Howard Cosell retired from broadcasting Friday morning after his commentary on ABC Radio. For sound and fury, no one in sports broadcasting has ever touched him. He was unique.
He also was an enigma, big time, often committing the cardinal sin of being cruel to anonymous broadcast gophers, then being helpful to another young person's career. Pop psychologists found him irresistible, a man with a loving family who found riches and fame in mid-life, yet became increasingly cutting toward others.
The oxygen of Cosell's life, by consensus, was adulation, which sprung primarily from 14 years on ABC's "Monday Night Football" telecasts. Jim McKay recalls Cosell standing in a Baltimore hotel lobby, wearing his ABC blazer for all to notice. "Later he told me, 'They just won't leave me alone,' " said $H McKay.
Frank Gifford endured 13 uneasy seasons on "Monday Night Football" with Cosell, and remains publicly respectful, despite being savaged in "I Never Played the Game," one of Cosell's four books. Gifford ascribes Cosell's demand for attention to the fact he did not become well known until middle age. "He got a late start," said Gifford, who had been a football star since high school.
Cosell, then a 35-year-old attorney, began on WABC radio in 1953 as host of "All League Clubhouse," a program featuring kids doing Q&A with sports stars. Marv Albert was one of those young people. "Howard was a very nice man then," Albert recalled. "He would call my house to be sure I was going to show up. I guess times changed," he said.
Cosell, whose earlier name was Cohen, gave up law for broadcasting in 1958. Cosell did tell it like it was on radio and television when very few did. "Howard was the only one who worked. When no one else did legwork, he would go 23 hours a day. Later, when he became bigger than the event, he became a monument," said Dick Schaap, a sports journalism veteran of more than 30 years.
Thanks to his singular style, soon after he appeared as a regular in 1970 on "Monday Night Football," Cosell became one of the most recognizable people in America. Later he would be a caricature playing himself for laughs in movies and major TV programs. Yet he would also make serious appearances on "Nightline" and "Crossfire" and even "Wall Street Week."
He was the rage of college campuses, a larger-than-life personality with a dazzling vocabulary and remarkable recall warning young people about the shallowness of television and hypocrisy everywhere. One day at Harvard Law School, he was greeted as a hero, and by the time he finished, he was a conqueror. Cosell even conducted a seminar at Yale Law School for one semester.
During the height of a 1977 congressional hearing on an ABC sports scandal in connection with boxing, Cosell was a witness. He made everyone laugh, including the politicians, several of whom later sought his autograph. He was at his pinnacle. All of this fame from different directions may have left Cosell with an identity crisis at a time in his life when when most people have developed wisdom about themselves. Was he a journalist, a TV fTC sports announcer, an actor or a crusading attorney? He was all of those things, spread too thin.
Cosell's effort on behalf of Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, after the latter refused to enter the draft, was courageous. But in later years, he would remind everyone about it so often that skeptics decided that all the while he had been calculating. Indeed, Cosell made his first major impact in New York when he mercilessly criticized Mets manager Casey Stengel when the latter was almost the only redeeming aspect of the hapless expansion team. That was widely interpreted as calculating.
When the NFL Monday night series was riding high in the early '70s, Cosell would rip baseball as a dead game compared with pro football. This led baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to protest after ABC began broadcasting baseball in 1976, but network sports chief Roone Arledge assigned Cosell to baseball, anyway. Soon Cosell was rhapsodizing about the beauty of baseball, fondly recalling growing up in Brooklyn with the Dodgers.
Cosell's finest TV work was the investigative series "SportsBeat," which he created and staffed, and to which he applied his legal background.