Are you ready for some Greek philosophy? Are you ready for a football game spiced with references to Shiatsu, cavity searches and Fitzcarraldo? Are you ready for the second coming of a man bubbling with self-regard and bristling with phrases and associations that you may not get (he couldn't care less), all delivered in a vocal cadence that begs to be mimicked? No, Dennis Miller is not Howard Cosell, but when ABC Sports announced last Thursday that Miller would be joining play-by-play man Al Michaels and analyst Dan Fouts this fall in the latest revamp of Monday Night Football, there was a Cosellian buzz in the air, that old-time "he's a genius/he's a blowhard" split in opinion that has long been missing from the show and that can mean only one thing: Come Sept. 4, the first Monday Night broadcast of the regular season, millions of people will tune in to see whether one of the most audacious experiments in recent television history flies, crashes or sputters to an embarrassing halt on the runway.
"It may not work" says ABC Sports president Howard Katz. "We may find out that this is a bad idea. But I love taking the risk."
He'd better. For it is largely upon Miller, a Saturday Night Live alumnus with no sports-broadcasting experience, that Katz and the man who made the hire, celebrated producer Don Ohlmeyer, are staking the fortunes of one of television's most valued properties. The booth of Monday Night Football is a high-profile cauldron in which mistakes are magnified and boneheaded lines are parsed by critics as if they had been delivered from the floor of the Senate. At a time when the secrets of the human gene are about to be revealed and a presidential campaign limps along without excitement, Ohlmeyer's search provoked daily updates in newspapers, a USA Today readers' poll and more than 125 calls from journalists to last week's teleconference announcement.
Only Miller seemed unimpressed by all the attention, and he casually promised not to tailor what he calls his "quasi- Dean Martin insouciance" to the supposed dictates of a football broadcast. "I'm not going to go into that booth and turn into Ed Murrow during the Blitz, for god's sake," he told SI last Friday from his office in Los Angeles, where he was preparing for a broadcast of his HBO series, Dennis Miller Live. "I know when I sit at home and somebody gets between me and the game, and it becomes about self-aggrandizement, I get a little pissy. So I have to find a Wallenda-like line. I think I'm getting paid to be Dennis Miller, but I'm also getting paid to be a sort of Pliny the Elder and just chronicle this."
Pliny. One day on the job, and already a first: It's safe to say that no one discussing football, not even Cosell, conjured up the first century's answer to Steve Sabol. "I'm throwing Pliny the Elder out on my first show," Miller says, cackling. "Believe me! I'm bringing it out just as a litmus test: Are you ready for some PLINEEE! Good evening! We're here at the Will and Ariel Durant Bowl!"
Get it? Ohlmeyer and Katz are betting plenty that you will get it, or will want to. After spending three months picking through hundreds of tapes, 20 auditions and 40 candidates ranging from former coaches Jimmy Johnson and Bill Parcells to Hall of Fame shoo-ins John Elway and Steve Young to conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh—whom, Ohlmeyer says, he hopes to involve in this season's show in a limited capacity—and after spending weeks trying to hear different combinations of voices in his head, Ohlmeyer decided that only a radical recasting of the traditional three-man booth would create the energy the show has so lacked. Though Ohlmeyer's career took off with his production of Monday Night Football during the glory years of the mid-1970s, he had no illusions about re-creating the Cosell-Don Meredith chemistry so often cited as the show's apex.
"Howard's dead, and Don's communing with the peaks in Santa Fe," Ohlmeyer said during the search. "You had two unique characters, and I don't think you'll ever again have anybody like Howard, who, for his time, was a perfect lightning rod. There can't be a Howard Cosell today."
Instead, Ohlmeyer was looking for a 21st-century take on the game, something more free-flowing, edgy and humorous. Retaining Michaels was a no-brainer; a 14-year veteran of the show, he is widely considered the best play-by-play man in the business. In Fouts, the former San Diego Chargers quarterback, Ohlmeyer believes he can unearth "an engaging and impish quality" that did not surface in his recent work on ABC's college football broadcasts. But it's Miller who is, as Michaels puts it, "the greatest wild card of all time" and the one who will determine whether Ohlmeyer's gamble pays off or goes bust.
After he came out of retirement on March 8 to take the assignment of remaking Monday Night, Ohlmeyer says Miller's name was the first he thought of—but only as a comic who would appear occasionally to unleash one of his famous "rants." Ohlmeyer didn't know that Miller grew up in Pittsburgh enthralled by the championship Steelers of the 1970s, that he engorged himself yearly on the minutiae of the NFL draft and that he had contacted Fox when it landed football in 1994 to see if he could land an announcing gig. Ohlmeyer didn't know what he was getting when Miller's agents said their man wanted to audition for a far greater role in the show. On June 12, Miller sat down in a studio in Los Angeles and, with Michaels, taped a mock broadcast of a portion of last season's Tennessee Titans-Buffalo Bills playoff game.
"It was way beyond what we expected," Michaels says. "I had no idea that he knew as much about football as he did. He made points that other analysts we brought in never made, and his points were more salient, more interesting and better stated. He was giving his riff, analyzing the plays and providing the humor. Amazing would not be an overstatement. Then I thought, Maybe he's shooting his wad here, and that's all we're going to get. But he kept going. Hell, it was almost perfect. Don and I looked at each other and said, 'Wow. Where did this come from?' "