By nine o'clock on Saturday night the London Chop House in Detroit already had enough people in it to start another suburb, and dozens more were waiting at the red velvet rope and lined up along the stairs to the street, and if you phoned for a reservation you were told it didn't matter if you were Henry Ford bringing Prince Charles in for a bucket of snails, it would be hours before you could have a table.
This is an article from the Oct. 25, 1971 issue
"Leave it to the coach," said Howard Cosell in his suite at the Ponchartrain Hotel, thrusting out both arms as if pushing away an imaginary admirer, then shooting his cuffs and slowly drawing a regular Chesterfield back toward his lips. "It becomes a very simple thing. My friends dine when they choose"
Other than his wife Emi, the friends Cosell had with him that night included Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, his colleagues on the ABC Monday prime-time pro football telecast, a show that has reached a sort of notoriety unseen in the field of sports broadcasting since the days when Red Grange and Dizzy Dean used to mangle the language on tiny black and white screens, or perhaps since the latest interview with anybody by Cosell himself. Cosell, Gifford and Meredith were in Detroit for their seasonal debut two nights hence, and psychic tension was creeping over them, though they grappled with it in different ways.
"Howard, you are beautiful. You are a trip all by yourself. You are fantastic," said Meredith, who had dressed for dinner in an ensemble that consisted of a brown suede cowboy hat, a sport coat, pink corduroy trousers and white tennis shoes with no socks.
"Some men are endowed with greatness," Cosell admitted.
Lurking a few feet away, as though wary of getting too close to his partners lest they should accidentally spray his suit with a burst of slightly damp rhetoric, Gifford waited with a scant smile, hands in pockets, elegantly turned out, his eyes watching them through tinted glasses.
"Frankly, I feel like I'm facing a firing squad," Gifford said to a visitor. "It's not what I have to do on Monday night that's so hard, it's who I have to do it with."
"With whom you have to do it," corrected Cosell.
Gifford nodded. "See what I mean?" he said to the visitor.
The Cosell-Gifford-Meredith team—to list the performers alphabetically and not necessarily by size of ego—can by sheer force of mouth absolutely overpower the football game it not only describes but also uses as a platform on which to stage tunes, gags and anecdotes. Some critics are underwhelmed by this style of reportage, and some love it. But it is certainly no accident that Cosell-Gifford-Meredith come on as they do, and, whether you like their act or not, the Monday night package apparently has established professional football as a feisty competitor in ratings against such big-league competition as Bob Hope specials and Elizabeth Taylor movies.
A couple of years ago when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle thought up the idea of playing a game every Monday night during the season and selling it to TV, a great many people crowded around to tell him the only bigger fool would be the man who bought it. That was the opening for Roone Arledge, president of ABC sports. A number of ABC executives agreed with much of the press that Monday night pro football on TV would be the Edsel of their trade. But ABC, the third and generally lesser network, did not have all that much to lose. ABC's Monday nights were such that sometimes they had the feeling nobody was home out there.
"I sold it to ABC by showing them what would happen if we didn't do it," says Arledge. "If CBS, NBC or some independent network picked up pro football, ABC just wouldn't have any Monday nights left. At least 100 stations would have dropped us. TV has kind of lost the impact it used to have on the better-educated segment of the public. I thought our Monday night pro football would bring back some of that impact, would become an event people planned their nights around. It's true. Theaters and restaurants lose business on Monday nights because people are watching our football games. We've turned Monday nights around for ABC. CBS and NBC have tried to put pressure on Pete Rozelle to drop our package, but our show has been sold out ever since it started, and we now have about 30 million viewers."
The first person Arledge hired for Monday night football was Cosell, an intelligent, articulate, abrasive 51-year-old lawyer who is quite literally hated by hordes of Americans who consider him a friend of and apologist for former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, which Howard is. Cosell can no more keep his mouth shut than a porcupine can sing opera, and he has plenty of things to say that a lot of people do not want to hear. But one undeniable fact about Howard is that you can't help but notice his presence. Arledge wanted that quality.
