"Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am."
Howard Cosell was born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1918 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to Isadore and Nellie Cohen. His father, an accountant, moved the family to Brooklyn, where Cosell attended grammar school. In high school at Alexander Hamilton High School, Cosell excelled as a student and wrote for the school newspaper. As a Jewish boy in an age of anti-Semitism and Hitler, Cosell became very driven and, perhaps as retaliation against his detractors, grew to become an exceedingly confident man in public. This was in stark contrast to his private life - he maintained a friendly, quiet, loving demeanor among his family and close friends.
He studied English Literature at NYU, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. He also went to NYU to get his law degree, and passed the bar exam in 1941 when he was 23. During World War II, Cosell enlisted and became a major in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps. Cosell married Mary Edith Abrams in 1944 while he was still in the military. After the war, Cosell opened a law office in Manhattan, where some of his clients included actors and athletes. He also listed the Little League of New York as a client, a connection which would give him his start in broadcasting.
In 1953, Cosell was offered an ABC Saturday morning radio show featuring little leaguers asking major leaguers questions, which he did for 3 years without pay. In 1956, he accepted an ABC offer of 10 fifteen-minute weekend radio shows, for which received a paltry $25 each. He then was given a primetime sports show called "Sports Focus," which ran for 18 months.
"Get that nigger-loving Jew bastard off the air"
Cosell went on to ABC's Wide World of Sports, where he gained fame (or to some, became infamous) for his analysis of boxing matches and his unabashed support for eccentric characters like Joe Namath, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali. His rapport with Ali was legendary even at the time, and his support of Ali's choice to be a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War was almost as controversial as Ali's decision itself. Cosell's support of Ali riled people up so much that Cosell received numerous death threats.
"I really believe I'm the best [color man]"
When ABC gained the rights to air Monday Night Football starting in 1970, Cosell was chosen by ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge to host the show with former Dallas Cowboy "Dandy" Don Meredith and (now) college football broadcasting legend Keith Jackson. Oddly enough, when a member of the broadcast team won an Emmy after the show's first season, it wasn't Cosell but rookie broadcaster Don Meredith who won the award. This caused Cosell to remark,
I would say that Dandy Don Meredith's erratic march to the Emmy, the most treasured of all broadcast awards, has to be regarded as one of the great feats of modern times.
The very next season, Frank Gifford replaced Keith Jackson, and the classic Monday Night Football lineup was created. Cosell gave long-winded oral narratives while Meredith gave simple, folksy explanations. Gifford was often resigned to doing straight play-by-play while Cosell and Meredith went off on tangents about all manner of topics, or while Cosell, using his influence and connections, got interviews in the booth with famous athletes, politicians, and actors. The show was a ratings smash every week no matter what teams were playing, and it could be said with little doubt that the game wasn't what held the audience's attention. In the mid-1970s, a poll said that Howard Cosell was both the most popular sportscaster in the country - and the most hated.
"Telling it like it is"
Cosell drew the ire of many with his sports commentary. He was never afraid to let the public know what he thought of a topic, even if it would be a tough thing for them to swallow. He'd show his contempt for the worshipping of sports and the sportswriters he saw as encouraging it, the importance placed by colleges and fans on college athletics, and the patriotic displays preceding games. In a 1972 interview with Playboy, he said:
I think that every time they run up the flag and fly the airplanes and everything else, they should also hold an antiwar demonstration on the field. I don't buy any of it. I don't equate professional football, major-league baseball or any other sport in this country with motherhood, apple pie and patriotism.
Cosell continued on with a full plate of broadcasting sports and other events. In addition to Monday Night Football, Cosell covered the Olympics, did reports and features for Wide World of Sports, appeared on Dean Martin celebrity roasts, hosted Battle of the Network Stars (which you can catch on the Trio network if you're lucky - or, perhaps more accurately, unlucky), and did innumerable speaking events and fundraisers. Cosell had this to say in 1972 about his other interests:
I have a deep and abiding interest in politics that has never been fulfilled. I don't regret for a minute leaving my law practice, but would I like to be in the United States Senate? Yes, I would. Would I like to do something about the problems of the world and especially the problems of our great cities? Yes, I certainly would. Politics, incidentally, is not my only private passion. To take you from the significant to the absurd, I don't mind admitting that I like to act.
Before he gave that interview, he had had but a taste of acting, in Woody Allen's 1971 film Bananas and in a few tv shows in 1970. He had several more acting jobs after that, but he almost always played himself and had at best bit parts. One possible reason Cosell had trouble finding roles (aside from his un-telegenic looks) may have been the airing of ABC's abysmal Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell in 1975.
Cosell continued to broadcast sports frequently until the early '80s, despite having what was by 1972 a festering attitude of boredom, if not borderline disgust, at the sports he broadcast. Cosell quit broadcasting boxing matches in 1982 after witnessing a particularly brutal fight. The next year he quit broadcasting Monday Night Football, calling it a "bore" - although network politics and political correctness may also have contributed to his decision. In an October 1983 football game, Cosell said, "Look at that little monkey run," in reference to Washington Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett. However, he had not meant it as a racial term in regards to the African-American Garrett; rather, he often used the term "little monkey" to describe his own grandson. Not ready for complete retirement, Cosell hosted "Sportsbeat" on ABC from 1983-1985 and continued to do a short radio broadcast up to his retirement in 1992. Cosell suffered from cancer for three years until he succumbed to the disease on April 23, 1995 at the age of 77. His wife had died 5 years earlier,
Watching a Cosell broadcast is always bound to be interesting. Being a young person (as is this writer) who was unable to watch Cosell in the era of his prime, it may difficult to understand just how a sportscaster could have such impact and leave such a lasting impression. If you are lucky enough to receive ESPN Classic or happen to catch certain NFL retrospectives on other networks, you may be treated to a Cosell commentary. Just watching Cosell broadcast something as seemingly pointless as a Harlem Globetrotters game can be special. For example, in one Globetrotters game, Cosell left the courtside broadcasting table and confronted Meadowlark Lemon, a man almost two feet taller than Cosell, after exchanging some remarks. Lemon proceeded to lightly hit Cosell, causing him to retreat to the broadcast table, calling out "Get me Arledge! Get me Arledge!"