Former world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali toys with the hair of sports… (Associated Press )
When ABC Sports guru Roone Arledge was suggesting Howard Cosell for "Monday Night Football," NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle replied: "Cosell? Why don't you just dig up Attila the Hun?"
Such was the reaction generated by modern broadcasting's first Category 5 hurricane: How-wuuuud Co-sellll. The way he pronounced his own name dripped with chutzpah and self-promotion. In his day, Cosell may have been the most mocked man in America.
If the very memory of his nasal delivery is a form of aural torture, this book may not be for you. But if you remember Cosell as some sort of broadcasting pioneer, brave and occasionally brilliant, Mark Ribowsky's new tome is worth your time. At 512 pages, it has the heft of a presidential biography, a fact that would not be lost on one of broadcasting's early emperors.
Indeed, there is much minutiae here, and the book is encyclopedic in the way the late sportscaster himself could be (Cosell died in 1995 at age 77).
In detailing the Brooklyn upbringing, Ribowsky tells of a philandering mother and the tradition-bound father who was seldom home. There is an overly long discourse on Cosell's World War II stint in the Army, during which the young lawyer played a big role in organizing deployments.
The biography doesn't really take off till Cosell meets with a young boxer then named Cassius Clay, who would convert to Islam and become Muhammad Ali. From there on, Cosell would be an early adopter of unpopular causes and a giant target for Americans everywhere.
"[Cosell and Clay] were clearly alike, in all the right ways, and Cosell with typical humility saw himself in the same light; that he too was about to break out as just such a delegate of a new order, on a different but related plane. As Clay went, so too would Cosell," Ribowsky writes.
And if the 1960s introduced Cosell to the world, the 1970s turned him into broadcasting's biggest caricature — one moment blisteringly critical, the next smarmy and too self-aware.
At first blush, this would not seem to have mattered much to Cosell, who would rather have been hated than ignored. This book paints Cosell, often sourly, as a deep thinker in a world that celebrates the obvious. He trafficked in contradictions: bombastic yet insecure, well read but deeply devoted to a field that didn't value such things.
One of his finest moments: the announcement during a "Monday Night Football" game that John Lennon had been slain. Cosell crafted an instant on-air eulogy with a quote from Keats: "My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk...."
The best passages of this book deal with the birth and controversy over "MNF." .
In its heyday, the "MNF" team of Cosell, Frank Gifford and Don Meredith featured an almost Rat Pack kind of hold over the nation. Ribowsky details how Arledge chose Meredith to try to duplicate the crazy chemistry Cosell and Ali had shared. Never mind that Cosell had never broadcast a live football game before. Arledge knew that the verbal shootouts between the cornpone former quarterback and the brash Jewish ex-lawyer would be magic.
But Cosell's frothy, confrontational style, in which he was quick to rip players, coaches and owners, drew tons of hate mail. Until then, football analysts had been former players who tended to forgive mistakes — a "jockocracy," Cosell dubbed them. It didn't help that the preening Cosell seemed to go out of his way to invite controversy.
"With the intelligent viewers, I'll destroy the parrots in the cages who have been providing us with their fatigued litany for years," he said.
Ribowsky details how those 14 years with "Monday Night Football," and the eviscerating heaps of mail he drew, took their toll on Cosell with rare self-doubt and heavy drinking in public.
"Never did Cosell anticipate the breadth of the hatred he now was living with," Ribowsky says.
Some of the book rambles on with too much detail, frequently gleaned from past stories and interviews. You can't help think that at half its girth, this book might've been twice as good.
Still, it is a rich read. Famous for his bark, Cosell comes off as far brighter than the current ilk of sportscasters, with a deeper understanding of the crossover points between sports and society — a terrific interviewer with prosecutorial instincts.
And really, when Cosell left "MNF," the landmark broadcast — and sports journalism — would never quite be the same.
"Very few people liked Howard Cosell ... but that's the point," wrote the late columnist Lewis Grizzard years later. "America learned to love to hate Howard, and once he left the broadcast to pretenders, the broadcast became deathly dull.
"I can still hear him."
Transformative? Maybe. His impact is best seen today in the syndicated radio shows of Jim Rome and Colin Cowherd rather than on national TV, where the jockocracy he despised still rules. So, yes, he was transformative. Just not transformative enough.
Indeed, aspiring broadcasters would do well to study Cosell, not only in the way he used his voice like an instrument — to change speeds, inflections, tone — but in the way he used his equally supple mind. This book would be an excellent start.
Erskine writes the Fan of the House column for The Times' Sports section.