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Cosell Set Sports Journalism's Standards

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 24, 1995

What was Howard Cosell's impact on the wide world of televised sports?

"It was total, it was epic, it was cosmic," said Terry O'Neil, former executive producer at NBC Sports and now an executive with ABC News who began his broadcasting career in 1971 as an ABC Sports researcher often assigned to Cosell. "He's the one guy who made it possible for the people who followed him to tell the truth. None of us could have made the attempt without him. Howard Cosell was the father of real journalism in televised sports."

Cosell died yesterday in New York City at the age of 77 of a heart embolism after a long bout with cancer. In recent years, he stopped seeing many of his friends and former colleagues and had grown increasingly bitter after ABC canceled his award-winning investigative "Sportsbeat" show in 1985, his last attempt at "telling it like it is" on network television.

Cosell often complained that he never was accorded the proper respect he deserved, according to several in the small cadre of confidantes with whom he did stay in touch. But in recent weeks, when word began to leak that his condition was deteriorating by the day, there was no question how old friends -- even old rivals from other networks -- felt about his exalted place in the history of the medium.

"Kicking and screaming, he dragged the industry into responsibility for what was said on the air and for telling the whole story," said Ted Shaker, former executive producer at CBS Sports who is now head of Sports Illustrat\ed's television arm. "He upped the ante, he offered the journalistic high-water mark for the industry. That's his legacy, and it was damned important."

"In the modern era, he was just so unique," said Dick Ebersol, the current president of NBC Sports who also began as an Olympic researcher for ABC and Cosell in the 1960s. "He got beyond what I'd call the cosmetic world of television, which said you had to look and sound a certain way.

"From the '60s to the '70s until he left in the mid-'80s, it was always substance over style with Howard. He was defined by what he said, not how he looked. . . . The great sadness is that he was a major figure -- he created sports journalism -- but his bitterness cut him off from people at a time when the whole world would have been predisposed to honor him.

"He deserved his success. He worked hard for it, but he didn't get to enjoy his success the way other people did. I've been sad he hasn't been out there receiving his due. For whatever reason, he cut himself off from the world."

Ebersol, for example, said he hadn't seen Cosell since his own 40th birthday party in July 1987, when Cosell showed up as a surprise guest and did a mock interview with him. "He said I was a fraud who hadn't gone to Yale and was really an employee of the Yale Lock Company," Ebersol recalled. "It was a memorable night."

O'Neil, who helped edit one of Cosell's books in the early '70s, also lost touch about the same time. His last meeting with the man he worked with for almost 10 years came in the late '80s, when O'Neil did an ESPN special picking the top 40 figures in the history of sports. Cosell was in his top five, along with the man who helped make him famous, former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

"Howard agreed to do a long sit-down interview with me," O'Neil said. "I was able to ask all the questions about persevering against all the forces that were working against him in the '60s and '70s. He had some wonderful recollections. I still have the tape. For me, it was kind of a closure."

Controversy With Style

David Klatell, head of the broadcast journalism department at Columbia University and author of "Sports For Sale: Television, Money and The Fans," never was able to get that up-close and personal with Cosell. Nevertheless, he has no question about Cosell's contribution to the medium.

"Yes, he was a revolutionary and yes, he transformed the role of the on-air personality and yes, he took controversial stands and yes, he was grandly egocentric," Klatell said. "But I believe he operated from two bedrock beliefs. The first was in himself. The second was that television and radio sports needed to be shaken out of their complacency, and it was his self-appointed role to do just that.

"He had a fascinating combination of beliefs and brains and he came from a background that did not include working for a team. And he was never an athlete.

"I don't think a broadcaster like him will ever come along again because I don't think they'd let it happen again. That's a condemnation of the industry. There are not any risk-takers any more. . . . People also have fewer illusions about sports, so the need for an illusion-shatterer is greatly diminished."

Richard Lapchick, head of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, also viewed Cosell as a seminal figure in the industry.

"I don't think there's been any other broadcaster in the history of the art who had a greater influence on the way society viewed sports," he said. "At a time when many reporters -- broadcast and print -- were content to feed Pablum to the public, he served a full-course meal. He believed what he said, that sports needed to be changed. While people may have wanted the escape sports provided, they also needed to hear the principles he spoke about."

Other former colleagues marveled at Cosell's ability to elevate any event he covered into a major story.

"At one point in time, he was arguably the most influential figure in all of sports," said Herb Granath, now president of the Capital Cities/ABC cable group and once a vice president for sports sales for ABC Sports. He frequently accompanied Cosell and crew in the early days of "Monday Night Football."

"Don Meredith used to call it the traveling freak show," Granath said. "We'd be met at the airport by camera crews and reporters. Stunts were pulled all the time. We were once placed under arrest by the police chief in Denver for disrupting the city on Monday night.' Restaurants that were usually closed on Monday nights stayed open until we closed them down after the game."

