Cosell: Like No One Before Or Since

April 30, 1995|By RAY FRAGER

In the 12 years since Howard Cosell left "Monday Night Football" and thus essentially left network television, it seems we heard Mr. Cosell's voice more from Billy Crystal than from Mr. Cosell himself.

Yet, after Mr. Cosell died last Sunday at 77, his face was back on the tube and on the front page. This may have puzzled the teen-age sports fan in your home.

Who is this man all over "SportsCenter"? the young fan asked.

He was the most famous sportscaster in America, you replied.

Kind of like Chris Berman or Dick Vitale? you were asked.

No, you said, kind of not like anybody before or since.

Stop and think a moment: Is there any sportscaster who conceivably could finish first in a poll as both most liked and disliked announcer? Is there a current sportscaster whom you could mimic before a crowd of non-sports fans and still receive almost universal recognition?

Some said that Mr. Cosell changed the nature of sportscasting. In the past week, others have pointed out more correctly that no one has taken his place. But, sure, there are pieces of Mr. Cosell on the screen from time to time:

* NBC's Bob Costas, unafraid to deride the replacement football his network was about to telecast during an NFL strike or standing up to the bullying of NBA Commissioner David Stern during an interview about Michael Jordan's gambling.

* ESPN's Keith Olbermann, not letting baseball mystic Ken Burns get away with historical inaccuracies in Mr. Burns' "Baseball" (which, by the way, either is being rerun or just now finally finishing up).

* ESPN's "Outside the Lines," about the only consistent home for sports journalism on television.

* Every smart-alecky comment on "SportsCenter."

But there isn't another Cosell. Nor is there likely ever to be one.

Part of it is the same reason there won't be another Walter Cronkite or Johnny Carson. The audience has been splintered too much -- viewers can turn to new networks, cable, VCRs or computer on-line services.

This has forced a new economic reality on the networks. Part of the Cosell legend is the steadfast backing he received from top ABC management in the face of an unprecedented clamor to get tTC him off "Monday Night Football," support that didn't dissipate even when his removal was suggested by the head of big-money football advertiser Ford Motor Co.

How would that play out today? If Dan Dierdorf's face were to start prompting viewers to throw bricks through TVs and his presence on Monday night games began to irk the CEO of Anheuser-Busch, don't you think there might be a new man in the booth come next fall?

Still, let's not deify Mr. Cosell. His bombastic act often was overbearing. He was a shameless name-dropper (as Joe Garagiola once said, "If Howard Cosell had lunch, breakfast and dinner with everybody he brags about on 'Monday Night Football,' he'd weigh 723 pounds"). And there are numerous accounts of how he could be unpleasant to be around.

But people weren't driven to toss bricks at him solely by what he said or even how he said it.

In one of the most enduring knocks on Mr. Cosell in a long line of press criticism, New York columnist Jimmy Cannon wrote that here was a man who changed his name and put on a toupee to tell it like it was.

Vanity about his hairline aside, Mr. Cosell wasn't fooling anybody with the name change. He was clearly a Cohen to much of the audience that hated him. "People who don't like me on television say I'm irreverent," college football analyst Beano Cook told Sports Illustrated in 1983. "I know damn well if my name were Goldstein, they wouldn't say I was irreverent. They'd say I was another wise-ass Jew, like that Howard Cosell."

In the end, though, whether his detractors were driven by anti-Semitism, ignorance or jealousy -- or maybe even just disturbed by a loudmouth rousing them from the dreamland of sports -- not even they could ignore Mr. Cosell. So though he was the Mouth That Roared rather than the Great Communicator, Mr. Cosell got his message across.

Never having met the man, I'm not sure how he would respond to that assessment, but I get the feeling he might say: "You have a tremendous grasp for the obvious."

Ray Frager is an assistant sports editor at The Baltimore Sun.

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