Illustration by Matthew Hollister
Illustration by Matthew Hollister

Howard Cosell’s superstar status became evident when Roone Arledge, paterfamilias of ABC Sports - - if not all of TV sports -- brought to fruition a far-fetched dream: Monday night football.

The notion of a “school night” game had been around since the 1930s; televising it was first floated by National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1966. ABC had previously considered night football to replace its fading Friday night fights. The network, however, was in a bind because of its relationship with the imperious National Collegiate Athletic Association, which was adamantly opposed to its TV partner carrying any professional game, day or night.

Arledge never thought he would have to reverse field until 1969 when Rozelle was trying to sell CBS and NBC on Monday night football. Unable to get either aboard, Rozelle agreed to hear Arledge’s pitch for ABC. The network’s president, Leonard Goldenson, was all for his company’s first foray into live pro-football coverage. But when Goldenson’s second-in-command, Elton Rule, turned skittish, Rozelle headed to Sports Network, owned by Howard Hughes -- a brilliant ploy given that, as Arledge said, “our affiliates were the least loyal in the land,” and perhaps a hundred might defect from ABC each Monday.

Compromise Found

Within days, ABC had forked over $25.5 million to the NFL. Only then did Arledge sheepishly tell NCAA President Walter Byers that the network’s ban on pro football was inoperative. Byers sputtered, but was mollified by a pledge not to promote NFL games during NCAA games -- the NCAA would be promoted on NFL games -- or to use the lead college game announcer, Chris Schenkel, on Monday nights.

Arledge had no trouble agreeing to the last. He envisioned “a prime-time event.” He wanted a new kind of broadcast paradigm, not a play-by-play man and an ex-athlete color man spouting dry cliches. It wasn’t Cosell who was Arledge’s first choice to be the real grabber of ABC’s coverage -- the radical notion of a three-man booth. That was Frank Gifford, who was under contract with CBS and would not be free until a year later.

Arledge went to Gifford for advice about filling out the “Monday Night Football” booth, the first occupant of which he hired solely on Gifford’s recommendation. Don Meredith had just retired after nine seasons as the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback. He had done no broadcasting and had little interest, a critical distinction between him and those whom Cosell dubbed the “jockocracy,” those ex-athletes with scant experience in the TV booth but a major yen to pocket network coin to gain it.

Arledge told Gifford to have Meredith call ABC, and Meredith tried four times. Only when Arledge got wind that Meredith was pitching himself to CBS did he set up a lunch.

Scribbling on a napkin, Arledge extended an offer he thought appropriate: $20,000. Meredith, not batting a lash, said that was what CBS had offered him. He walked out of Toots Shor’s with a one-day-a-week job for 14 weeks that would pay him $30,000. Arledge walked out knowing he had a talented con man on the payroll, hardly the redneck “Hee Haw” type, but a rather canny, sensitive fellow who understood he was hired to humanize, and sometimes satirize, the ritual of football for a mass audience.

‘Just Despised’

The next man in the booth required some hard swallowing before Arledge hired him. To be sure, Cosell was to Arledge the perfect surface for Meredith to bounce his prattle off. But there was a downside. As “Monday Night Football” producer Don Ohlmeyer noted, “Remember the context. What was Howard known for then? His defending Ali.” Ohlmeyer added: “No matter how good he was calling fights and reporting on issues in sports, his reputation among the general public was controversial, at best. And among the press, he was just despised.”

Arledge, still not entirely sure, held off from officially asking Cosell to join up until he asked Gifford and Rozelle about what they thought of Cosell being in the booth. “Not much,” answered Gifford, whose long friendship with Cosell had soured over Cosell’s sneering at “pretty boy” football broadcasters. When Arledge said the concept would be to make Cosell a kind of on-air “columnist,” Gifford laughed and said, “You’re kidding, right?”