Granath recalled that Cosell's wife, Emmy, who died in 1990, frequently accompanied him on the road and was one of the most calming influences on his life.

Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer told the story yesterday about working his first game with Cosell. Palmer said Cosell told him: "Just remember one thing: Everyone who ever worked with me became a star."

A Good Move on Monday Nights

The credit for putting Cosell on the Monday night telecast goes to Roone Arledge, the pioneering head of ABC Sports who still holds that title at the network and also runs the news division. "It was not by happenstance," Granath said. "We sat and talked about it in a number of meetings. Up to that time, the axiom was you couldn't put sports up against entertainment in prime time. It would never work.

"But Roone felt that by putting three people in the booth, one of them Howard, you'd add some kind of entertainment element into it other than the football game itself. He also thought Howard could be a provocateur, particularly in contrast to Meredith. Howard accepted all of it. He played the role of the erudite sophisticate who was above it all, the country's stereotype of the brash New Yorker.

"Howard was a lightning rod. He attracted kudos, and a great deal of hate mail. It bothered him deeply. He felt as if it was aimed at him for intellectualizing the sport, and also because he was Jewish. He saw an element of persecution in it."

At NFL headquarters in New York, league executives also saw the value of Cosell on the telecast.

"With Howard, it was love-hate for everyone -- teams, players, viewers," said Val Pinchbeck, director of broadcasting for the NFL. "Howard got people to the set. There may have been some who wanted to throw a rock at him, but he became as topical as the game itself."

The same also could be said of Cosell's love-hate relationship with boxing. He first made his national reputation defending Muhammad Ali's decision to declare himself a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. Cosell also was a major presence at almost every big fight in the '60s and '70s, and his interviews with Ali represented some of his best work. But he walked away from the sport in 1982 after a particularly brutal bout between then-heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and Randall "Tex" Cobb.

Angelo Dundee, Ali's trainer in all of those championship fights, described Cosell as "the nicest thing that ever happened to boxing. He made the world aware of American boxers when he did the Olympics, and when the fighters went pro it was like home-cooking -- everybody knew their name. Thank God for Howard Cosell. He was a genius.

"He and Ali had an amazing relationship," Dundee said. "Greatness draws greatness. Muhammad would make believe he was going to pick off Howard's wig, and of course Howard would go along with it. . . . The worst disease in any sport is silence. With Muhammad and Howard, there was never any silence. Everybody was always talking about the fights. It was a lot different than it is now.

"There will never be another Muhammad. There will never be another Howard Cosell. And that's a shame. But we were very lucky to have known him and to have seen his work, to have been alive when he was alive."

Special correspondent Lawrence Grayson and staff writer J.A. Adande contributed to this story.

Famous Howard Cosell Quotes

"Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."

"I see nothing to sanctify any sports event."

"The man has a cash register where a heart should be."
-- On former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley.

"Look at that little monkey run."
-- On Washington Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett.

"Boxing is the only sport in the world where the clear intention is for one person to inflict bodily harm upon the other person, mainly to the head where brain damage must ensue ... I don't think improvements or controls are the answer. I think the answer is abolition."

"Like President Reagan, he is a Teflon man. No matter how many mistakes he makes during a telecast, no matter how glaring his weaknesses as a performer, nothing sticks to him. The television critics, wooed by his smooth off-camera personality, generally rave about him, rarely taking him to task on purely objective standards."
-- On longtime Monday night broadcast colleague Frank Gifford.

"Without me, the nature of the telecasts was entirely altered. I had commanded attention. I had a palpable impact on the show, giving it a sense of moment. If that sounds like ego, what can I say? I'm telling it like it is."
-- On assessing Monday Night Football after his departure from the broadcast team.


"Howard Cosell was a good man and he lived a good life. I have been interviewed by many people, but I enjoyed interviews with Howard the best. We always put on a good show. I hope to meet him one day in the hereafter. I can hear Howard now saying, Muhammad, you're not the man you used to be.' I pray that he is in God's hands. I will miss him."
-- Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali

"He rose to prominence during a time of drama and upheaval in sports. His style -- part journalist, part carnival barker -- made him unique."
-- NBC sportscaster Bob Costas

"He become a giant by the simple act of telling the truth in an industry that was not used to hearing it and considered it revolutionary. Every person working in sports journalism today owes a tremendous debt to Howard Cosell. His greatest contribution was elevating sports reporting out of daily play-by-play and placing it in the larger context of society."
-- Roone Arledge, ABC News president

"He was loud, boisterous and extreme, but he really got people's attention and he was really bright."
-- Former tennis champion Billie Jean King

"I used to kid him, You couldn't diagram an end run,' but he memorized the press guides, everything."
-- Sportscaster Curt Gowdy

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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