Al Michaels, Part II: His broadcasting future, his past and Bob Costas
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 2 of a two-part interview (Part 1 ran on Monday) I conducted last week with the 69-year-old Michaels on a variety of topics.
I imagine most NFL viewers would say you are still at the top of your craft, but nobody outlasts Father Time. How much have you thought about when you want to stop broadcasting?
Thank God, knock on wood, I feel good. I’m healthy, everything is fine. I take Advil once every other day for golf and that’s it. That part is out of my hands and as long as that is good, I do love what I do. I still get a big thrill of being on the air, doing games, working with my crew, loving the drama, loving the feel in the stadium. It is a great job. It doesn’t require a lot of physical exertion There is a travel component I’m not happy about because I’m always on the road so that is a downer but nothing is perfect.
I have not thought about a timeline. When I cannot do a telecast the way I want to do it and the way I think I have done it, and not be at a level I must do it at, I will never risk having people say “What’s wrong with him?” or “What happened to him?" or “I don’t want to listen to him anymore.” That won’t happen because I’m going to see that before anyone else and before it happens, I’ll pull the plug. Look, I am lucky. I have the best producer who ever lived in Fred Gaudelli and the best director ever in Drew Esocoff. I have Cris Collinsworth who followed John Madden so I have had 13 years of the best analysts. I have Michelle Tafoya on the sidelines. I mean, I know everyone loves their own people but this is my crew and I love them. I love working with them. It is such a pleasure. Everyone has everybody’s back. So as we sit here in November, I feel good, I love doing it and I can still do it the way I want to do it so I’d like to put the future on hold. I know it will come but as long as I am this side of the deep divot and feel good, I’ll keep going.
Where are you contractually with NBC Sports?
I am good (signed) through the next three years and even after that there are some kind of options. I’m not leaving NBC. That’s for sure.
You talk in the book about your fondness for Pete Rose as an athlete and subject given your Reds affiliation. How do you feel Pete about today?
I summed it up in the book exactly how I feel about it: I think it’s just sad. I think how it played out is sad. When you went by his locker when he played you just felt more alive and felt more energy. There was a buzz around him. He was full of life. And he set an unbreakable record [4,256 hits]. To me I’ve always felt the most important thing about an athlete is long-term consistency and that is what Pete exhibited in spades. It is just a shame that it goes down through the course of history the way it has. People say to me should he be in the Hall of Fame? I can’t answer that except to say in my mind he is in the Hall of Fame. He may not be there literally and with a plaque in Cooperstown but he is one of the greatest players that ever lived. And if you don’t have all this taking place, he should have been on 100 percent of the ballots in his first year of eligibility. I feel for him. He has lived an okay life because Pete is tough and he has gotten through all of this stuff. I don’t think he sits around and wallows in sadness.
How much of today’s sports broadcasting jobs are based on merit versus connections versus how you look on television?
First of all the big difference now is the proliferation of cable. Years ago when ABC had the rights to college football you could watch two or maybe three games in your city. Now you look at the list on Saturday and you can watch in the hundreds. So you have 10 times more producers, directors and broadcasters I think for the most part if you look at the NFL, when you look at Joe Buck, Jim Nantz and Mike Tirico, you are looking at three really, really good announcers. All three of those guys are good and good listens. Marv Albert in basketball, Mike Emrick, you see the people at the top of the chain and those are the people who belong there in my mind. Now once you begin to go to the fifth NFL team or the 10th college football game of the day, I don’t know. This is when you have certain people who should not be there and others who are ascending. But I’d like to think for the most part it is a meritocracy
Is Sunday Night Football the best NFL broadcast today?
Of course, but I am being very provincial when I say it. We don’t look at ourselves as going up against the other guys. We look at ourselves as trying to be better than we were last week. I have done network television for almost 40 years. I have been with everyone. This group is the best. They have taken it to the highest level. Fred Gaudelli is amazing. I have never worked with a producer like him and I have worked with some great ones.
Sunday Night Football has had a number of blowouts over the years. What have you learned over the years about how to approach the fourth quarter of a broadcast when the game is a blowout?
