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Memories: 1995

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Cosell Told It Like It Was, Like Only He Could

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 24, 1995

The Old Testament speaks of the prophet Jeremiah, a righteous man lamenting the evil, decay and disaster around him, predicting calamity for those who won't heed his words. An arrogant man. A scold. A crusader.

Our own Jeremiah passed away yesterday.

Sadly, we will never again hear these words:

"This is How-wuhd Co-sell, speaking of sports."

Cosell was The Key Figure in bringing sports upstairs out of the furnished basement and into the family room. It was Cosell, through "Monday Night Football," who took sports from lazy weekend afternoons into the white light of prime time, and in so doing fastened sports on the cultural map forever. Roone Arledge may have designed the plane, but Cosell flew it.

Television never saw anything quite like Cosell, with his toupee and his Brooklyn Gothic puss and his unsinkable ego and his impossible vocabulary. How did he ever land in sports? With that urban background the only thing he knew about splitting a seam was: Afterward, you'd have to sew it. What was Cosell doing in the same business with the jockocracy, as he called it?

Cosell took such pride in standing out like a sore thumb that he called one of his books "I Never Played The Game" -- though he sure could talk it; he made you wonder if ABC paid by the syllable.

But his appeal wasn't just about being different. If Cosell was merely different, people would have tired of him quickly, and dismissed him. No, Cosell was one of a kind. A TV Guide poll named him concurrently the most liked and most disliked sportscaster, as if none of the others even mattered. People tuned in to see Cosell. Cosell turned a game into an event; his presence certified its importance. The next day people didn't talk about the game as much as what Cosell had said. If Cosell called someone "utterly functional," letting the phrase drip out of his tongue like battery acid, half the audience thought it was a compliment, and the other half thought it was a death sentence.

Cosell's prose was overripe, like Jimmy Cannon's, and he uttered it with the bombast of a tent preacher. He was quick to understand that on television the pictures would carry the action -- what he had to do was dramatize the moment. Nobody was better at that than Cosell, who could make an ordinary 15-yard run seem like Jesse Owens spitting at Hitler.

Cosell became so big that he could no longer cover the story, because he was the story. At the ballpark more people gathered around Cosell than around the players. Next to Johnny Carson, Cosell probably had the most recognizable face in America; he surely had the most recognizable voice -- that unmistakable bucket of gravel spilling out like bursts from a machine gun. Friends tell of the time Cosell was in a limousine, being driven to Yankee Stadium for a "Monday Night Baseball" game. The car was cruising through Harlem, and Cosell noticed a crowd had gathered around two men who were fighting. Cosell allegedly ordered the driver to stop the car, whereupon Cosell got out, waded into the crowd, and began to announce the fight. The people were so stunned they stopped fighting and flocked excitedly to Cosell like he was the King of England. It's sad to think there's a generation of sports fans growing up now that doesn't take Cosell's fabulous, basset-hound mug for granted.

Cosell's celebrity was so vast that genuine stars clamored to get in the booth with him. You'd be watching a game, and all of a sudden there was Cosell jawing with Burt Reynolds or Glen Campbell. He became a world-class name-dropper. There was "breakfast with Liza," and "cocktails with Kissinger." Cosell shilled like crazy. He was a carnival barker, luring us into the tent to see the naked dancers (then sometimes shaming us for watching, like with a football rout or a one-sided bout, until he chucked boxing altogether after the 1982 Larry Holmes-Tex Cobb fiasco); he fell helplessly in love with the tacky "Battle Of The Network Stars," an absurd athletic competition among jiggly TV starlets and prime-time pretty boys.

But when the public interest was at stake Cosell was our surrogate. He was the first to understand that Muhammad Ali was being railroaded, and he crusaded for Ali. Some sportswriters would write that Cosell cynically attached himself to Ali like a barnacle to an ocean liner, but he and Ali became the Fred and Ginger of "Wide World Of Sports." Cosell was something unique to TV sports -- a serious, intelligent man with moral principles. He was lacerated for his self-promotion in "telling it like it is," but for years the only real journalist TV sports had was Cosell. God help you if you didn't bring the sprinters to the Olympic track on time, Cosell was all over you like a December wind. Cosell was as feared on his side of the street as Mike Wallace is on his.

There was no in-between, you either loved Cosell or hated him. It started out that most people hated him, but by the 1980s that had turned. In his later years on TV Cosell became something of an American totem. Although he was not fond of many sportswriters, Cosell was always friendly to me, and I was always a staunch defender of his. I fondly remember calls from him, at odd hours; I'd pick up the telephone, and Cosell would be on the other end, and I'd hear that familiar cadence saying something like, "To-ny, To-ny, To-ny, what are we to make of the National Football League now? They're scampering for their boats like mice in a Farmer Gray cartoon." You didn't have conversations with him, really; it was more like he was working out a speech. When it was over, he would say kindly, "Always good to talk with you, T," though all I'd done was listen. I'd put down the phone thinking I'd heard the voice of God.

Cosell had an amazing ability to extemporize. He did his brilliant five-minute daily radio show, "Speaking of Sports," without notes or a stopwatch -- almost four minutes to the commercial, then 15 seconds to wrap up; it was all in his head. I watched him do it a few times. He was awesome. I recall Cosell being engrossed in something completely unrelated to his radio show right up to air time. For example, he'd be on the phone with Sonny Werblin, and his radio commentary was going to be about Mickey Mantle. He'd put Werblin on hold, get his radio cue, and Cosell's words about Mantle would tumble out flawlessly. He'd end right on cue, with a Shakespearean flourish about the courage it took for Mantle to play on those gimpy knees. Then he'd go back to talking with Werblin, resuming their conversation, as if he'd merely put down the phone for a moment to light a cigar.

When Cosell left TV 10 years ago it created a vacuum in network sports journalism that hasn't been filled. ESPN's "Outside The Lines" has a consistent edge, HBO's new magazine show is promising, and Bob Costas always asks good questions. But the fact is that network television is in financial partnership with big-time sports, and for all the hours devoted to sports on TV mainly what you get is a tyranny of highlights.

Howard Cosell was usually the lone wolf of TV journalism, the only one who dared unlock the door to a real story. He'd unlock the door and walk down the long hallway, illuminating it only by the fire of his own conviction. He carried a glow that always suited television. In his passing, the picture is already a little dimmer.

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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