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Requiem for a Tradition

One of the earliest signs that I was beginning to age occurred several years ago when I heard Emmitt Smith discuss his love for playing on Monday Night Football. Emmitt recalled how as a young boy, he would beg his father to let him stay up late enough to see Howard Cosell narrate the show's halftime highlights. Having done the exact same thing with my parents, it occurred to me that enough time had passed for Emmitt to not only grow up, but to have a long, productive -- and now complete -- pro career. The memory was as depressing as it was sweet.

I thought of Emmitt and time again this spring when the NFL announced that the amazing 36 year run of Monday Night Football on ABC would come to an end after the 2005 season. I was reminded yet again of what that institution had been and what the fans have lost when ESPN announced that it's new announcing team will be Al Michaels and (hide the children, please) Joe Theismann.

Friends, especially those of you under the age of 30, I assure you it was not always this terminal. MNF was a gamble for a third place network with nothing to lose and a league with everything to gain. When it succeeded it did something few shows can claim: it redefined the way Americans, especially American men, used the medium.

ABC was a television backwater in 1970, having never so much as finished second in the three network sweepstakes that was pre-cable American TV. ABC had only tasted the top ranking for a few weeks in the fall of 1964, when its new hit Bewitched caught the nation's fancy. Ratings were so bad at the network that an industry joke asked, "how do you end the Vietnam War? Put it on ABC. It will be over in 13 weeks."

Football in prime time is so taken for granted today that it's hard to imagine how reluctant the NFL was to roll the dice with ABC. Football of any type at night was a novelty, having only debuted in 1965 when NBC moved the Orange Bowl to New Year's Day evening to showcase the New York Jets' new toy Joe Namath. When it came time to schedule the first MNF matchup, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell volunteered, but feared he might "lose my shirt" on a weeknight game. He admitted to being stunned when the walkup crowd could not be accomodated.

The true genius of the program was its three man booth featuring Howard Cosell, Don Meredith and, in the inaugural season, Keith Jackson. Jackson was replaced in year two by the mentally-lacquered Frank Gifford, who is still amusing fans with his sing-song misremembering of names. (My two favorites were his confusing Cowboys' CB Dennis Thurman with Thurman Munson, the late Yankees catcher, and calling Falcons' coach Leeman Bennett "Leeman Beeman." Repeatedly. You simply had to be there.)

Frank aside, the key of the program was the Meredith-Cosell duo. Whether the pairing was intentional or a happy accident of programming by ABC producer Roone Arledge, it was television genius. In an era of memorable sitcom odd couples, from Archie and Meathead, Fred and Lamont and Oscar and Felix, Dandy and Howard could hold their own. They were the strangest of pairs: Meredith, a recently retired, hard-livin', smooth-drawlin' QB from north Texas. Cosell was the sharp-tongued, bitter-souled intellectual who always seemed as disgusted by the games as he was intrigued by them.

Cosell, who always promised, and frequently delivered to "tell it like it is," pioneered actual criticism from the booth. Meredith, in his "aw shucks, Howard" way, would attempt to rein in Cosell and deliver a folksier, yet equally insightful comment. Gifford would provide down and distance. They gave us personalities to root for and against. Cosell embodied what it must be like to watch a game with your most arrogant, disaffected college professor. Bars nationwide promoted Monday Night Football parties where lucky fans could throw a brick through the tube when Howard was bloviating. Dandy became our stand in, the regular guy who could make his points and hold his ground with Professor Cosell without recourse to pomposity or polysyllabic words.

At a time when the NFL was unsure whether America would accept football as an alternative to sitcoms and dramas, Cosell and Meredith guided the league into prime time by wrapping a sitcom around a football game. Nineteen years before Mystery Science Theater 3000, Americans tuned in by the tens of millions to watch these two watch football. People noticed when a drunk, disappointed Oilers fan flipped off the cameras in the fourth quarter of a 34-0 Raiders drubbing because Howard and Don's interplay had kept them riveted.

The NFL worked as entertainment because ABC treated the game as only part of the show. Cities went crazy vying to become the next site for the traveling circus. It was a big deal to host a Monday night game. It was validation of your city, a sign you were legit. It was an even bigger deal if you were snubbed.

The problem over the years is that ABC surrendered top billing to the game. Ironically, as the football became more important, Monday Night Football became less so. Now, it's just a platform for hucksters and has-beens. I look forward to missing Hank Williams Jr.'s stale intro. The Simpson's dead-on parody of Bocephus' jingle -- "are you ready for some SOC-CER?!" -- showed how risible the song has become.

Recent attempts to revive MNF demonstrate how little ABC understands what made it a success in the first place. I had hope for the Dennis Miller addition because it brought somebody from outside the "jockocracy" that Cosell decried and offered an opportunity to recreate the simulacra of the early days. Alas, MNF was just a way station on the road to insignificance for Miller; he tried to impress us as a football guy rather than as the wiseass who knew a little about the game. How boring.

Even John Madden, who in his day was one of the best commentators ever, seemed a caricature of himself, mugging to promote his video game. The gratuitous explosions that seem to follow every commercial break and every big play (watch a game and notice how often you see flames in the background) shows that ABC just doesn't trust their product anymore.

That's why it's especially sad that the final MNF analyst will be Theisman. Joe embodies the worst of all worlds. He's got Cosell's acid but none of Howard's insight. He's also got Gifford's penchant for saying dumb things without any of the unintentional humor. (What can you say about a guy whose signature comment is, "Bill Walsh is not a genius." "Norman Einstein, now there's a genius.") In short, Joe is proof the original MNF concept has hit rock bottom; what once was an ace sitcom with some football thrown in at no cost is now pure pigskin with little of the fun. If the game is a yawner the program is doomed.

Oh well, at least my kids won't beg me to stay up through halftime on Monday nights.

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