When we go into any game, we have any number of stories and some of them are pretty good about players and coaches, owner, etc ... In a good game, sometimes you have no opportunity to go there. In a blowout, you do. There was an old phrase we used to use called “Filling Roone’s [Arledge] Saddle Bag.” In the Olympics we would always fill Roone’s saddle bag because if the event was one-sided he wanted to have some place to go. To Roone, a game was a game, but what distinguished each game was how you brought that to life. So the one thing a blowout affords you to do is to talk about some things you could not.
You worked on The Dating Game in your 20s and had Chuck Barris as your boss. That must have been fascinating.
I had just gotten out of college and was getting married. Chuck was great, a master psychologist and a brilliant man. What I remember about that job most of all was everybody dressed down at a time when most people went to work in a suit or tie. It was kind of an Animal House office. We always had a staff meeting on Friday and Chuck would joke and bring people in to play music. It was always a show within the show. He understood the viewing condition extremely well. He later started The Newlywed Game and then The Gong Show. He wrote books and music. Brilliant man.
You were a booker for The Dating Game. You had to bring in good-looking actors and actresses for the show, right?
Yes, a lot of them were aspiring actors. In those days, you would sit there with a rotary phone and there were no answering machines. You’d call people and out of every 10 people you’d dial, five people might pick up. Then maybe two of those five would hang up immediately. Maybe one would listen sort of and maybe one or two who would ask what they could do next. We would work off referral sheets so if you had a really good-looking girl who came in, you would have her picture and references and you figured that she probably had good-looking friends. Chuck wanted telegenic people and he also wanted people with great personalities. If a blonde bombshell was stupid enough, that could be fun too because that would make good television. He wanted someone fairly good-looking and not a dullard.
You have very definitive opinions in the book about Mark Shapiro, a former executive vice president and head of ESPN programming, and they are not positive ones. You wrote in the book that ESPN was passing along negative stories about you during your contract negotiations in the mid-2000s and you make it clear that you thought it was from Shapiro’s office.
I know it was. Shapiro wanted people to kowtow to him. He was self-promoting, self-aggrandizing, and as I say in the book, I could not trust him. He had more than a touch of megalomania. He was the kind of guy that would contend he had a brand new idea but what he was doing was reinventing the wheel that had been reinvented over the years. Some of us who were in the business a long time would be like, “What the hell is he talking about? We did this 20 years ago.” He knew that I had no respect for him and John Madden had no respect for him. He knew that Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff would probably not listen to him to the degree that [Monday Night Football production staffers] Jay Rothman and Chip Dean would. ... He ended up leaving scene before ESPN ever did one Monday Night game and went to Six Flags and of course they went into bankruptcy. Quite a resume.
To me he was a guy who thought he talked a good game, bamboozled a lot of people. I’m sure there are people who feel they owe their careers to him. I’m sure there are others who thought he was one of the great frauds of all time.
The New York Post reported in 2005 that you needed special treatment -- that you had to stay in the finest hotels, that you needed private planes. How much validity was there to that reporting?
That was absolutely coming from people like Mark Shapiro. After a year at NBC, Dick Ebersol told me after he had gotten to know me: "What the hell was all this sh-- I read about you?" I said, "Dick, It was sh--." Look when I went in for a contract negotiations for the NBA, I had enough on my plate. I was turning 60 and wondering if I wanted to do this. I knew if I did it I had to make it as easy as I could and what guy does not go in there and try to make the best deal I could. What this was a complete embellishment. Shapiro did not want me there for the NBA and the NFL. Real simple.
It seems like the only thing you have not done on a mega-level is the World Cup. Is there one sporting event that you have yet to call that you would have loved to have called?
We can eliminate the World Cup because I know nothing about soccer. I have never been to a soccer game. I have watched it though and I will watch the World Cup. But I can’t say there is any event. As a kid I dreamed of the World Series and the Olympics. There was no such thing as the Super Bowl and I wound up doing that. The NBA Finals and Stanley Cup Finals were not what they are now when I was a kid. I actually did a Rose Bowl in 1976 on the radio. I have done the Kentucky Derby and Indy 500 (hosting). I’ve done eight Olympics. I did Hagler-Hearns and some other amazing fights. I don’t know what is out there I’d really want to do.
