"Oh, this horizontal ladder of mediocrity," sighs Howard Cosell, ruminating on the people who make up the radio-television industry, which pays him roughly $175,000 a year. "There's one thing about this business: There is no place in it for talent. That's why I don't belong. I lack sufficient mediocrity."
Cosell fondles a martini at a table in the Warwick bar, across the street from the American Broadcasting Company headquarters. Anguish clouds his homely face. His long nose and pointed cars loom over his gin in the fashion of a dive bomber swooping in with lighter escort. "This is a terrible business," he says. It being the cocktail hour, the darkened room is packed with theatrical and Madison Avenue types. A big blonde, made up like Harlow the day after a bender, dominates a nearby table, encircled by spindly, effete little men. Gentlemen in blue suits, with vests, jam the bar. A stocky young network man pauses at Cosell's table and cheerfully asks if he might drop by Cosell's office someday soon. Cosell says certainly, whereupon the network man joins a jovial crowd at the bar. "He just got fired," Cosell whispers. "He doesn't know that I already know." The man, he is positive, wants his help, but what is Cosell to do when there are men getting fired every week?
"This is the roughest, toughest, crudest jungle in the world," Cosell grieves. A waiter brings him a phone, and he orders a limousine and chauffeur from a rental agency. He cannot wait to retreat to his rustic fireside in Pound Ridge up in Westchester County. It is Monday evening, barely the beginning of another long week in which he, Howard W. Cosell, middle-aged and tiring, must stand against the tidal wave of mediocrity, armed only with his brilliance and integrity.
It has been only 11 years since Cosell quit a New York law practice to become a sportscaster. Yet here he is, the most controversial figure in the business, an opinionated lone wolf in a profession populated by pretty-faced ex-athletes and fence-straddling play-by-play announcers who see angry sponsors under their beds. Teenagers and adult athletes and men in neighborhood saloons do imitations of his nasally acerbic voice, which assaults millions on 30 radio and TV shows a week. His interviews with Muhammad Ali are the Hope Diamond in ABC's Wide World of Sports, television's most successful sports series. (To the disgust or titillation of viewers, Cosell meticulously addresses the heavyweight champion by his Muslim name. Privately he stridently defends the right to be known by the name of one's choice, however exotic, but after tossing off a few Muhammad Alis he lapses into Cassius Clays.)
Then there is Cosell the producer—the president of Legend Productions, Inc. His sports documentaries command prime network time, and the praise they attract from critics, Cosell hastens to point out, is "unbelievable." His intellect surpasses the boundaries of sports. Each Sunday night, 10 to 11 on New York radio, he may be heard grilling the likes of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and Mayor John V. Lindsay on affairs of the day, sometimes turning the interviews into Cosell-versus-whomever debates, in which he acts as both contestant and judge. "I'm getting to you, Bill." he tells William F. Buckley Jr. "Now, before we're done, you're going to be defeated. You know that."
Yet, most of all, Cosell's forward progress stems from the fact that, alone among sportscasters of national stature, he works at his trade. He goes out and looks for news and personalities, instead of waiting for gossip at Toots Shor's. "If you say 'Manny Mota' to Howard Cosell, he knows something about Manny Mota," says Leonard Koppett of The New York Times. "If you say 'Manny Mota' to lots of others in that field, you're going to get a blank stare or statistics they read on a file card."
Cosell is not the least bit reluctant to make it clear at every opportunity that he knows a lot of things about a lot of things. "I'm not the greatest man in the world," he says, careful to set the record straight, "but I've brought to this business the direct, honest and total reporting that previously had been the sole province of the press." Answering football commissioner Pete Rozelle's call for a major press conference, Cosell plunges into a folding chair in the first row of the press section, where he is within range of cameras and microphones. Rozelle sits on a sofa, flanked by Dallas Cowboy general manager Tex Schramm and Kansas City Chief owner Lamar Hunt. The commissioner announces that the NFL and AFL are about to merge. Soon Cosell's voice clamors for Rozelle's attention like pots and pans falling off a shelf. I le demands to know if the AFL has forced the merger by secretly making huge offers to NFL stars. "You know that it's true," he tells Rozelle.
"No, I do not know that it's true," Rozelle replies evenly.
"I know that it's true," Cosell trumpets. He turns to Lamar Hunt, demanding a confession. Hunt equivocates. "You mean you're negotiating for your league without knowing what your league is doing?" Cosell persists.
"I've tried to answer your question," says Hunt. Painstakingly courteous, Hunt is a Wally Cox type, though he is worth hundreds of millions. "I don't mean to be abrupt," he apologizes.