Howard Cosell Was Quite Incorrect About the Future Fortunes of ESPN and John Madden

Ryan Glasspiegel

Howard Cosell passed away 20 years ago this month. In this three-part series, we look back on his contributions to sports media. The first installment detailed his eventual disillusionment with sports, and the second sought to figure out what type of work he’d be doing today. Today’s piece is a collection of outtakes, which, for reasons of relevance or space, did not make it into the first two parts. 

– The scene up-top comes from Woody Allen’s 1971 film Bananas, and features Howard Cosell narrating intercourse. We spent a lot of time in the first two pieces discussing the dichotomy of Cosell, who alternated between being a serious journalist and not. “When others say he’s but a parody of himself, there’s even a measure of compliment in that,” Frank Deford wrote in a 1983 SI cover feature.

“Cosell’s celebrity was so vast that genuine stars clamored to get in the booth with him,” Tony Kornheiser wrote in the Washington Post, shortly after Cosell’s death in 1995. “You’d be watching a game, and all of a sudden there was Cosell jawing with Burt Reynolds or Glen Campbell. He became a world-class name-dropper. There was “breakfast with Liza,” and “cocktails with Kissinger.” Cosell shilled like crazy. He was a carnival barker, luring us into the tent to see the naked dancers (then sometimes shaming us for watching, like with a football rout or a one-sided bout, until he chucked boxing altogether after the 1982 Larry Holmes-Tex Cobb fiasco); he fell helplessly in love with the tacky “Battle Of The Network Stars,” an absurd athletic competition among jiggly TV starlets and prime-time pretty boys.”

– When Cosell was tapped to begin announcing Monday Night Baseball for ABC in 1976, it was initially not something that he wanted to do. Nor was he particularly wanted by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, or the owners of Major League Baseball, of whom Cosell had been critical on both relocation and labor issues (he’d testified in front of Congress in 1972 to remove baseball’s anti-trust exemptions). However, Roone Arledge got them together for dinner to try to hash things out. From I Never Played the Game:

They eventually hashed things out, and Cosell would announce ABC’s prime time baseball telecasts until his scathing memoir came out and he was ousted from the network. As for Emmy, she traveled with her husband nearly everywhere, as the two had an inseparable relationship.

She could also be a bit of a curator of his image, as Robert Lipsyte explained. Lipsyte worked as a writer on Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell, a short-lived variety show that we touched on in Part II. Lipsyte relayed this anecdote in his memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter:

The skit got nixed by Emmy, who did not believe the two cartoonists were attractive enough to be on-stage with her husband. Howard Cosell was immensely talented and successful for many reasons, but telegenic appearance was not one of them. A compromise was ultimately struck wherein Cosell went and met the Superman creators in the audience, and they ultimately did wind up receiving a payout from Time Warner for their work.

– While we discussed various television roles Howard Cosell might’ve had, and said that he would’ve excelled in a podcast format, in Part II, one contemporary medium we didn’t talk about for him was sports talk radio, which began to flourish shortly after his heyday.

While he is most famous for his work on television, his radio addresses were arguably his best work. “Never is Cosell more impressive than when doing one of his several daily five-minute radio broadcasts,” Frank Deford wrote in 1983. “He will casually interrupt a conversation; stride down to the studio, perhaps slowing en route to pick up a bit of wire-service copy; and in a moment or two, without any apparent preparation, lay down his cigar and deliver a crisp, even trenchant, extemporaneous report, embellishing it with his own opinions and bringing it home in its allotted time to the split second. He then will pick up his cigar, retrace his steps and resume whatever conversation he had been engaged in when he paused to address America.”

Time and again in my research, people marveled at his uncanny timing.  “He had an astonishing clock,” Tony Kornheiser told me. “No notes. It was just awesome. You were awed. You’re sitting either across from him in the studio, or you’re observing him from outside the glass, and he’s gotta go three minutes and 50 seconds, and then there’s a break, and then he’s gotta go 45 seconds, and without any notes at all he hits the notes both times. Brilliant. Just brilliant. The only other guy who I’ve seen who had a clock in his head quite like that was Bob Costas. As good as Bobby is — and he’s really good — I’m always going to think Cosell was the greatest.”

One could easily envision Cosell having a show (in format, not personality) like Colin Cowherd’s where he just talked amongst himself for hours on end. Furthermore, like Howard Stern, he could do incisive long-form interviews that would inevitably draw re-printed copy out of the candor he inspired in his subjects.

– Though we pointed out a lot of stories in our first two installments where Howard was vastly ahead of the curve, he wasn’t 100% clairvoyant. For one, he failed to foresee the monolith which ESPN became.

“Howard really, really knew the TV busemness,” Peter Bonventre, who co-authored I Never Played the Game, told me. “Insemde out. At least the femrst few years of emt, though, he thought ESPN was a joke — that emt would never happen, that emt would close up shop. Ameremca would never watch sports 24 hours a day. I guess that tells you what he really felt about sports. It’s kemnd of surpremsemng because he really, really knew the busemness. He could sort of demvemne themngs, but he thought ESPN looked lemke of a joke — of course, emt demd look lemke a joke the femrst few years — but he just demdn’t see any kemnd of future emn emt at all, whemch I found surpremsemng. I don’t know emf I saw the future emn emt, but he certaemnly knew a lot more about TV than I demd.”

He also would’ve lost his shirt if he were able to short sell stock in John Madden. “In my opinion, Madden has already reached the peak of his popularity,” Cosell wrote in 1985. “He’s beginning to turn off a lot of viewers who aren’t rabid sports fans. For the most part, he is a creation of the sports print medium, and he’s not remotely qualified to restore the luster of Monday Night Football. To call him a prime-time performer is to know nothing about television.”

– Times were different then, but Cosell’s drinking, and doing so on-air, contributed to his downfall. Today, it would’ve simultaneously been considered more of a liability and garnered more sympathy. In a 1994 late-night appearance, Al Michaels told David Letterman about a time where Cosell got out of his limousine and, by virtue of his persona, broke up a street fight:

“It’s amazing what eight vodkas will do for one’s courage,” Michaels said. “And that was a slow night.”

Michaels wrote about a fast night in his memoirYou Can’t Make This Up:

Former ABC executive Jim Spence relayed another instance (and this is presumably what Letterman was referring to in his conversation with Michaels) in his 1988 memoir, in which he said that Cosell was so intoxicated during a 1970 MNF broadcast that he “couldn’t pronounce the name of the city he was in without slurring,” and had to leave the booth after he vomited on Don Meredith.

Billy Crystal also had a story about Cosell’s drinking:

These three stories ranged about a decade and a half, and represent times that Cosell’s drinking was apparently out of control on-air, amidst myriad times that it was not. To the extent that this was a problem is a matter of interpretation — as we’ve gone over, his aggregate career accomplishments may never be surpassed, and he had a long and fruitful marriage. However, it does seem reasonable to conclude that his drinking was one of the many contributing factors that led to his late fall from grace.