Not just game, `MNF' is a U.S. institution

Curtain nears for ABC show, but memories, from humble start onward, will live on

Nfl Week 15

Gameday

December 19, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

The simple name says it all.

Monday.

Night.

Football.

For 36 years, it has given hundreds of millions of Americans someplace to be on the first night of the workweek and often something to gab about the next day. It has been a town square where the bandstand featured touchdowns, sacks and occasional appearances by rock stars and political luminaries.

Tonight's game featuring the stumbling Green Bay Packers against the equally reeling Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium is one of the final curtain calls for a television show that has been ABC's unfailing prime-time anchor since 1970. With the NFL moving its Monday night showcase to ESPN next season, the farewell tour of MNF, as the nation has come to know it, has just a handful of bows left to take.

As with other modestly ambitious enterprises that take on a greater cultural significance -- say, like the first strains of rock 'n' roll -- no one involved with Monday prime-time football in its formative years had any clue that the show would achieve such popularity or become an institution.

"We were stunned," said Don Ohlmeyer, who was just 27 when he started as the show's producer during its heyday in the 1970s. "When you went into a city ... they would have parades and they would have a lunch with thousands of people and every media outlet wanted to talk with you and everyone associated with the broadcast. It was startling."

Ohlmeyer was part of MNF"s early behind-the-scenes brain trust that included creator Roone Arledge and director Chet Forte, both now dead.

The breakthrough genius of the show, Ohlmeyer said, was its departure from familiar approaches, which had appealed strictly to the hard-core enthusiast. And, of course, there was the casting magic of the series' second season that brought together straight man Frank Gifford and his dueling partners, good ol' boy Don Meredith and acerbic Howard Cosell.

Ohlmeyer said the theatrical device of introducing a story line for each game was meant to heighten drama and draw in the casual fan.

"The mind seeks to create order out of chaos, and we accommodated that with a story line," Ohlmeyer said. "A lot of it had to do with Chet's experience on Wide World of Sports and Roone's theory that what good television was all about is story telling. ... And Howard and Don were terrific for each other; it was Martin and Lewis. They were complementary personalities because it led to the conflict."

Must-see TV early on

The familiar MNF broadcasting triumvirate was together for just 11 of the show's 36 seasons and yet that group remains the show's signature ensemble, with John Lennon and Ronald Reagan among the celebrities who made appearances.

"We called it The Tonight Show effect, because people were afraid to turn off that program because Johnny [Carson] was the master of surprises. Bob Hope might walk on or Don Rickles would do something outrageous and the next day everyone was talking about it," Ohlmeyer said. "On Monday Night Football, there was this same level of the unexpected. Particularly with Howard and Don, the unexpected was the normal occurrence."

And sometimes the unexpected was tragic -- or awkward. During a Miami Dolphins-New England Patriots game in 1980, Cosell broke in with the announcement that Lennon had been killed. Three years later, Cosell -- who consistently brought attention to the absence of African-American head coaches in the NFL -- referred to diminutive Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett, an African-American, as a "little monkey."

Cosell's critics -- and there were plenty -- leaped on the remark as a sign of latent racism. The announcer, whose support for civil rights had never been in question, said the term was meant in a complimentary fashion to point out the receiver's elusiveness.

Once the Gifford-Meredith-Cosell team broke up for good after the 1983 season, ABC tried several combinations, including an ill-fated one with Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson in the booth. Then, in 1987, the network hit on the Al Michaels-Gifford-Dan Dierdorf team that lasted 11 seasons. There was less theatrics and more nuts-and-bolts football.

"You have to be what you are," said Dierdorf, a former star offensive lineman with the St. Louis Cardinals. "We're not actors. We can't say, `Let's do football,' one week and be cut-ups the next. I'm not Tom Hanks.

"But I think the American football fan, moving from the 1970s and into the '80s, had become much more sophisticated and knowledgeable about the game. And I believe we were giving them what they wanted, which was more football. ... The fans changed, and Monday Night Football was changing with them."

Gifford left after 28 years following 1997, Dierdorf stayed just one more season and Michaels has been with the show for 20 years.

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