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Would You Let This Man Interview You?
Myron Cope
March 21, 1994
This SI Classic from 1967 chronicled the life and times of Howard Cosell, the controversial and sometimes bombastic sportscaster
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March 21, 1994

Would You Let This Man Interview You?

This SI Classic from 1967 chronicled the life and times of Howard Cosell, the controversial and sometimes bombastic sportscaster

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"It's not a question of being abrupt, Lamar," Cosell breaks in, his voice threatening to shatter Hunt's spectacles. "It's a matter of being evasive at a time when the American people are entitled to know the truth!"

The American people lose, but Howard Cosell wins another press conference. "You've got to treat Howard the way he treats you," says columnist Dick Young of the New York Daily News. "You've got to throw his flamboyant junk back in his face. He asks better questions than the other radio and TV interviewers, but he hokes up his questions so that they sound better than they are. 'Now, truthfully'—it's always 'truthfully,' as if it's a question the guy on the other end has been ducking—'people insist that you'—people don't say it, they insist it—'that you cannot take a punch, Muhammad Ali. Now, truthfully, can you take a punch?' " The Cosell manner, observes Larry Merchant of the New York Post, manages "to make the world of fun and games sound like the Nuremberg trials."

Meanwhile, brimming with editorial comment, Cosell has gone after Casey Stengel, the New York Giants and NCAA football, Floyd Patterson and the sporting press, and all varieties of commissioners and leagues. Though ABC's New York radii) outlet carries the Jets' games, he campaigned vigorously last fall against Jet coach Weeb Ewbank, whom he dismisses as "passé." In short. Cosell has traveled a course hardly calculated to take him to the goal that practically all sportscasters covet: a play-byplay assignment. He could not care less. "I'm a personality," he specifies. "With rare exceptions, they don't make them that way in the sports business anymore."

Play-by-play announcers, Cosell goes on, are nothing but shills for the ball clubs, and anybody who expects inquisitive journalism from them is a dunce. "Today the football games are a series of matchups to see who leads in blimp shots," Cosell cries. Why would a man of his gifts want any part of such a prosaic routine? "There is no way you will ever hear me saying"—and here he lowers his voice to a dulcet whisper—" 'This is Howard Co-sell on the 16th green...420 yards to the pin.... Up to this point, only four golfers have equaled par. With a shudder, Cosell pictures himself on the professional bowling circuit. "Can you imagine Howard Cosell saying, 'Wayne Zahn approaching the line...beautiful delivery!' " Does David Brinkley cover supermarket openings?

Anyhow, Cosell's forte is the interview. Years ago he decided that he would not go around asking athletes how they field balls or condition their hamstring tendons. They are intelligent, sensitive men, he argued—he would persuade them to bare their souls. "Look at Mantle!" Cosell says. "He did a half-hour show with me, and he felt like he had had a cathartic. He felt cleansed. Joe Namath! The kid poured his heart out to me. Colonel Red Blaik, who was supposed to be a martinet, an icicle, he opened up like a sieve. He said, 'Young man, this is the finest conversation I've ever had.' " Except when a natural comedian such as Cassius Clay appears on Cosell's show, the world of sports remains a lugubrious place, a bonanza of pathos that Cosell has barely begun to mine. "Someday," he promises, "I'm going to do a show on Roger Maris—The American Tragedy."

The athlete who can fend off a Cosell interview has not been born. "Damn you, Koufax," he once said when, shortly before game time, Sandy balked at racing from the clubhouse to redo a film Cosell's technicians had fouled up. "You were a little nothing sitting in the corner of the Brooklyn dugout when I used to come around and talk to you." Koufax went along quietly.

Sonny Liston, having heard Cosell describe him on the air as a congenital thug, glared at him in training camp and said, "You ain't my friend." "That's true," Cosell answered. He then launched into a speech, the gist of which was that, like Sonny and all the rest of the world's slobs, he had a living to earn. The next thing Liston knew, Cosell was walking him along a windswept beach where a bitter gray sky supplied a backdrop for such questions as, did Liston throw the first Clay fight, and was he owned by gangsters?

Having elected to introduce journalism into sportscasting, Cosell has had to plow through a gantlet of carping sponsors, station executives and ad salesmen, all bent on convincing him that it is safer to read ball scores off a ticker tape. "It may be that my greatest accomplishment was my mere survival," he declares. There he was, putting the finishing touches on a one-hour documentary. The Yankee from Texas, the story of Johnny Keane, when a breathless ABC man staggered into his office, crying, "We gotta rewrite the opening!" The opening was a film clip of Budweiser baron Gussie Busch reading with great embarrassment Keane's letter of resignation from his post as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. (The scene was opera bouffe, for Busch had earlier decided to fire Keane but then changed his mind after Keane managed the Cardinals to the 1964 pennant at the wire. Keane, however, considered himself fired and decided to stay fired.) The opening was a natural, except for the fact that Pabst was the principal sponsor of The Yankee from Texas. Now Pabst had phoned from Milwaukee and said, "Get Busch out of the opening."

"We are not rewriting any opening," Cosell informed the ABC man who had relayed the command to him. "Get me Milwaukee on the phone." Moments later Cosell's voice drilled into Milwaukee: "You gonna keep it a secret that Gussie Busch fired him? You gonna keep it a secret? You people have been talking about stand-up guys. If you make us pull Busch out of the show, you're fakes!"

Busch stayed in the show.

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