Rozelle had come to know Cosell well. He’d had his run-ins with him, although who hadn’t? He asked Arledge with a giggle, “Cosell? Why don’t you just dig up Attila the Hun?” But he had no real objection. Rozelle, apparently, was ready for a new approach. Cosell, too, was ready, and had been for weeks, having convinced himself that the gig was his divine right. Arledge, though, avoided all his calls, far more strenuously than he did the other calls he ducked. When they finally got down to details, Cosell was well aware that his contract stipulated that his hefty salary was all-inclusive, irrespective of how many events he did.

“And you expect me to shoulder this Stygian burden without additional compensation,” he said.

“Yes, Howard, I do,” Arledge replied.

It took not two seconds for Cosell to say, “I accept.”

With Meredith and Cosell in the bag, Arledge needed a pleasing cipher as a play-by-play man and placeholder for Gifford. He promoted Keith Jackson, the big, affable guy who had been on the rise announcing college football. But Jackson didn’t get much of the big man’s attention. That was reserved for Cosell and Meredith. Arledge wanted to re-create the chemistry that worked so well for Cosell and Muhammad Ali, with the tall, homespun Texan now the pinprick to deflate the hot-air balloon.

Ill at Ease

But the problem was that Meredith couldn’t find any kind of conversational groove. When the new crew assembled at a Kansas City Chiefs-Detroit Lions exhibition game for a nontelevised rehearsal, Arledge blew his top, sparing no one and strafing Cosell and Meredith -- whom Cosell would describe as “painfully ill at ease” -- for their lack of cohesion. Meredith took it so hard he told the crew, “I’m not qualified for this,” and announced he was going to quit and go home to Texas.

Cosell told him that he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. Projecting how their teamwork would play out, he said Meredith, without even trying, would be a national folk hero for it. “Middle America will love you. Southern America will love you. ... You’ll wear the white hat, I’ll wear the black hat.” Meredith, liking what he heard, lifted his drink and said, “I’m with you, coach.” Thereby saving the impending glory of “Monday Night Football.”

Cosell was sure he would shake up the world of sports journalism. “With the intelligent viewers, I’ll destroy the parrots in the cages who have been providing us with their fatigued litany for years,” he said in one interview. It was screamingly obvious who the “big cheese” of “Monday Night Football” would be. Already, Cosell was the cause celebre, and he was chided for dubbing Meredith “the Cowboy” or “Dandy Don.” Some believed he was condescending. Of course, this was the role he was supposed to be playing, and Meredith had signed off on it.

Cosell was the first voice and face that the nation heard and saw when the first official broadcast -- a New York Jets-Cleveland Browns game -- came on the air. Cleveland was indeed warm and humid that night of Sept. 21, 1970, but the air hung especially heavy with expectation in the television booth and in the trailer parked outside the stadium. It was a hellacious task all around, with so many cameras and so many voices to keep smoothly on track. Adding to the agita was Arledge hovering over the directors’ shoulders, barking orders. Yet it was clear when the numbers came in days after the first game that ABC had hit the jackpot, racking up a 35 share, meaning that more than 1 out of every 3 televisions in the country was tuned to the game.

Cosell was absolutely right when he told Meredith about who would wear the white and black hats, though the caricature of each man had congealed a lot more quickly than he had believed it would. Meredith hit a jackpot with a throwaway line that had not a thing to do with football. When Browns receiver Fair Hooker caught a pass, he turned impish, asking, “Isn’t Fair Hooker a great name?” It was all that was needed for a star to be born, though Cosell himself was not overly amused or impressed with Meredith’s work. Once, after he asked Meredith to explain what pass interference was, Dandy Don fumbled around for the right words, then -- to Cosell’s disbelief -- gave up and said, “I don’t know for sure what it is, but it’s a no-no.”

Yet, already, it was abundantly clear that Howard needed Don, and Don needed Howard. For a while, that was a rush. But just until the thrill was gone and they could only detest each other.

(Mark Ribowsky is the author of “Don’t Look Back: Satchel Paige in the Shadows of Baseball.” This is the second in a three-part series excerpted from his book “Howard Cosell: The Man, the Myth, and the Transformation of American Sports,” to be published Nov. 14 by W.W. Norton. The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1.)

To contact the writer on this article: Mark Ribowsky at mjrib100@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.