"Our Monday night commentators had to be so strong that people would be interested regardless of the game or the score," says Arledge. "Rozelle reportedly has approval rights on announcers with CBS and NBC, not with us. I hired Howard to let people know I'm tired of football being treated like a religion. The games aren't played in Westminster Abbey. It's just a bunch of guys hitting each other." Arledge then asked his friend Gifford—who was at that time under contract to CBS—to recommend someone with a humorous, contemporary touch to counteract some of Cosell's heavy speeches. Gifford said the only person who could handle the job was Don Meredith, who a year earlier had suddenly resigned as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Arledge had never met Meredith but hired him after their first lunch together.
The third member of the team last year was Keith Jackson, a smooth and highly competent play-by-play announcer from Los Angeles. "Keith is accurate, quick and has a golden voice, and he's not a big star. Stars don't like it if they can't control everything, and we didn't think we needed any more stars in the booth," Arledge says.
The experience of becoming a TV star surprised Meredith. As an All-America quarterback for SMU and as a professional who played in two championship games, the 33-year-old Meredith was accustomed to celebrity, but he had still been able to walk through an airport in Chicago or Pomona without being recognized. TV changed all that. Everywhere he goes now, people want to shake his hand and commiserate with him about having to share the booth with Cosell. Meredith's big night last year was during the game in which St. Louis beat Dallas in a major wipe-out, and Meredith seemed to be suffering for his ex-teammates even as he was speaking very critically of them. The truth is Meredith is far from distraught when Dallas loses without him, but most people elect not to believe such things about athletes, and the sympathetic mail flowed in. After the season Meredith went on an appearance tour of 47 banquets, mostly in the South, Southwest and Middle America, where his folksy behavior seems to have the most appeal.
"At every banquet," Meredith said, walking toward the Ponchartrain elevators, with Gifford a few steps behind and Cosell marching in the lead, clearing the hallway with his voice, "people would ask me how I could stand to work with that Yankee smart aleck who defends that draft dodger. If I felt like answering that kind of question, I would tell them Howard is one of the most intelligent men I ever knew. He's opinionated, and I don't always agree with him, but I admire and respect him. I love Howard. He took them all on at their own game and made them play it his way."
As he was talking, Meredith suddenly walked into a suite that had a tag on the door saying it was the hospitality room for a bankers' convention.
"Hidy, folks, hidy, my name is Harley Smydlapp, president of the Citizens' National Bank of Dime Box, Texas, and I'd like for you all to meet my staff," he said.
Several of the bankers and their wives eyed Meredith's bare ankles and cowboy hat suspiciously for a moment, and then they began grinning and nudging each other.
"Hi, Don, old buddy, how's it going?" one of them said.
"Well, the truth is I'd rather be a bamboo than an oak," said Meredith. "A big bamboo, however."
Harley Smydlapp is a character Meredith invented as a sort of independent conscience for himself. Harley Smydlapp is chief investigator for Smydlapp, Smydlapp & Calhoun, a large fact-finding organization hired by the American public to explore the truth about pro football. When he is talking to Harley Smydlapp, Meredith always tells the truth. When he is talking to a booster in Dallas, on the other hand, Meredith might ditch Harley and bend things around a little to make them come out more comfortably.
On the sidewalk, waiting for Meredith to sign some autographs, Cosell began reflecting on the outrage he manages to provoke.
"I've never understood the flak," he said. "At least half my mail says you nigger-loving Jew bastard, what are you doing with the sacred game of pro football? Well, this is starting to be boring, and I think I may get out of this intellectual thimble and not do any more TV sports except the Olympics, which I find very exciting. I'm being offered more and more roles in movies and television. I just finished playing in Nanny and the Professor the part of a teacher who understands the melancholy nature of middle age. There's a chance I may be the regular host on a talk show, and I have my own company to develop new show ideas. I don't need sports. But I would never quit doing my 25 radio shows [all ad-libbed] every week. On the radio you don't need to worry about how old you are, or how you look.
