35 Years of ‘MNF’: Roots of Radical Concept Recalled

Sep 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

As with any institution-and certainly “Monday Night Football” is an institution-people tend to forget how radical the idea was at first. The following account by former ABC Sports President Roone Arledge about the origin of “Monday Night Football” was originally published in a 1991 book titled “Beating the Odds” (Scribner’s), a memoir by Leonard Goldenson, the late chairman of ABC. Mr. Goldenson wrote his autobiography with Marvin Wolf, and we are grateful to Mr. Wolf for giving us permission to reprint these excerpts, introduced by TelevisionWeek Publisher Chuck Ross.

Roone Arledge: “Our affiliates opposed ‘Monday Night Football’ from the beginning. They thought we would be giving up the NCAA (college football) in all the markets away from the major cities. So it was clear that we were going to have to find a way to make this different. …

“When I first met Howard Cosell, I was surprised that all the top athletes seemed to know him (Cosell had been on ABC TV reporting and commenting about sports since 1956). He seemed to have great credibility with them, which came from his own persona. So he would always get the best guests on his program and always get the right interview, the main story. …

“For ‘Monday Night Football’ I wanted another ingredient. The things Howard could do would add a touch of journalism, controversy, excitement, and interest. He was the first person I hired, but he was neither a play-by-play announcer nor an expert commentator in the sense of being a former athlete or coach. So, to accommodate him, I had three announcers instead of two. Nobody had ever done that.

“I wanted to change the role of the play-by-play man. Make him less important. Instead of having a golden throated, play-by-play man, with a color man who came in every now and then, the real act would be Howard and X.”

Mr. Arledge then had a conversation with Frank Gifford, then under contract to CBS.

“I told Frank I wanted somebody who would be irreverent, a counter to Howard, someone just recently out of football, but particularly somebody with humor. I was tired of hearing the NFL treated like it took place in a cathedral. It’s a football game. I wanted people to have fun.

“Frank said, ‘The guy you ought to get, a man who needs a job, is Don Meredith.’

“Don had recently retired from pro football (the Dallas Cowboys), had been unable to find the right job in broadcasting, and was unhappy pursuing a career in insurance.

“Frank arranged a lunch for the three of us and then left early. Don and I sat and talked. He was funny and irreverent, and I came to the conclusion right off that he was the guy. I hired him right then and paid him more than I intended. I said, ‘You just had a ten-thousand-dollar lunch.’

“Don said, ‘It’s the best money you’ll ever spend.’ It was.”

With Mr. Cosell and Mr. Meredith aboard, and Mr. Gifford tied up at CBS, Mr. Arledge hired Keith Jackson as the third member of the team, in the role of the more traditional announcer. A year later, when Mr. Gifford was available, Mr. Arledge snared him to replace Mr. Jackson. “Monday Night Football” went on the air Sept. 21, 1970. The first two weeks were basically, “OK,” Mr. Arledge wrote, and then came week three.

“The third game of the season was St. Louis at Dallas. They were very strong rivals. I told Don that I wanted him to get much more anecdotal. I said, ‘You played with the Cowboys a year ago, so you know all these players. I want to hear stories. I want it amusing, and I want you to be the country boy who does what you do.’

“We were up against a good movie and a Johnny Carson special on NBC, plus the usual heavy stuff on CBS (‘Mayberry R.F.D.,’ ‘The Doris Day Show’ and ‘The Carol Burnett Show’). Our game ended up 33 to 0, St. Louis. With everything going wrong for the home team, the Dallas crowd was sullen. Altogether it was the worst possible conditions you can imagine. Instead of merely telling anecdotes, as the game wore on Howard and Keith taunted Don. The longer things went badly for the Cowboys, the funnier Don became. He was moaning and groaning. For the first time he was just being himself. Everything jelled, and the show became a hit, with a 38 share of the audience.”

However, behind the scenes, a potentially big problem arose. Mr. Goldenson picks up this part of the story:

“The morning after the show’s debut, in which the New York Jets lost to the Cleveland Browns 31-21, in Cleveland, I got a call from a sponsor, Henry Ford II, head of Ford Motors. ‘Take that guy Cosell off,’ he said. ‘He’s hogging all the time. He and Don Meredith talk so much I can’t enjoy the football game.’ I agreed to look into it.

“I called (ABC Network President) Elton Rule and Roone, and told them about Ford’s call about Cosell.

“Roone said, ‘Give me four or five weeks. I’ll monitor it pretty closely. If Howard is hogging the mike, I’ll cut him off. But I think we ought to give this a fair trial.’

“I agreed. I called Ford back and told him, ‘We’re going to give him a few weeks, and if at the end of that time it’s not working out, I’ll get back to you.’ I made no promises.

“Three weeks later (after the St. Louis-Dallas game) Ford called me back. He said, ‘Leonard, I apologize. I really enjoy the patter that’s going on between these two guys. I withdraw my objection.’

“Howard is very opinionated. Half the audience likes him; the other half hates him. But they all talk about him. I don’t know how ‘Monday Night Football’ would have succeeded without him.”