was not going to happen. I still get residuals for both (laughs).
Who are the most famous people in your cell phone?
John Madden, Cris Collinsworth, Doc Rivers, Jim Palmer, Tim McCarver, Frank Gifford, Donald J. Trump.
What person knows you the best?
Linda Michaels. We have been married 48 years.
Is she a sports fan?
She became one. Linda and I met in the 10th grade so we have known each other since we were 15. She is the love of my life. She is just the greatest. That is the biggest piece of luck that ever came down the pike for me.
I love the part in the book where you and Sal Bando are both signing up for classes at age 17 as Arizona State freshman.
One of my favorite passages in the book is at Arizona State [where Michaels went to college] when I am standing in a long registration line talking to the guy behind me. We are 17 years old. He says I am here to play baseball. I say I am here to be a broadcaster. His name is Sal Bando. Then 10 years later, I am announcing a World Series he is playing in. I mean, are you kidding me? This is impossible. That was one of the sweetest moments for me in my life. Two kids standing in a registration line in Tempe, Arizona.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. The NFL said 26 of the top 30 most-watched programs on television since the NFL season kicked off on Sept. 4 (including the entire top 10) were NFL broadcasts. The league said the average NFL game telecast (including broadcast and cable) had drawn 18.0 million viewers through Week Eight (vs. 16.8 million at that point in 2013).
1a. The NFL Network’s telecast of Thursday Night Football drew 8.31 million total viewers despite a blowout by the Browns over the Bengals. Solid number.
1b. NFL fans showed their displeasure on Sunday via social media for the NFL’s broadcasting mandatory kickoff rule. It impacted a number of markets being switched from overtime of Niners-Saints to the start of Seahawks-Giants.
1d. CBS NFL analyst Fred Smoot, on Robert Griffin III: “We know one thing about Robert Griffin III -- he’s a bad politician. The public perception of this guy, what he tries to personify and what he put out there with 'I’m chasing the brand.' Let me tell you something RGIII, you’re a quarterback. You don’t have to chase a brand. You’re a walking brand. Linebackers, cornerbacks, we have to make a brand for ourselves. He doesn’t have to do that. And I think he loses a little bit of the locker room when he goes out of his way to do those things.”
1e. CBS’ primetime coverage of No. 5 Alabama beating No. 16 LSU in overtime earned an overnight rating of 5.3, the top-rated college football game of the weekend. Texas A&M’s 41-38 upset win over No. 3 Auburn earned a 4.5 for CBS.
2. We all know what happened to NHL coverage on ESPN when the league moved to another rights-holder. So clip and save this question from ESPN vice president of motorsports production Rich Feinberg if you are a NASCAR fan.
“I can assure those asking the question and all fans out there that we're going to continue to cover NASCAR across all our news and information platforms in a very significant way,” Feinberg said. “We don't have rights agreements with many different sports out there, but SportsCenter has an obligation to their fans to cover all sports, and as you may know, we recently announced that some of our folks who work on NASCAR are staying with the company long-term like Ricky Craven and Marty Smith.
"We obviously have a lot of outlets for all our content, both over the air, cable, digital, dotcom, et cetera. Our plans are to fulfill the interests of NASCAR fans who watch all our news and information programming, and I can tell you I personally have already been involved in our planning for coverage for the Daytona 500 in 2015 next year. I don't think you'll see much of a change. We obviously won't be doing the races, but in terms of serving the interests of fans with our news and information coverage, we're full steam ahead.”
2a. NBC Sports Group has added motorsports reporters Dave Burns and Mike Massaro to its NASCAR coverage in 2015.
3. You don’t need a doctorate in ESPNology to deduce that Bill Simmons is not pleased with his employer right now. Here’s my piece from last Friday on Simmons, Mike Golic and who ordered the latest Code Red.
3a. ESPN responded to comic Artie Lange's series of tweets about First Take host Cari Champion. The network called them "reprehensible."
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Grantland’s Brian Phillips traveled to Japan to watch sumo wrestling. Masterful work.
• The Pacers play-by-play radio broadcaster Mark Boyle wrote about his dying brother.
• Via New York Times Magazine: How One Lawyer’s Crusade Could Change Football Forever.
• Boston Globe reporters Steve Silva and Chad Finn on the end of a famous Boston sports bar.
• The New York Post’s Joel Sherman buried Alex Rodriguez with a very smart column.
• The MMQB’s Greg Bedard on a Maine high school football team with four captains from four different countries.
• Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writer Ty Dunne traveled to Sumrall, Miss. to do a longform piece on Brett Farve.
• ESPN The Magazine’s Eli Saslow on Broncos wideout Demaryius Thomas.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi on the $9 Billion Witness: Meet JPMorgan Chase's Worst Nightmare.
• The New Yorker’s Jay Caspian Kang on Tom Magliozzi and Car Talk.
• A British hospital staff makes dying patient's final wish to see her horse come true.
• The Wall Street Journal revealed the mystery questioner at a fateful press conference that sped the fall of the Berlin Wall.
• Here’s how the Associated Press covered fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.
• A beautiful piece by Cord Jefferson about his mother.
5. I thought Gabe Kapler was developing into a smart MLB analyst for Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1. He’s off to the Dodgers front office and will be missed in this space.
5a. Awful Announcing created a WrestleMedia for sports media feuds.
5b. Here's SI's 2014 Twitter Top 100.
5c. The Shirley Povich Symposium on the University of Maryland campus will host “Racism & Sports: How Far Have We Really Come?” at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in the Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center. The panelists include ESPN staffers Kara Lawson, Scott Van Pelt and Michael Wilbon; Kevin Blackistone, an ESPN regular and Philip Merrill College of Journalism professor, and Damion Thomas, curator of sports at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
5d. Longtime New York City sports television anchor Tom McDonald announced this week he will retire at end of the year after 44 years in the business.
5e. ESPN will air a one-hour, primetime Outside The Lines special -- “Domestic Violence and Sports: Out of the Shadows” hosted by Bob Ley on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2. “Outside the Lines wanted to produce this special so our audience could better understand the impact domestic violence has on the victims, the perpetrators, the teams and the leagues,” ESPN senior coordinating producer Dwayne Bray said in a statement. “We hope the stories and discussion we present in this special enhance our audience’s understanding of the issue.”
5f. Here’s a fun bit of sports broadcasting trivia: Michaels said he and Dick Vitale worked exactly one game together during their careers -- the 1989 Pac-10 college basketball championship for ABC. “I had never met him until one hour before the broadcast and we had a great time doing it,” Michaels said.