Monday, November 26, 2012

The first telecast for the team of Pat Summerall and John Madden

33 years ago yesterday, the legendary duo of Pat Summerall and John Madden called an NFL game on CBS for the first time. This was in 1979, nearly 2 years before CBS permanently paired them together. Summerall and Tom Brookshier were regular broadcast partners at the time. But Brookshier had a family commitment which conflicted with the 11/25/1979 Vikings-Buccaneers assignment, so CBS instead put Madden with Summerall on that game in Tampa. Here is a clip from the opening of that telecast:

Madden was in his first year as a CBS analyst after retiring as coach of the Oakland Raiders. His made his CBS debut on 9/23/1979 when he called the Saints-49ers game with Frank Glieber. CBS only assigned Madden to 8 games that initial season, typically on weekends when the network had more than 6 games on its schedule. Many of his games went to rather small regional audiences. He worked primarily with Glieber in 1979, but also called one game each with Dick Stockton and Lindsey Nelson.

In 1980, CBS promoted Madden to full-time status. He worked with Gary Bender that season and was assigned to more prominent games including the NFC wild-card playoff. I specifically recall being extremely impressed with his insights while watching the Falcons-Eagles telecast that season. Madden used his coaching background to provide great perspective which was a stark contrast to the typical lackluster analysis of that era. He paid extra attention to blocking and interior line play and received many positive media reviews for his football commentary. Outside of the booth, his popularity was skyrocketing from the Miller Lite beer commercials. Madden had also developed a fear of flying so he travelled to games by train.

Heading into the 1981 season, CBS decided to break up the Summerall/Brookshier team and elevate Madden to the role of #1 analyst. During the first half of that season, CBS experimented by pairing Madden with Vin Scully for 4 weeks and then with Summerall for 4 weeks to determine which play-by-play partner meshed best with Madden. At mid-season, CBS chose to permanently pair Pat and John together. The Summerall/Madden team remained intact through the 2001 season (including a move to FOX in 1994) and would call 8 Super Bowls.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The myth about the first prime time college football regular season telecast

Despite what many media reports would have you believe, a significant first in sports TV history took place on Saturday 11/16/1968. That evening, ABC televised the Alabama at Miami game at 8:30 pm ET with Chris Schenkel and Bud Wilkinson calling the action. This marked the first college football regular season prime time national telecast.

The following season, ABC provided national coverage of three prime time games in the regular season. The most famous of these was the Alabama-Mississippi matchup in Birmingham on Saturday 10/4/1969 at 9:30 pm ET with Schenkel and Wilkinson also at the microphones.

However, for some strange reason, numerous newspapers, books, and web sites over the years have incorrectly referred to that 1969 game as the first regular season prime time college football national telecast and multiple recent reports continue to make this mistake. Furthermore, it wasn't even the first such game in 1969 as ABC had televised Air Force at SMU in prime time at 9:30 pm ET on Saturday 9/13 to open the season. I am baffled as to why so many media outlets are wrong regarding the facts about a milestone telecast.

Here is a chronicle of some of these erroneous claims:

In 2007, ESPN compiled a list of the 100 defining moments in college football. ESPN ranked this 1969 game at #95 and described it as the "first nationally televised night game".

To commemorate its 50th anniversary in 2004, Sports Illustrated compiled a state-by-state "greatest of" feature. The section on Mississippi included the SI cover photo from the 1969 game and claimed it was "the first college game to be nationally televised in prime time".

In 2008, the University of Alabama official athletic site labelled the 1969 game as "the first prime-time telecast of a college football game"You would think the official Alabama site should know better since the Crimson Tide participated in the true first such game in 1968.

Thet same year, the Marietta (OH) Times and an LSU publication also printed the same error.

The same misinformation appears in several books. In 2005, ESPN published the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia. You would expect such a comprehensive reference work to be thoroughly researched, yet this tome refers to the 1969 contest as "the first regular-season college football game televised in prime time."

Other books making this false claim include:
  • The University of Mississippi: A Sequicentennial History
  • Football in the SEC: Southeastern Conference
  • 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die
Fast forward to 2012 and publications are continuing to perpetuate this myth. In February of this year, the Courier Journal (of Florence, AL) called the 1969 game "the first national prime-time broadcast of a college football game". This summer, an Ole Miss site published a story describing the 1969 game as "the first national prime time broadcast of a college football game". And less than 2 months ago, an Alabama Crimson Tide online magazine contained a writeup on the 1969 game and stated that it was "nationally televised, a first in prime time for regular season college football".

