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Pardon the Eruption

Kornheiser is already attracting criticism, controversy, much like an `MNF' predecessor named Cosell

September 11, 2006|Larry Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Longtime Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, whose regular-season debut as a commentator on "Monday Night Football" is tonight, has already been sliced and diced by the media.

During the NFL exhibition season, in which he did four telecasts with play-by-play announcer Mike Tirico and fellow commentator Joe Theismann, the balding, bearded Kornheiser earned both praise and criticism.

But perhaps the most hurtful words were from his newspaper and staff writer Paul Farhi. An example: "Kornheiser mostly spluttered, typically emphasizing the obvious."

Kornheiser, who already has gained popularity as co-host of ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption" for his opinionated, wiseacre riffs on sports, immediately went on ESPN Radio and called Farhi "a two-bit weasel slug ... who I would gladly run over with a Mack truck given the opportunity."

Elsewhere, Kornheiser has been called everything from brilliant to dull, from grumpy to funny. He has been portrayed as a self-effacing good guy and a vindictive, overly sensitive jerk.

Welcome to Howard Cosell's seat. Welcome to Cosell's world.

When Cosell was in the "Monday Night Football" booth, he too was both loved and loathed. He also became one of the most famous -- and mimicked -- people in the country.

The comparisons will be inevitable.

"If I was ever compared favorably or unfavorably to Howard Cosell," Kornheiser said the other day, "I'd be happy to be in the same paragraph."

ESPN, which acquired "Monday Night Football" after it was on ABC for 36 seasons, tonight will televise a Monday night NFL doubleheader, and the team of Tirico, Kornheiser and Theismann will work the opener, Minnesota at Washington. The second game is San Diego at Oakland, and Brad Nessler, Dick Vermeil and Ron Jaworski will be the announcers.

When he came to the Post in 1979, Kornheiser covered the Redskins when Theismann was the quarterback.

"So we've interacted," Kornheiser said on a conference call with reporters before the start of the exhibition season. "He has been on my radio show a bunch of times over the years. ... I don't anticipate there being any problems. If there are, I'll just push him out of the booth. What's the big deal?"

Of his new role, Kornheiser, 58, said during an interview from his home in Washington:

"I won the contest. I'm the lucky fan who gets to sit with two pros in the booth and converse with them."

Such comments are vintage Kornheiser.

During the interview, he called Tirico a "fabulously talented announcer" and referred to Theismann as "a Pro Bowl and Super Bowl-winning quarterback who has done 1,000 games as an analyst."

He then added, "I have done nothing."

Always self-effacing. That is Kornheiser's shtick. And that's where he differs from Cosell.

"If you compare Tony to Howard and then call him self-effacing," Don Ohlmeyer said, "that's an oxymoron. There was nothing self-effacing about Howard."

Ohlmeyer was the producer of "Monday Night Football" in the early days when Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Cosell were in the booth. He returned for a one-year stint in 2000 and almost hired Kornheiser to work with Al Michaels and Dan Fouts. Ohlmeyer decided to go with a bigger name, comedian Dennis Miller.

"Tony was our next choice," Ohlmeyer said. "He nailed his audition. We liked his football knowledge, his comments and his sense of humor. It's a good combination."

The idea of hiring Kornheiser back then came from David Israel, a longtime friend of Kornheiser's and a longtime business associate of Ohlmeyer's. Israel was the coordinating producer of "Monday Night Football" in 2000. Israel, a former sports columnist himself, has been friends with Kornheiser for more than 30 years. "He's very bright and has a distinctive point of view on a variety of topics," Israel said. "One thing I noticed that is different about him is his note-taking. He uses different colored flared pens on a legal pad to take notes. Everything is color-coded, and you can read his notes perfectly. I couldn't read mine, but I could certainly read his."

That fits with what Kornheiser said during a second conference call last week, about Theismann's presence in the booth.

"Joe has fabulous visual aids there, as does Mike," he said. "But Joe's are absolutely spectacular. And I sneak peeks at them all the time. All the depth charts and various colors, that's fun to look at."

On the same conference call, Theismann said of Kornheiser: "I think he has done an amazing job. He has been very disciplined, and that discipline really showed on our last preseason game. He was not jumping in, not cutting anyone off -- things that can make a telecast sloppy.

"I've been very impressed with his progress, his growth, his enthusiasm, his desire to be good. I think that is what is going to drive this property to something special."

Responded Kornheiser: "Does that mean I made the team?"

Kornheiser was asked whether he was concerned about being compared with those who came before him -- Cosell, Miller, John Madden.

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