A couple of years ago when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle thought up the idea of playing a game every Monday night during the season and selling it to TV, a great many people crowded around to tell him the only bigger fool would be the man who bought it. That was the opening for Roone Arledge, president of ABC sports. A number of ABC executives agreed with much of the press that Monday night pro football on TV would be the Edsel of their trade. But ABC, the third and generally lesser network, did not have all that much to lose. ABC's Monday nights were such that sometimes they had the feeling nobody was home out there.
"I sold it to ABC by showing them what would happen if we didn't do it," says Arledge. "If CBS, NBC or some independent network picked up pro football, ABC just wouldn't have any Monday nights left. At least 100 stations would have dropped us. TV has kind of lost the impact it used to have on the better-educated segment of the public. I thought our Monday night pro football would bring back some of that impact, would become an event people planned their nights around. It's true. Theaters and restaurants lose business on Monday nights because people are watching our football games. We've turned Monday nights around for ABC. CBS and NBC have tried to put pressure on Pete Rozelle to drop our package, but our show has been sold out ever since it started, and we now have about 30 million viewers."
The first person Arledge hired for Monday night football was Cosell, an intelligent, articulate, abrasive 51-year-old lawyer who is quite literally hated by hordes of Americans who consider him a friend of and apologist for former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, which Howard is. Cosell can no more keep his mouth shut than a porcupine can sing opera, and he has plenty of things to say that a lot of people do not want to hear. But one undeniable fact about Howard is that you can't help but notice his presence. Arledge wanted that quality.
"Our Monday night commentators had to be so strong that people would be interested regardless of the game or the score," says Arledge. " Rozelle reportedly has approval rights on announcers with CBS and NBC, not with us. I hired Howard to let people know I'm tired of football being treated like a religion. The games aren't played in Westminster Abbey. It's just a bunch of guys hitting each other." Arledge then asked his friend Gifford—who was at that time under contract to CBS—to recommend someone with a humorous, contemporary touch to counteract some of Cosell's heavy speeches. Gifford said the only person who could handle the job was Don Meredith, who a year earlier had suddenly resigned as quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. Arledge had never met Meredith but hired him after their first lunch together.
The third member of the team last year was Keith Jackson, a smooth and highly competent play-by-play announcer from Los Angeles. "Keith is accurate, quick and has a golden voice, and he's not a big star. Stars don't like it if they can't control everything, and we didn't think we needed any more stars in the booth," Arledge says.
The experience of becoming a TV star surprised Meredith. As an All-America quarterback for SMU and as a professional who played in two championship games, the 33-year-old Meredith was accustomed to celebrity, but he had still been able to walk through an airport in Chicago or Pomona without being recognized. TV changed all that. Everywhere he goes now, people want to shake his hand and commiserate with him about having to share the booth with Cosell. Meredith's big night last year was during the game in which St. Louis beat Dallas in a major wipe-out, and Meredith seemed to be suffering for his ex-teammates even as he was speaking very critically of them. The truth is Meredith is far from distraught when Dallas loses without him, but most people elect not to believe such things about athletes, and the sympathetic mail flowed in. After the season Meredith went on an appearance tour of 47 banquets, mostly in the South, Southwest and Middle America, where his folksy behavior seems to have the most appeal.
"At every banquet," Meredith said, walking toward the Ponchartrain elevators, with Gifford a few steps behind and Cosell marching in the lead, clearing the hallway with his voice, "people would ask me how I could stand to work with that Yankee smart aleck who defends that draft dodger. If I felt like answering that kind of question, I would tell them Howard is one of the most intelligent men I ever knew. He's opinionated, and I don't always agree with him, but I admire and respect him. I love Howard. He took them all on at their own game and made them play it his way."
As he was talking, Meredith suddenly walked into a suite that had a tag on the door saying it was the hospitality room for a bankers' convention.
"Hidy, folks, hidy, my name is Harley Smydlapp, president of the Citizens' National Bank of Dime Box, Texas, and I'd like for you all to meet my staff," he said.
Several of the bankers and their wives eyed Meredith's bare ankles and cowboy hat suspiciously for a moment, and then they began grinning and nudging each other.