"I don't think television has traveled the right route in hiring so many ex-jocks to broadcast sports. The jocks don't have any really specialized knowledge. They've brought to the game a redundant jargon that the public has accepted as mystic insight. For years, what have the jocks been telling us? That you try to isolate a back on a linebacker? Well, as a kid we always tried to put our fast kid against their slow kid. What's the mystery in that? Maybe the reason for the flak I get is that for 15 years the public has been fed sports-establishment Pablum. Of course, the utilization of Dandy Don Meredith was genius. He's the rare case of an athlete who's uninhibited and irreverent, a personality. Frank Gifford, Pat Summerall, Kyle Rote, they're jocks, but they've been working as announcers for 10 or 12 years and are pros by now. But many of the jock announcers are a disgrace. Perhaps I should resign right on the air—say folks, if you want Pablum you won't get it from Howard Cosell."
Once last year Cosell did in fact go off the air during a football broadcast, an incident that brought him thousands of acerbic words from the newspaper critics he denounces as "mere bread-and-butter writers without class." It was suggested that Howard had been fending off the cold that night with a nip of warming brandy and that he soon found himself unable to say "Philadelphia," which is an important word to use when announcing a game at Franklin Field, and that he retired for a nap long before the teams did. Meredith informed the public at the time that Cosell had the flu. "I was very ill. I thought I'd had a stroke and was dying. I was so worried that I took a cab from Philadelphia to New York to see my doctor, and then I read in the papers that I was drunk," Howard said indignantly.
A Cosell performance that drew almost unanimous praise was his role in the Woody Allen movie Bananas. Howard played himself interviewing a South American dictator in the act of being shot and later interviewing a honeymoon couple in bed. It was all done extemporaneously in one take, and Howard was very funny. Emi saw Bananas seven times. Cosell says his next film role will be in Woody Allen's version of All Yon Always Wanted to Know About Sex. He was speaking of his future in the movies when he and the group arrived at the London Chop House and discovered there was barely room to squeeze into the lobby, much less land an available table.
"My dear," Cosell cried to the girl who was guarding the red velvet rope, "I have journeyed on every continent, I have seen beauty of the most exotic and exquisite sort, but never never have I set eyes upon a woman quite so flawless, quite so stunning...."
"Anybody who sounds that much like Howard Cosell must be Howard Cosell," said someone from the crowd as Howard pushed immediately to the front of the line and reached for the red velvet rope.
"And with me are the irrepressible, the irresistible Dandy Don Meredith and the handsome, charming, utterly dynamic Faultless Frank Gifford...."
"Are those tennis shoes Meredith's got on?" someone said.
Cosell turned to an attractive woman standing nearby with her husband, a tall and solid fellow with gray hair and a smile that seemed uncertain whether to remain.
"Darling, I see you have quite obviously married beneath yourself. It must be a source of considerable embarrassment for you to be in this world-famous restaurant with a man so much older than you. If you would care to join us as we pass through this rope to enjoy our dinner...."
"Can't you see there's no tables?" said the girl at the rope.
"Do you have a card?" said the woman whose husband was now puzzling over exactly what to do about Howard Cosell having entered his life.
"I do not need a card," Cosell said.
"Leave it to the coach," yelled Meredith, whistling through his teeth. "I love it, I love it."
And then, miraculously, the rope was lifted, and Cosell's party was admitted ahead of many faces that were not altogether pleased. Cosell grinned enormously and looked at Meredith and Gifford out of hooded eyes and lit another cigarette.
"Howard, you're incredible," said Meredith.
The thrust by Cosell got the party only as far as the bar, where they had to stand for another hour before a table opened, but Howard was delighted to have been the one who moved his partners past the rope. Last year it was reported in newspaper columns that a rivalry between Cosell and Meredith had developed to the point of an actual fist-fight that had left them hating each other—none of which is true. But there is definitely an undercurrent of competitive feeling between Cosell and Gifford. They seem almost to intimidate each other, Howard being made edgy by the presence of a genuine New York Giants football hero, and Frank being slightly uneasy in the grandiloquent company of Cosell's massive vocabulary and precise grammar.
Gifford was very nervous about being in Detroit for his first appearance at the mike for a regular-season game in his new job. He had done a couple of exhibition games with Cosell and Meredith, and the reviews were not favorable. Gifford had blown a lot of names and numbers, and Cosell and Meredith had talked so much that Bill MacPhail of CBS said their commentary was like listening to a cocktail party. At this game in Detroit, Gifford needed to establish himself as a personality before he disappeared in a fog of oratory thrown out by Cosell and Meredith.
