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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