North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Posts Tagged ‘from the reject pile

How John Madden and Pat Summerall got together

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Here’s a short post from the pile of “Stuff I wrote/pitched elsewhere that was passed on.”


Back in 1981, CBS Sports was a mess. This was before they were broadcasting baseball, the Olympics or March Madness, the days when they had NFL football on Sunday, the Masters in the spring and NBA basketball sometime at night. And the on-air presentation wasn’t much better either: maybe you’ve seen some of these broadcasts, which look barebones even by 1980 standards: a few cameras, the bare minimum of on-screen information. And lots and lots of Brent Musberger, their star commentator and host.

That year, CBS Sports lured away a young producer from ABC Sports named Terry O’Neil. Starting as a researcher, O’Neil had worked his way up through ABC Sports and learned how to produce a sports telecast under the legendary Roone Arledge. When he jumped to CBS, he went from a network with Monday Night Football to one that aired a made-for-TV NFL Cheerleader competition. As he writes in his memoir, The Game Behind the Game, CBS was woefully out of touch.

“Their production people had not been introduced to the fundamental techniques of attracting and holding audience. They hadn’t developed personalities among CBS’s star athletes, didn’t heighten interest by reporting real news, didn’t preview their coming events with live cut-ins during a broadcast day.” (pg 82)

And more to the point, they were bleeding young talent: both Al Michaels and Bob Costas fled the network after being repeated passed over for promotion. But things were changing: shortly after they hired O’Neil, CBS landed college basketball, which remains one of their core properties. They renovated the way they presented games, overhauling graphics and the way on-air talent reported during and between events. But O’Neil’s biggest move was about to come.

At the time, CBS’s top broadcasting duo was Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier. The network had decided to break it up for the start of the 1981 season, but wasn’t sure who would go where or make up their new top team. Van Gordon Sauter started pushing for a new color guy, at the time working on regional broadcasts and best known for starring in Miller Lite ads: John Madden. But, as O’Neil relates it, Madden had a quality you couldn’t fake:

“Madden showed promise. At that point, he was not the funny, outrageous Madden America now reveres. He was not doing the ‘boom, bap, whap’ routine yet. But he had something honest, real. The quality was had to define, which made it all the more appealing.” (pg 92)

But the question of who would call the top-market games was still up in the air: Sauter was pushing for Vin Scully, O’Neil for Summerall. Each represented a different way of broadcasting: Scully was a talker, who could (and still does) illustrate a scene with words; Summerall was the opposite, the Raymond Carver of broadcasting, using five words where another would use 15.

“With football’s faster pace,” wrote O’Neil, “there was no time for word pictures and with recent advances in coverage, there was no need. Now add Madden, who had plenty to say and frequently used the full 30 seconds between plays to say it. The combination would be too much. The viewer, I told Sauter, would be wrung out by halftime.” (pg 93)

Eventually, CBS split the difference for 1981: each would partner with Madden for four games and by the end of week eight, CBS would make the final call. And they’d go with Summerall and Madden.

It wasn’t a universally loved combination. Joe LaPointe of Knight-Ridder wrote a column condemning the decision, calling Scully the victim of behind-the-scenes politics. Even if he wasn’t, Scully was biting mad and left CBS for NBC Sports seven months later, becoming their lead baseball voice. And by Super Bowl XVI, one of the most iconic broadcasting duos was set. They’d broadcast together for the next 20 seasons. O’Neil, after a messy spat with Musberger and CBS management was gone by 1987.

Written by M.

April 23, 2013 at 9:00 am

There’ll never be another like Al Davis

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The Raiders press release called Al Davis a maverick. If there ever was an understatement, this was it. Davis was a maverick of the old school, from when the word wasn’t a political cliché or a fighter pilot. He was unpredictable, cunning and a hell of a lot of fun to have around.

Al Davis was a lot of things, including a progressive. He hired the first black coach in the modern era, the first Hispanic coach and quarterback and hired the NFL’s first woman CEO. He gave many of his players a chance to play pro football when nobody else would – just think of how many people he picked up off the scrap heap.

He was a champion of the rights of owners, challenging the NFL’s monopoly and asserting the right to move his team as he saw fit. He was the person whom so many clichés originally described: a maverick that did things his own way and just won, baby.

There are less fun details. He shuttled his team up and down the California coast, twice leaving behind a vibrant community of fans. He gave off the sense of a paranoiac, especially in dealings with coaches and the media. And he was a constant thorn in the side of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle; one biography of Rozelle all but blames Davis for the commissioner’s health problems and early retirement.

Everybody sees the Raiders are Davis’ team. But his contributions to pro football far outweigh just one team. As commissioner of the AFL, Davis led a drive to sign away NFL talent, a move that all but pushed the competing leagues together and ushered in the modern era of pro football.

But by 1970, when the two leagues merged, Davis had long since returned to the Raiders as part owner and head of football operations. The teams he built in that decade are some of the NFL’s most infamous and talented, with players like John Matuszak, Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff. In the golden years of the Raiders, they were good on the field and wild off of it.

When Stabler’s biography details on training camp with the Raiders, it reads like a Hunter Thompson story: all-day practices and all-night parties, fuelled by pills and booze (Matuszak was partial to Crown Royal and Quaaludes). Indeed, Hunter Thompson once described the Raiders as the flakiest team in pro football and compared Davis to Sonny Barger.

In his seminal book on football, Paul Zimmerman was more blunt: he called Davis a “master spy, master trader wheeler-dealer and rogue.” He detailed the tricks Davis used to pull: changing visiting team’s practice spots at the last minute, have his grounds crew unroll tarps while the visiting team is still practicing and the time he snuck workers into Shea Stadium on the eve of an AFL championship game to build an illegal heating tent on the Raiders bench. Davis cultivated an aura of pushing things to their breaking point, doing everything he could to give his team the advantage.

Every obituary on Davis makes one point crystal clear: Davis personified the Raiders like no other owner, coach or manager ever has or will. The Raiders were his baby, right from the get-go. Everything, from team colours to management went through Davis. As the recent years have shown, he was a control freak. He’d fire coaches with little warning and even less pretext, once burning through three in five years. When the move to Los Angeles gave the Raiders ownership of luxury suites, the Raiders started charging rent to the stadium’s other users.

And culturally, it’s hard to think of another football team that mattered more than the Raiders. When asked why NWA wore Raiders colours, Ice Cube said “it’s a thing where you looked right, it felt right.”

One is tempted to define him on the above, with a glance to his long-term successes: the Raiders once went from 1968 through 1978 without a losing season. They won three Super Bowls with Davis around and went to another in the 2002 season. Doing this misses the point.

I didn’t know Davis, but it’s pretty easy to say he was complex man. A story that paints him as a colorful rogue (“His clothes seemed to matter more than half the players he ever drafted”) looks past how he helped former players. Another that suggests maybe he overdid it (he “often pushed the boundaries of what some people thought was acceptable”), never mentions how often he won when challenging the NFL.

It’s foolish to think about Davis and the Raiders without addressing everything the man did for pro football. What he did with the team almost never happens in culture, especially in so short a time. The Raiders almost exist outside of pro football. Their black and silver are iconic, representing not just a team, but also an attitude.

It cannot be said enough: no owner will ever mean as much and make the same impact on professional sports as Davis did with the Raiders. And that’s a shame.

Written by M.

October 9, 2011 at 12:34 pm