Monday Night Mayhem

Monday Night Mayhem book cover

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by Marc Gunther and Bill Carter
Beech Tree Books, William Morrow (1988)

A note to those of us who back in the early seventies got such a kick out of Monday Night Football.

Turns out it wasn’t just the viewing audience having all the fun.

Roone Arledge, the founding father of MNF, became the God of TV sports.

The unique broadcasts—the NFL on Monday night, the talented crew, the multiple cameras, the Honey Shots from the crowd—helped ABC Sports turn a profit for the first-time ever.

Sponsors like Miller Lite and Ford who bought the package tonned it.

The boys in the booth, Howard “The Coach” Cosell, “Dandy” Don Meredith and “Faultless” Frank Gifford, all suddenly household words, took celebrity to new and breath taking heights.

And perhaps more importantly, the televising of sports would never again be the same.

Hell, even Don Ohlmeyer and Chet Forte, those talented techno geeks who called the shots from the production truck, not only parlayed the telecasts into gigantic careers, but into their own personal chick magnet!

See a lovely lady in the crowd; send a gofer out to ask if she’d like to sit in the production truck and watch the “masters” (and Johnson) produce Monday Night Football.

If there’s a downside to Monday Night Mayhem for some it might be best described by the old saw regarding sausage, “Great to eat but you wouldn’t want to see how it’s made!”

That said, for page turners from the past, it was the backside of this story that made for the most interesting reading. As the stars paraded in and out of the broadcast booth, the production truck and the ABC offices, there was infighting and open warfare on the MONDAY NIGHT stage that Jerry Springer would have killed for.

Let’s see, how do we begin? Roone spent money like a drunken sailor and wouldn’t return phone calls. Howard Cosell didn’t just hate his co-stars, Howard hated! Turns out that “Faultless Frank” Gifford, who handled the play-by-play, comes off as a pretty good stand-up guy but he couldn’t remember players’ names, couldn’t read cue cards and often had to do forty or fifty takes just to get a promo or show opener right. Dandy Don, who played well as the ole cowpoke whose lines kept Howard in line—to an extent—didn’t really give a rip and came to the games as unprepared as possible.

Cosell and Dandy Don drank during the games, Howard to the point that there were times when Arledge had to give him the hook, yank him from the booth. The classic example being the night in Philadelphia when he was so loaded Gifford had to explain to America that Cosell had taken ill. Actually, at half time he’d taken off and ABC, with all its resources couldn’t find him. Turns out that instead of taking a cab to the airport to fly back to New York, he paid the cabbie to drive him all the way to Manhattan to the loving and caring arms of his wife Emmy.

And as entertaining as the interaction between stars who made this a one-of-a-kind franchise is, there’s a back story here that tells us just how big time television works, and doesn’t!

We see the visionary maverick Roone Arledge, who saw Monday Night Football as a show first and game coverage second, not secondary but second. And how, as fate would have it in Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s new commissioner, he’d have the perfect accomplice.

One had a vision for ABC Sports and the other, the recently anointed savior of a league beleaguered by teams going bust, franchises city hopping, and a need for some infusion of cash, had a wild desire for a windfall.

The NFL set the price, guaranteed an attractive Monday night schedule, ABC’s ad boys sold it to the sponsors and on September 21, 1970, when the Cleveland Browns took the field against the New York Jets professional football made history.

Monday Night Football was on the air. And yes, there’s a slew of us out here who love to pop a beer and tell the fan on the bar stool sitting next to us that WE WERE THERE!

The authors, Gunther, a TV columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and Carter, a TV columnist for The New Times, give us a most insightful and detailed retrospect of this show that stole the ratings on Monday nights. It would have its down years, some big losing seasons with major upheavals from top to bottom. But in the end MNF proved to be a survivor and now on any given Monday night you’ll still find football in millions of homes, bars and hearts.

