The Plane Truth About Tony Kornheiser and 'Monday Night Football'

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to
Tuesday, May 19, 2009; 12:58 PM

News releases and public statements on personnel decisions issued by network sports divisions and the executives who run them usually bring out the full-blown skeptic in me after more than 25 years writing about sports coverage on radio and television.

I recall asking an ABC Sports executive at a news conference before the 2000 Super Bowl about Boomer Esiason's future on "Monday Night Football." I'm paraphrasing here because my notes from the session are long gone, but I remember being told that day that Esiason had improved greatly over the course of the season, had done a bang-up job down the playoff stretch drive and was considered a valuable member of the "MNF" team.

Within two months, of course, Esiason was fired, replaced the following season by the worst analyst in "MNF" history, the eminently unqualified and way-out-of-his league fanboy Dennis Miller.

So when the ESPN press release bounced into my e-mail inbox on Monday, reporting that Tony Kornheiser had decided to give up his "MNF" gig after three years essentially because of his lifelong fear of flying, needless to say I was just a tad suspicious. Wasn't this really just a convenient excuse for the network to add yet another big-name, temporarily out-of-work football coach to its roster?

Jon Gruden, fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Jan. 16, will replace Kornheiser as the third man in the booth, though that won't last very long, either, at least judging from his comments on a conference call Monday. He said, point-blank, "I dearly miss coaching."

While neither Gruden nor Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production, would say whether there was an out in Gruden's contract that would allow him to take another coaching job, the network has never said no to such a request in the past. Gruden almost certainly will be very much in demand by all manner of NFL franchises in 2010 and is clearly a short-timer in the booth, at least until he gets fired again.

But back to Mr. Tony, my friend and longtime Washington Post colleague.

This time, I'm going to pull the plug on my Skeptic Meter and take his explanation at total face value. I worked with the man for more than 30 years and know full well about his flying phobia, which seemed to get worse every time he downed a couple of scotches and who knows what else to make himself get on an airplane.

"My fear of planes is legendary and sadly true," he said in the ESPN press release. "When I looked at the upcoming schedule, it was the perfect storm that would have frequently moved me from the bus to the air. I kept looking at the schedule the past month and wanted to find a way to quietly extricate myself."

A mutual friend also told me Monday that he had spoken to Tony recently and said he already was dreading the prospect of flying the unfriendly skies, nearly three months before he'd have to head to the airport for the first telecast of the year in August.

I've been unable to reach Tony since the news came down, but when I do, I'm going to tell him that I'll miss his work on the "MNF" telecasts and also congratulate him for being something of a pioneer -- the first longtime sportswriter ever to yodel as an analyst from the rarefied air of an NFL broadcast booth.

Another old friend, the late, great Will McDonough, helped pave the way back in the 1980s when he split time between his pro football beat on the Boston Globe with his work as an on-air NFL reporter who frequently broke news for CBS and then NBC. Kornheiser took it to the next level three years ago, and his former newspaper colleagues in press boxes around the country would be wise to drop him a note of thanks for further elevating our proud profession.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company