At 41, Gifford has had a glamorous career as an All-America at USC, a New York Giants star and as a TV figure at CBS. "For the last 15 years Frank has lived inside a glass ball, protected by the Wellington Mara and CBS umbrellas," says Mike McCallum, a TV producer, "and he's always tried to be known as a nice guy. Even when he says something tough, he wants it to sound nice." If Cosell and Meredith are frequently irreverent in their approach to football, Gifford is not. In his mind he is still intensely a part of the sport. Gifford likes to talk about games he played in, and he remembers the dates and the scores and runs he made. Talking to him, there is the sensation that if you joke with Gifford about football, you will be the only one joking.
What, then, was a nice boy like Gifford doing in a place like Detroit?
A few months ago there was a sort of muddling around in New York sports TV. Because of rising ratings by ABC News, New York's WNBC decided its sports announcer, Kyle Rote, had a "low profile" and replaced him with Dick Schaap, collaborator with Jerry Kramer on the best-selling Instant Replay. Rote continues as what is now called an "analyst" on NBC pro football games, working with Jim Simpson. At about the same time Gifford was hired away from CBS by Arledge, 40, who is regarded by his counterparts at the other networks—MacPhail at CBS and Carl Lindemann at NBC—with a striking lack of affection, which may be taken as a compliment to Arledge's success with the Olympics, Wide World of Sports, NCAA football, NBA Game of the Week and now Monday night pro football.
Gifford says he changed networks because ABC offered him more freedom. Arledge says he hired Gifford because Frank was the only person he could think of who could put into practice Arledge's theory that the play-by-play announcer has become outmoded in TV sports. What Arledge wants is for Gifford to give the necessary information about yards and downs but combine it with immediate analysis of the game. "Frank will not only set the game but will also say what the colorman used to say, thus freeing Cosell and Meredith to make their commentary on a more sophisticated level," says Arledge.
Some think Gifford has leaped into an impossible situation, that the play-by-play and analyst's roles cannot be combined with three egos in one announcing booth like three bobcats in a box. One of the people who feel this way is Keith Jackson, who learned he had been replaced by Gifford by reading it in the paper.
"With one guy in the booth, you could give the viewers the necessary information and the color stuff at the same time, but with three guys it tends to become a bull session," says Jackson. "Last year Howard and Don profited from my ability to be succinct and keep order and set them up so they could make their points. My philosophy of broadcasting is that if the viewer turns off his TV and has been entertained, satisfied and informed and can't remember I've been there, I've done a good job. The game is the thing, not the chatter.
"I had deep misgivings about working with two other guys last year. I felt like Charlie Anonymous in that booth. I've got an ego, too. An announcer's job is to amplify, clarify and define, not do a song-and-dance act. I became very close to Don and Howard. We had no conflict, which is rare in this business. But I do resent the hell out of a guy walking off a football field and immediately becoming high-priced announcing talent. It's very depressing to young men in college trying to reach the top in communications. I don't even believe Meredith has told me anything about the game I couldn't figure out for myself. What can he say? He can't reveal personal truths about the guys down on the field. Don's best attribute is his manner."
MacPhail is a bit more harsh in his opinion of ABC Monday night football.
"I wince with embarrassment when those guys do a funny," he says. "Meredith is like a buffoon, waiting to be cute. Cosell's style is good for a 15-minute show, but not for an action game. Howard is not so much I-tell-it-like-it-is anymore as he's just a guy who sets himself up for Meredith to put him down. I guess people like that part of it. On CBS the game is the star. ABC does some strange things. For NCAA football their big team is their house guys, Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson. In the middle of the third quarter Schenkel starts thanking everybody from the college trustees on down, so I can understand why ABC is under pressure from the NCAA to use him. If you want to know who's a really funny color guy, it's Wilkinson, not Meredith. Wilkinson is funnier than Meredith because there's no way he thinks he is.
"This whole question of jocks on the air is changing," says MacPhail. "A few years ago there was a tidal wave of them, but now they're being hired less rather than more. Jocks don't have any training in commentary or interviewing, they're very reluctant to embarrass a fellow player with a tough question, they're amazingly nervous and if they have any special knowledge about the game it usually doesn't come through. But a guy like our Pat Summerall, for example, he's an ex-jock but he's also a pro announcer. He's a little stuffy, and I wish he'd loosen up, but he's the best in the business. He tells you what's going on without shoving a lot of words down your throat."