Again, in the beginning it wasn’t just football. It was showbiz (rare was the telecast when a celebrity didn’t drop by the booth—from Richard Nixon to John Denver for God’s sake) with an emphasis on the BIZ. With more than 700 telecasts now it’s the second longest running prime time TV show (behind 60 Minutes) offering up the best male target audience in Tube history.

Why did MNF work? Well, again, we fell in love with Roone’s multiple (9) cameras, his super slo-mo technology, the isolated shots, the stop-action and instant replay. We cheered his honey shots, the sideline audio, the NFL highlights at half time called by Cosell. Again, Roone didn’t mind spending money but he knew where to spend it. And there were other hooks. Hank Williams, Jr’s “Are you ready for some football?” pre-game ditty became as popular as Dandy Don Meredith’s old school, off-key, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over!”

During the program’s infancy while Keith Jackson (Jackson preceded Gifford as the play-by-play man) and Don Meredith tried to keep us focused on the game, we listened to the incessant Howard Cosell expectorate a “tell it like it is” vocab that would follow us to our office water coolers on Tuesday mornings –“There were certainly a preponderance of good looking chicks in the bar last night for Monday Night Football!” “I concur, a plethora of hotties!”

How annoying did I find Cosell? So much so that my little boy once went to his mother and said, “Mommy, why does daddy cuss the TV and call it Howard?”

But the Howard piece of this programming was a piece of gold. America loved to hate Cosell to the point that, well it got scary. Fans competed in every city they visited, hanging Hate Howard signs: “Howard Is A Hemorrhoid.” There were death threats, and on a Monday night in Buffalo he had to be shadowed by FBI agents.

Cosell’s post-game limo was once chased by a convertible full of rowdy fans for miles, until out on the turnpike the pursuit car was able to catch up to the ABC crew, whereupon a kid in the back seat dropped his pants, and screamed, “Hey, Howard, that was for you!”

It wasn’t all craziness and mayhem. MNF was prime-time sports blessed by high-tech technology. But the genius has always been the talent. The list of big names who sat behind those microphones reads like a football Who’s Who–Keith Jackson, Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, Howard Cosell, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath, Dan Dierdorf, Dan Fouts … and later, after this page turner from the past was published … Boomer Esiason, Al Michaels, John Madden, and now Mike Tirico and John Gruden.

And if the aforementioned group were to have gathered at a MNF reunion (and were speaking to each other) they might remind us that some of the greatest moments in NFL history were caught by the ABC cameras of Chet Forte and were called by those very men in those God awful yellow ABC Monday Night blazers.

They might just recall that the Miami Dolphins had played in the most MNF games, 69; that Tony Dorsett had the longest run on the field, 99-yards and that Frank Gifford had the longest run in the booth, 28 seasons. Someone would remember that Jerry Rice caught the most MNF TD passes, 35, and that Dan Marino had fired the most TD passes, 42. And that the Dolphin defensive back who grabbed four interceptions against the Steelers in ’73, was in fact Dick Anderson. And if should any of this trivia be overlooked and an MNF fan could intervene, they’d certainly remind them of the night we watched Earl Campbell score four TDs against the New York Jets.

Howard Cosell, would surely pontificate about how he, “With great brilliance and eloquent reverence,” broke the news of John Lennon’s death on Monday Night Football.

So it was new, it was an NFL game changer and the good, the bad and the ugly in this landmark contribution to the way we view sports on TV is all here for the reading. The details—the infighting between the network suits, the hiring and firing of producers and talent, the pettiness and insecurity of the Monday Night’s stars—-make this book well named.

It was Monday Night Mayhem. And the book’s subtitle proves to be equally accurate as this page turner from the past is clearly The Inside Story of ABC’s MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL.

For a copy of Monday Night Mayhem, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try where you can buy Monday Night Mayhem, The Inside Story of ABC’s MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL for less than Howard Cosell tipped the network gofers in the booth who kept his game-time stash of vodka iced down. Simply click on the book’s cover.