It’s always been my contention that people will really appreciate Bob Costas as an Olympic host when he is gone. Do you agree?
Definitely. One of the great things about Bob is he can do so many things. As an interviewer, he is as good as it gets. He has always been great at play-by-play, too. In terms of the moving parts and connecting them at an Olympics, there are some people who don’t appreciate that. We live in a big diverse country and everyone has different tastes and there are some people who don’t want any interview or the studio; they just want to see competition. Those people will never appreciate Bob but people who want be smarter and learn about things or have a curiosity will always appreciate him.
You can broadcast a game with one broadcaster – alive or dead – who do you choose?
I honestly think I have had the best – [Jim] Palmer, [Tim] McCarver, [Dan] Dierdorf, Madden, Collinsworth, [Ken] Dryden, Arthur Ashe. I can’t really think of someone.
It doesn’t have to be a sports person.
[Laugh] Well, I am a Howard Stern fan. But that would not work. It would be a joke-fest. Howard is the first guy to admit he knows nothing about sports.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. The weekend’s college football overnight ratings via Sports Business Daily:
Alabama-LSU (CBS): 5.3
Auburn-Texas A&M (CBS): 4.5
OSU-Michigan State (ABC): 4.2
Notre Dame-Arizona (ABC): 3.5
Kansas State-TCU (Fox): 1.4
2. Brad Daugherty, a regular on ESPN’s NASCAR coverage over the past eight years, will see his responsibilities with the network switch to the NBA and college basketball. He’ll now be a regular on NBA Tonight, NBA Coast to Coast, SportsCenter and will also serve as an analyst for most games in ESPNU’s ACC Sunday night package, in addition to other select games, beginning December 1.
Daugherty said he spoke with another network about doing pro basketball stuff but eventually opted to stay with ESPN. He covered college games for the network from 2000-05 before becoming a racing analyst. “I love pro basketball but I really love college basketball, too, and ESPN came to me and said we’d love to have you do both if you are willing to spend the time,” Daugherty said. “They just offered a great opportunity to have my fingers in both. I’m looking forward to it and I’m a lucky guy.
Daugherty said he will also continue working in racing when ESPN covers racing, as well as with the Sprint Cup Team team he owns -- JTG Daugherty Racing.
2a. The recent off-track battles between NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers helped ESPN gain a 12 percent increase in the overnight ratings for Sunday’s Quicken Loans 500 at Phoenix versus the Chase race at Texas Motor Speedway from the previous Sunday, according to Austin Karp of Sports Business Daily. Karp said the 2.8 overnight for Phoenix was the best figure for the penultimate Chase race in at least the last five years.
3. CBS announced on Monday that it will broadcast the 87th edition of the Egg Bowl -- Mississippi State at Ole Miss. – as its game of the week on Nov. 29. The game will air at 3:30 p.m. ET. As part of the SEC broadcast agreement, ESPN gets the second SEC football selection which means the network has lucked into airing the Iron Bowl for the first time since 2007. ESPN will air Auburn at Alabama in primetime on ESPN at 7:45 p.m. ET. The SEC Network will also offer a live alternate presentation to ESPN’s coverage with specific details to be finalized.
The SEC season concludes on CBS with the SEC Championship on Saturday, Dec. 6 (4 p.m. ET) from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
4. Some additional pieces of note that I didn’t get in Sunday’s column:
•The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza on Hillary Clinton and the drawbacks of being the front-runner.
•Variety, on the amazing life of actor Norman Lloyd.
•The Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay on whether you are watching too much football.
•As part of Sports Illustrated’s greatest stories series, here’s Pulitzer Prize-winner David Halberstam, in 1991, on Michael Jordan and why his rise to global fame had only just begun.
5. Sports media personalities who say things merely for attention occasionally get tripped up in their own disingenuous: