"Monday Night Football" became very big and very serious over its 18 years on ABC. But this season, when Dan Dierdorf joined Frank Gifford and Al Michaels for the announcing chores, there's been ample humor.
"It's a blend of football and entertainment," said Dierdorf. "I have excellent peripheral vision. I don't miss what's going on down on the field. But we simply don't overanalyze. This is a game. This isn't brain surgery."
The 38-year-old former all-pro offensive tackle of the St. Louis Cardinals will be in the catbird seat today with Gifford and Michaels for the Super Bowl XXII game between the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos (6 on ABC, with pre-game coverage starting at 4).
Dierdorf shies away from taking credit for adding wit to the Monday night games. He contends that the telecasts are merely an extension "of who I am the other 20 1/2 hours that day. I am not a very serious person. I am no more or no less humorous than I am at the dinner table. It's just always there, regardless of where I am."
Critics agree that Dierdorf, whom some have dubbed "Handy Dan," accelerated this year's bouncier presentation of "Monday Night Football." Like the team player that he was -- a college All-America at the University of Michigan, a six-time all-pro and the NFL's top lineman in 1976, 1977 and 1978 -- he shares his rave notices with teammates Gifford and Michaels. "There is a jelling and chemistry amongst us that works," he said.
Dierdorf, who spent the two previous seasons with CBS and became the No. 2 analyst behind John Madden, feels there's a difference between Monday night and Sunday afternoon games. "I have more of a tendency to be lighter on prime time. It's lighter by design. Sunday afternoon football marches to the beat of a military drum-and-bugle corps. Monday night, it's more like Burt Bacharach," he said, laughing at his own turn of phrase. "Hey, that's not bad. I like it."
He says he is pleased with the way the year went. "Being the new kid on the block, I had some apprehension going into the season. But getting along with Frank and Al was a lot easier than I thought. Frank was in a position to make me or break me. He couldn't have been more helpful. I can't imagine being in the booth for 3 1/2 hours if there was animosity. It's just extremely fortunate that we all get along so nicely. We're different personalities, but we blend together very well."
Given the NFL's network-rotating system for telecasting the Super Bowl, that blending couldn't have come at a better time for ABC and Dierdorf. "This is the single event that everyone in the business would like to do. It doesn't matter if your expertise is in golf, tennis, or any sport, the Super Bowl is still the biggest event going. It's the pinnacle of the sportscasting profession. Having been a player and never gotten there, being in the booth will make up for some of the lost ground.
"To me this is the most competitive match-up we've had in the Super Bowl for a long time. Neither team has any particular advantage over the other. If there is one extraordinary element, it's John Elway. I just like this one. There are a lot of good story lines -- Doug Williams, Charles Mann, and characters, too, like Dexter Manley. It's a good-looking match-up, all the way."
He chose Washington and Cleveland in the conference title games, but declined to pick a Super bowl XXII winner. "It's just bad business for me. I never pick a game I'm going to do."
The media madness of the Super Bowl may be a comfort zone after what Dierdorf labels "an awkward year." Two weeks after he stepped into the booth, along came the NFL players' strike. "Four weeks. It was really different," he said. "doing those replacement games and forcing interviews in between plays. Where no man has gone before. We were there."
"Monday Night Football" has faced ample criticism in recent years for various reasons, including personnel shifts and ratings swings. Dierdorf feels that the network, producers, directors and commentators took this as a challenge. "With some real zeal, we took it upon ourselves to make something positive happen. We accomplished that," he said.
"You're subject to a lot more criticism if things go wrong," said Dierdorf, "but by the same token, you're in for a lot more praise if things go well. It's like a big-stakes poker game: You don't win a lot if you don't gamble a lot. I realize that and I'm not intimidated. A slip on a Sunday regional game often didn't bring a letter or call. When you slip on Monday night, you hear about it, from fans and from players. I have not been accustomed to getting the amount of mail I got this year. I have no complaints. I'm rather moved. A vast majority of the critics have been very flattering."
Dierdorf the commentator doesn't like being assessed as a former player, although he led a 1975 line that allowed only eight sacks all season -- an NFL record. "My defense mechanism moves in whenever someone says ex-jock. That label doesn't apply to all former players. Some of us work very hard. To some people, being called an ex-jock labels you as some kind of moron.
"ABC didn't hire me because I was a marquee name. I was hired by ABC because of my track record as a skilled sportscaster. I've worked at it for years. I'm no novice in the booth."
Dierdorf spent 13 years as a sportscaster for KMOX-radio in St. Louis and still works for that station. In addition to two years of NFL games at CBS, he also has two years of experience at KMOV-TV, where he is the sports director, although he is phasing out this portion of his schedule.
He prides himself on his ability as an analyst and his ability to transmit his knowledge to the viewer. "On Monday night, you have to do the game differently. You have to realize your audience is of a much broader background," he said. "You have to try and appease them all. You have to be careful of not doing too much strategy and consuming the viewer with Xs and Os. You try for a balance of serious football analysis and entertainment."
"Monday Night Football's" most controversial telecaster, Howard Cosell, was entertaining, Dierdorf said, but had his shortcomings when it came to analysis.
"In my view," he said, "Cosell was one of the most famous players in the business. Howard made it interesting and got you to turn on the set. However, when he tried to explain why this worked or that didn't work, you just put your head under the pillow."
In his own career, Dierdorf takes satisfaction in knowing that he has bettered himself professionally and made more money each year since he was 21 and fresh out of the University of Michigan. Last year, after he and CBS couldn't come to terms, he signed a three-year contract with ABC for a reported $600,000, roughly doubling his CBS earnings. But that's not all: He and former Cardinal Jim Hart recently added a fifth restaurant to their chain in the St. Louis area. Today, Dierdorf drives a $60,000 Mercedes 560SL.
After today's Super Bowl he's headed for an as-yet unspecified assignment at the Winter Olympics in Calgary -- "maybe keeping the social calendar," he joked. When the Olympics are finished, he plans to take some time off, then do some 'Wide World of Sports' segments.
To keep his schedule from becoming overcrowded, Dierdorf often passes up speaking engagements and endorsements. "I'm a relatively low-keyed guy. I'm never going to suffer burn-out," he said. "I do a lot of things, but I don't want to be on the go 365 days a year and have to be introduced to my children when I sit down to dinner at home." Around that table are his wife Debbie, and children Dan, 18; Kristen, 16; Dana, 6, and Katherine, 1 1/2.
At 6-foot-3, 290 pounds (his playing weight with the Cardinals), he says he's not a prime target for ads. "Hey, I'm never going to look like a million bucks. You don't have to worry about me popping up on the cover of GQ. You know, I was 6-3, 250 pounds as a sophomore in high school."
That high school was in Canton, Ohio, where Dierdorf was born and raised. The town is also the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Would he like to go home one Saturday afternoon in August as an inductee?
"That would be great. That's my dream. I feel I was good enough as a player," he said. "But I've never played in a Super Bowl, and that seems to be a prerequisite these days."