So why do so many media reports continue to get this story wrong? Frankly, I have no idea, but I will offer a few theories:
  • The 1969 game was much more exciting than the one in 1968 and probably resonated more strongly in the memories of those who watched it on TV. The 1969 contest featured several lead changes and offensive records with Alabama scoring late to win 33-32. Mississippi quarterback Archie Manning passed for 436 yards. Meanwhile Alabama won the 1968 contest by a score of 14-6.
  • The 1969 telecast was in early October and featured two ranked teams, an undefeated Crimson Tide squad, and a highly publicized player in Manning. The 1968 telecast took place in mid-November when both teams had 3 losses and Miami was unranked.
  • The 1969 telecast likely stood out more as it was the only game ABC televised that day. In 1968, ABC had regional coverage of other games in the afternoon and the national game from Miami that night.
  • While I don't know how the myth got started, I suspect that once it appeared in print for the first time, subsequent publications picked up this erroneous information without verifying it and the effect snowballed. Still one would expect prominent media outlets such as ESPN and SI to perform more careful research. And there should be no excuse for media related to the Alabama Crimson Tide to make such a mistake.
In 2011, Ivan Maisel provided an interesting retrospective on the 1969 game on the ESPN site including a nugget that ABC chose 10/4 for its prime time telecast to avoid competing against the baseball playoff doubleheader on NBC that afternoon. Ironically, the central theme of Maisel's original article was the same false claim about the 1969 game being the first such prime time telecast. A reader pointed out this error in the comments section and Maisel updated the story to correctly cite the 1968 game as being first. Notice how awkwardly the second paragraph of that article reads from this revision.

Finally, I will point out that the weekly 2012 Miami Hurricanes football press release trumpets the fact that Miami was involved in the first prime time telecast in 1968, but incorrectly states that the game was played at Alabama. So even when the 1968 game gets its proper due, the truth still gets lost in the shuffle.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

NFL Network documentary on John Riggins

The next installment of the fantastic series A Football Life on NFL Network profiles the colorful Hall of Fame running back John Riggins. This one-hour documentary premieres on Wed 11/21 at 8 pm ET with several replays scheduled on NFLN.

This preview clip looks intriguing. So does the upcoming schedule:

  • December 5 – Barry Sanders
  • December 12 – Marcus Allen
  • December 19 – The Immaculate Reception

Darrell Royal documentary on Fox Sports Southwest

If you have access to Fox Sports Southwest (DirecTV 676), check out the special programming lineup planned for Thurs 11/22 which focuses on the football rivalry between Texas and Texas A&M. (Note: All times listed are CT.)

FSSW kicks things off with a look back at the 1963 game between these schools which featured a controversial finish and took place 6 days after the death of President John F. Kennedy. The schedule for that evening includes a re-airing of The Story of Darrell Royal, a 2003 documentary on the legendary Texas head coach with Keith Jackson of ABC among the interview subjects.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Howard Cosell halftime highlights on ABC Monday Night Football

One of the staples of the original ABC Monday Night Football production was the halftime highlights segment narrated by Howard Cosell. This regular feature of the halftime show contained NFL Films footage of key plays from a subset of the Sunday games. Cosell would voice over highlights which were accompanied by canned crowd noise.

The presentation seems slow-paced and amateurish by today's standards, but this feature was quite popular at the time. Cosell's deliberate vocal style meshed well with the slow-motion video. Howard had a commanding presence and his unique delivery and voice inflection tended to make the highlights appear dramatic and important. Cosell would actually narrate the highlights without a prepared script.

After the first commercial break at the end of the half, Cosell would recap the scoring for the game in progress and then transition into the highlight package. Even if the prime time game was dull or one-sided, many viewers would stay tuned though the halftime show to see which games were selected and hear how Cosell described the action.

Here are some classic clips from 1971, 1972, and 1973 followed by a few observations:

  • Notice how Cosell starts out the first 2 clips by stating that the highlights were selected by the producers. Despite this standard proclamation, many fans would blame Cosell if their favorite team was not spotlighted on the highlights show.
  • When the highlights included footage from a Raiders home game, you could count on Howard to identify the venue as the "Oakland .. Alameda .. County .. Coliseum" (first game of 1971 clip). 
  • He seemingly always referred to the Green Bay team as "The Pack".  
  • These clips show his penchant for using "pet names" for many players ("Freddy" Dryer, "Johnny" Gilliam, "Johnny" Hadl, "Joe Willie" Namath). 
  • Cosell also had a habit of interjecting the uniform number ("Franco Harris number 32") and/or college ("Raymond Chester from Morgan State") of the ball carrier during the narration.
  • ABC was fond of showing highlights from one or both teams who were scheduled for the next Monday Night game so that Cosell could shill for that upcoming telecast (first two games of 1972 clip). Similarly, if one of those teams got blown out, ABC would likely omit that game from the highlight package.
  • On the 1971 clip just after the 7:00 mark, Cosell, while describing a kickoff return, had the pomposity to state "he broke one earlier this year that you viewers will remember from our halftime highlights show". 
  • On the 1972 clip, ABC presents the halftime score from Miami showing the Dolphins on top rather than today's standard which places the home team on the bottom.
  • As an aside, each of these videos includes a block of vintage 1970s commercials near the midway point.
The halftime highlights segment was classic Cosell and most certainly wouldn't have been anywhere near as successful with anyone else at the microphone. Cosell popularized many catch phases such as "right there", "look at him go", and "he .. could .. go .. all .. the .. way". Chris Berman of ESPN (who has frequently spoken in glowing terms about the way Cosell did these highlights) always paid tribute to Cosell by using many of the same catch phrases and incorporating a Cosell-like delivery during the ESPN Sunday night NFL Primetime show which peaked in the 1990s.