Carl Lindemann is a friend of Cosell's on a social level, and their wives are friends. "But Howard doesn't buy my lunch," says Lindemann, "and I have to say I don't believe the general public is fascinated with Howard's discussions of Meredith's vocabulary. Don and Howard are amusing for a while, but they become an intrusion. The public doesn't care about their relationship. And Gifford is struggling to be heard above the chatter.
"The first year NBC did the NCAA football games, we tried using three guys in the booth—Terry Brennan, Bud Wilkinson and Lindsey Nelson. In the very first game Terry and Bud were at each other's throats, and Lindsey had to be a traffic cop. ABC has not added a new dimension. I'm convinced their approach is wrong. Paul Christman had the most distinctive talent of all colormen. The best team now is our Curt Gowdy and Al DeRogatis. They tell you what's happening without quarreling with each other in the booth."
On Sunday afternoon in Detroit, with the opening show only a day away, Cosell-Gifford-Meredith were watching Baltimore beat the Jets on the TV set in the parlor of Producer-Director Chet Forte's suite. Cosell was loudly proclaiming the deficiencies of the Jets' quarterback, insisting that the slowness of his hand-offs made it easy for the Colts to knock down the running backs.
"I wish Baltimore would play with your butt for a while. You'd find out how easy it is," Gifford said.
Forte broke in to stop a potential quarrel and start a production meeting instead. That night they were to go to Tiger Stadium to pretape Monday's introduction. Forte covered a number of points rapidly, and his three stars were given new yellow ABC blazers they are required to wear on camera. When the meeting ended, Gifford went to his room to study rosters, Cosell went to his suite to watch the rest of the Jets game and Meredith went to play tennis.
"Our problem here is to get Don and Howard to shut up early in the game so Frank can set the teams for the people and establish himself," said Forte. "It's up to Frank not to make mistakes and not to get down on himself. These are three very delicate and emotional people. If I tell Howard to shut up in the wrong way, he's liable to sulk for the whole game."
During one game last year Meredith unplugged the ear piece through which Forte had just been reprimanding him and decided his announcing career was over. Cosell asked him to finish the night's work, and now after one full season on the air Meredith has won an Emmy, has been given an honorary doctorate by Alfred University and thoroughly relishes his position. After he resigned as the Dallas quarterback, Meredith took a run at being a country-singing star, a songwriter and a stockbroker. He has been offered roles in several TV series and no doubt will someday accept one. "I've met a lot of actors, politicians and star athletes in my life, and Don has more charisma than any of them," says Gifford. But for the moment Meredith is enjoying his seat in the TV booth.
"The worst mistake I ever made was thinking I could work for a living," Meredith said as he was getting dressed to go to the stadium for the taping. "What I'm doing now is fun. I don't have much time on the air to say my speech, but my speech is that I love the game of pro football. It's the greatest sports vehicle in the country. But we are going to have to change the emphasis on violence and on winning at any cost. There aren't very many people in the stands who are under 30. Young folks won't buy the old Vince Lombardi stuff any more. Lombardi wouldn't have been as successful today. He tolerated two or three token playboys, but the others he stripped of their personalities. Pro football is a game of individual talents that in a great team somehow become welded together. On the air I like to point out the athletic talents down on the field—like a physical artist like Bob Lilly, showing what he does that's so great—and not just talk about the violence and the score."
On the way to the stadium the taxi driver kept glancing in his mirror at Gifford and Meredith in the back seat, and finally he asked why they were going to the game a night early.
"We have to rehearse the big plays," Gifford said. "Some of the long passes and runs, you know, they're so hard that we have to do them several times to make sure we get them just right for television."
"Them Minnesota Vikings, where are they from?" asked the driver.
"Madison, Wisconsin," Meredith said.
"I knew it was someplace like that," said the driver.
Cosell was waiting at the stadium with the 50-man crew, the two mobile units and the $2 million worth of equipment, and he was impatient to begin.
