The second half of the Phoenix Cardinals' inaugural home opener, against Dallas on Sept. 12, was ready to begin, but ABC, which was televising the event to a national audience of 24 million viewers, had more important business at hand. It had promos to show and maybe a station break or two to squeeze in. And so the half started late—first 30 seconds late, then one minute late, then....
Down on the field the players were lined up for the kickoff, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other. The 67,139 fans, unaware at first that TV was causing the delay, sat quietly like obedient children. Everson Walls of the Cowboys, who knows that the officials don't always control the game, kept glancing to the sideline at the Dallas 25 with a look of consternation on his face. "Relax, pal," said Billy Edwards, ABC's sideline coordinator, "it's going to be another two minutes."
The delay lasted 2½ minutes in all. By then the crowd had become fidgety. Edwards, standing on the edge of the field in full view of the officials, didn't drop his right arm from across his chest, thereby signaling the half to commence, until producer Bob Goodrich, who was sitting in an ABC control truck behind Sun Devil Stadium, gave him the word over his earphones.
Edwards, 77, great-grandfather and network fixture, is a living symbol of the television commercial. For 21 years he has called almost every TV timeout on Monday Night Football and ABC College Football games, has regulated the flow of play around those all-important commercials and occasionally has heard catcalls from fans who have caught on to how the system works.
Unknown to the huge companies whose ads he clears, Edwards was given the job of sideline liaison by happenstance. A devout golfer, Edwards was in the gallery of a tournament ABC was covering in Florida in 1965, and he met a few of the cameramen. A widower who was about to sell his plate-glass business, Edwards began working around the TV trucks for $35 a day, performing whatever odd jobs he noticed needed doing. Eventually, former ABC senior producer Chuck Howard gave him a set of earphones, and soon Edwards was a regular part of the team. Today all the refs, half the coaches and some of the players recognize him, which is reason enough for ABC to keep him around. Among the last true characters in the TV business, he will probably die on the sidelines one of these years and be buried beneath a bust of Spuds MacKenzie.
Back in the '60s Edwards and other sideline coordinators, who had fewer and shorter commercial breaks to clear, were known simply as "red hats," a tribute to the type of headgear worn by the pioneer sideline coordinators in the '50s. Today each NFL liaison wears bright-orange gloves for easier recognition by referees. Like most coordinators, Edwards stands on the 25-yard line at the lower right-hand corner of the screen as you watch the kickoff at home.
Because he's the point man on commercials, Billy has been booed in Philadelphia and in Chicago and has had several snowballs thrown at him in New York. Tough guy that he is, however, he doesn't let the abuse bother him. The demands of his job are another matter. With the high cost of commercial spots these days, there's a certain amount of pressure on Edwards not to fumble a call. He worries that new refs will ignore him, an ad will be lost, and he'll be out of a job. He needn't fret. His signals are as precise as a flagman's on an aircraft carrier: Folded arms means a timeout at the end of the next play; right arm to left shoulder, wait; circling motion with the right hand, lights, cameras, action.
Viewers may not be aware of it, but the marriage of football and television has produced a kind of game within a game. In the commercial game the referee glances at the sideline coordinator after almost every play, the coordinator repeatedly signals to the ref when a play is approaching that will lead to a commercial, and during timeouts the back judge stands sentry next to the coordinator, letting him know that long delays will not be tolerated.
If it appears that ABC will come back late, Edwards must cadge additional seconds from the officials. For all their posturing to the contrary, the NFL officials almost always are pushovers. On the rare occasions extra time isn't allowed, such as during Pac-10 games, viewers usually return just after the snap, which spells embarrassment for Edwards.
Pac-10 officials do crack a sharp whip. During UCLA's blowout of Nebraska in September, a conference athletic official acted as coordinator with the refs, while Edwards, who maintained contact with the ABC truck, merely served in an advisory role. As it happened, UCLA and Nebraska players had to be waved away from the line of scrimmage for 30 seconds midway through the fourth quarter when the new Pac-10 man apparently failed to notify the referee in time that ABC would be late coming back from a commercial. If Edwards had been in charge, the problem might have been avoided.
Says Edwards, "I ask the referee for a timeout, I don't tell him. It's at his discretion whether I should get it or shouldn't get it." But that's really a polite fiction. The machinery is so well oiled that on Monday Night Football, at least, nine times in 10 Edwards will tell Goodrich, "Go ahead, Bobby, you've got it," before he actually notifies the referee that a timeout is being taken.
Of course, the majority of the commercial breaks are made during agreed-upon stoppages in the action, such as after punts and scores, and during injury and team timeouts. The contracts governing college and NFL games allow TV a specified number, of commercial breaks (generally four or five) per quarter, in addition to commercials or station breaks between quarters, at the half, and before and after the game. (College TV timeouts last 90 seconds. NFL breaks have been at least two minutes since 1986, when the league adopted the philosophy that fewer but longer breaks are more tolerable.)
The crunch comes when, as occasionally happens, TV falls behind in its allotted timeouts. "We have never stopped the flow of a game—never," asserts Edwards. "If there's a punt and one team gets it within the other side's 40-yard line, we won't take it." He will, however, call for a timeout after an interception or fumble "if I'm three or four calls behind." But he'll only do it if the offensive team doesn't have the ball in enemy territory.
For a man who has personally unleashed, by conservative estimate, more than 12,000 minutes of mind-numbing commercials, Edwards is not that bad a sort. "You've really got to be a surly s.o.b. not to like Billy E.," says broadcaster Keith Jackson. Edwards lives alone in Houston, plays golf in the off-season and hits the road to work the sidelines from July to January. He's considerate of the officials—before the Phoenix game he brought each of them an ABC hat. And after years of lonely weekends together on the road, Goodrich—whose own dad, Robert, a former Methodist bishop, died in 1985—considers Edwards a second father. "Irascible but genuine," he says.
An adman from Madison Avenue couldn't have said it any truer.