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Memories: 1995

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Telling It Like It Was About Howard Cosell

By Shirley Povich
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 2, 1995

Howard Cosell would have approved, the tributes to him that were immense, the obituaries reading like eulogies. The Washington Post put the news of his death on its front page. The New York Times keyed his obituary off the front.

Cosell was identified as the foremost sports television journalist of his time. He would have accepted it all with his trademark comment, "That's telling it like it is."

There is no question that Cosell made himself the focus of a generation of America's sports fans. He presided over all the big fights and "Monday Night Football," plus dabbled in baseball and critiqued everything in sight that he deemed would give him fan appeal as well as fan approval. It did.

All of this, with his flow of language, was unmatched in the television trade. He didn't merely address the microphones, he articulated into them. And always at length, in that nasal tone that told everybody it was none other than H.C. who was putting on another show. And damn the polysyllables, he used as many as he liked.

Did he have impact? You bet he had impact. His fame was such that, at a crook of his finger, the likes of George Steinbrenner and Pete Rozelle and Muhammad Ali would come bounding into his television booth, to be greeted and interviewed by the Great Mouth of the big ratings.

He considered himself somewhat above his colleagues in the "Monday Night Football" booth -- variously O.J. Simpson and Don Meredith and Frank Gifford, none of whom had the importance to be able to say as Howard did, "I was having breakfast this morning with Vince Lombardi {or Pete Rozelle or Bowie Kuhn or Sen. Ted Kennedy} when he told me. . . ."

He was, after all, teaching a course at Yale, and was in demand as an after-dinner speaker everywhere and wasn't wedded to the booth for his livelihood like those jocks in there with him. In one talk to the assembled Associated Press editors, he suggested he might even run for the Senate, from New York. That wasn't chutzpah. That was Cosell.

He had the good sense in the "Monday Night Football" booth not to try to be too technical about the game, leaving that to the ex-pros, Simpson, Gifford and Meredith. Howard always gave big attention to the clock ("time is of the essence now"), knowing he was safe in that matter. When he misspoke about the game, his errors were noted, usually by the comparative jokester Meredith. Howard covered them with his patented "heh, heh, heh."

And beware the poor pro football rookie who fumbled or was hoodwinked on defense. He would be harangued for the rest of the night by Cosell to show off his perceptions and his expertise.

As in football, he was no student of the game when it came to his comments as boxing analyst and baseball commentator. He knew the passwords and had a way of sounding authentic. He was always incisive, always had a point of view and brooked no doubt of his authority.

Howard knew who to latch on to as his favorite subjects. He was Ali's chief defender after Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to enter military service. Cosell lionized Jackie Robinson as the first black to play in the majors. But both Ali and Robinson were immensely popular at that time, and was Cosell cannily riding their coattails into more fame of his own?

He had a running feud with sportswriters who critiqued him for his self-serving comments and his blunders. He, in turn, accused them of being company men and on the take, "the kind of sports journalism I find utterly obnoxious."

Cosell had a dark side. In a book he wrote after retiring from broadcasting pro football, he brutally savaged his former colleague, nice guy Frank Gifford, more than questioning Gifford's intelligence.

After doing so well by pro football and boxing for those many years, Howard trashed both sports after he left them. "Pro football," he said "I found a bore." And he said he was "disgusted with the brutality of boxing." Where was his displeasure with those sports when he was part of them and accepting big fees from the ABC network?

If there was a defining reaction to Howard Cosell by the sportswriters he castigated so often as "utterly obnoxious," it was probably delivered by the late and beloved Red Smith. With his characteristic subtlety it was Red who once said, "I have tried hard to like Howard Cosell, and I have failed."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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