"Come on, you two jocks, let's get this over with, a talent's time is valuable," he said.
"Howard stays mad at me because I'm an ex-Giant," Gifford said. "I can't help but think in terms of a straight football game. Even Don thinks more in terms of show business. Howard just calls it a show."
Gifford fluffed the first taping of the introduction by referring to Detroit Cornerback Lent Barney as Mel. The three laughed it off and tried again. Three and a half hours later they were not nearly so amused. Each of them had blown at least one introduction, and it was past midnight before Forte had four minutes he felt were usable. While waiting for a camera to be moved, the three rushed back to the hotel bar, where Cosell insisted on introducing Meredith to Viking Coach Bud Grant. On a show last year Meredith had commented that in a personality contest between Grant and Dallas Coach Tom Landry there would be no winner.
"He says you're very dull and cold and lifeless, Bud," said Cosell.
"Why do you do this to me, Howard?" Meredith asked.
That night Gifford couldn't sleep. He lay in bed and worried about forgetting numbers and being devoured.
On Monday afternoon it rained and they had to tape the opening again shortly before the kickoff. Finally they rode the elevator up to the booth, a box fenced off on three sides and open in front to a view of the green field and the old green stands. Gifford peeled off his blazer and stood with a microphone around his neck, wearing a yellow sweater. Cosell sat in the middle in a raincoat, and Meredith sat on the right in his blazer. A Las Vegas publicity man came in and gave them ballpoint pens. Paul Hornung came in and asked who was going to start at quarterback. Bob Cochran, the broadcast coordinator from the NFL office, came in for a moment. The band was playing The Notre Dame Fight Song, and Meredith and Cosell joined in a sing-along.
"Here we are as a new season approaches, cowed by the pressure," said Cosell.
Meredith put in a phone call to his mother Hazel in Mount Vernon, Texas. Cosell took the phone from him. "Hello, mother," said Howard, "what I've done for your son in one short year is absolutely amazing, but he deserves it." Down in the No. 1 mobile unit, facing 18 monitors connected to nine cameras, Forte was talking to several people at once with his rather special ability to concentrate in the midst of what to an outsider appears to be incipient chaos. "Don't panic in the truck," Cosell said. "We still have one minute until air time." His voice became a parody of itself. "You could cut the heavy atmosphere with a knife, as tensely the three men awaited their 1971 debut. For Dandy Don Meredith, it was the second time around."
"Peace, flowers and love," said Meredith.
Gifford made a V sign, the co-director in the booth pointed a finger at him, and Frank began to talk. In the first half Gifford made two major errors, neither one entirely his fault. On a tip from Meredith he put the wrong quarterback into the game for Minnesota, and Meredith apologized for it over the air. Someone handed Gifford a card that said it was halftime, and Frank read it aloud with 10 minutes yet to play in the second quarter. But by the time the half did arrive, there was joy in the ABC truck. Meredith and Cosell had trimmed their chatter to a more moderate level. Gifford was doing the promotional announcements and the play by play and also was including analysis of the game in a natural, unobtrusive way. "Frank is getting better by the minute," said Arledge. "No matter what all those other guys think, this thing is going to work."
By the second week, Gifford had enough confidence to enter exchanges on the air with his partners. When Phil Wise of the Jets received a kickoff and knelt with the ball, Gifford said, "Wise wisely stays in the end zone."
"Little play on words there, Frank," said Meredith.
"I don't get a chance for many," Gifford said.
"That's even a better one," said Meredith.
It could be that if Gifford continues to improve and can do what Arledge expects of him, he will evolve into the star of the trio. It could also be that Cosell will destroy him on the air some night, or that Meredith will decide to dominate the mike, or that the three of them will all begin talking at once in a fierce babble that Forte will have to cure with a switch. Or it could be that by the end of this season even their many critics will grant that they are the best announcing team ever heard on TV sports. However it turns out, Arledge appears to be right about one thing—his three guys in the booth are a big reason why people are gathering in homes and bars to watch TV on Monday nights again.
...Bill MacPhail, CBS
...Carl Lindemann, NBC
...Roone Arledge, ABC
...Chet Forte, producer-director of ABC's Monday night pro football.