Lovers of NFL football are now able to tune in to a game on Sundays, Sunday nights, Monday nights, and Thursday nights. This is expanded to Saturdays during the post-season. Like all of our national passions we have gorged ourselves to the point of saturation. That was not always the case when it came to the NFL. Today’s young fans would find it hard to comprehend that, back in prehistoric times, you could only watch—or listen to—an NFL game on Sunday’s. Period. When the whistle blew on the last Sunday game it was a full week until the next kick-off. Monday Night Football changed all that. The history of Monday Night Football can be viewed as a microcosm of our national history over the past 47 years. What a ride it has given us over nearly half a century.
The Inception of Monday Night Football
Monday Night Football was primarily the brainchild of then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. Rozelle had been a strong advocate for placement of an NFL game at night, during the week, during prime time. ABC was the network selected for the weekly broadcast.
While it may have been Rozelle’s vision it was ABC’s Roone Arledge that turned that vision into a stunning reality. Those of us that have enjoyed almost five decades worth of Monday Night Football owe a real debt to the late Mr. Arledge.
The first Monday Night Football game—between the Browns and the Jets—occurred on September 1, 1970. The history of the NFL and the way in which we, the fans, consumed games was forever changed. There would be no going back to the staid NFL of previous years.
The History of Monday Night Football-Many Incarnations
Keith Jackson was selected as the first “play by play” man for the broadcasts. By 1971 Jackson had already established his bona fides as a great play by play voice within the college game. However, despite his greatness at calling the collegiate game it was quickly apparent that Jackson’s “folksy” style was not what ABC was looking for. They wanted more “pizazz”. They wanted to take the Monday Night broadcasts in a very different direction from the traditional Sunday approach. Decisions and selections would be made that would support that ambition, thereby setting the stage for greatness.
Gifford, Meredith, and Cosell-The Halcyon Days of Monday Night Football
The trio of Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and Howard Cosell came together in the booth for the 1971 season of Monday Night Football. One of the first—if not the first—three-man NFL broadcast teams. Their electric chemistry was immediately evident. It was clear from their first broadcast that Monday Night Football would be—in equal parts—game and spectacle. Over the next few years, Tuesday morning workplace water-cooler talk was often more about the broadcast fireworks than the games on the field. Entire new audiences were being drawn in.
Howard Cosell was the definition of polarizing. You either loved him or loved to hate him. Regardless of where you fell on that scale he was pure greatness in his role. Witty, acerbic, and often over-bearing Cosell set the tone for every broadcast. It is well known that Cosell was not adverse to enjoying a few cocktails during the broadcasts. He normally hid it well but there were a few occasions when his tipsiness was evident….like the night he set the booth on fire! One of his trademarks was his “halftime highlights” in which he ran down key plays and events from the previous Sunday’s games. It was always a “must see” element of the broadcast. Cosell also brought intellect to the mix.
“Dandy” Don Meredith was a cool cat and laid back hipster. The former Dallas Cowboy quarterback was the perfect foil for the uncool, bombastic, Cosell. Meredith had played the game for many years and he knew his stuff; yet his style was so laid back that you had the impression he had just stopped by the booth on his way to some hip night spot. Meredith was also known to imbibe before—and possibly during—the games. This only added to his relaxed attitude toward the action on the field. That attitude grated on Cosell and was the principle source of the dynamic that made their paring so compelling. They played off each other magnificently.
During the late stages of any non-competitive game Dandy Don would be prone to break out in song! His favorite….”Turn out the Lights”.
Frank Gifford was the calming influence of the trio. His job was to call the plays and to leave the entertainment component of the broadcast to Cosell and Meredith. He was the consummate professional, albeit a bit bland and very non-confrontational. Gifford was criticized over the years for being too reluctant to call out poor play on the field. However, his non-confrontational style was well suited for the three-man booth. Cosell and Meredith provided enough tension to keep the broadcast engaging. Any more would have likely been too much.
All Too Brief
The Gifford, Meredith, Cosell combination lasted through the 1973 season at which point Meredith left to pursue an acting career. Meredith returned to the booth in 1977 but it was clear that his heart was not in it. Cosell departed at the conclusion of the 1983 season. The magic of the original trio had run its course.
Later Incarnations of Monday Night Football
At the breakup of the Gifford, Meredith and Cosell team Monday Night Football veered towards a more traditional NFL broadcast. The games were great and ABC’s production values were outstanding, but the booth sizzle had been lost, never to be recaptured. Future booth teams included:
- Frank Gifford, Cosell, Fran Tarkenton
- Gifford, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath. That grouping was simply terrible.
- Gifford, Al Michaels, Dan Dierdorf
- Al Michaels, Dierdorf, Boomer Esiason
- Michaels, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller!
- Michaels, John Madden
Move to ESPN
The final ABC broadcast of Monday Night Football occurred on December 26, 2005. ABC had been bleeding money from Monday Night Football for the previous 20 years and there was no forecast that the situation would improve. The NFL had also announced that its “prime time” emphasis would be shifted to Sunday nights. These factors, among others, resulted in the termination of the long-standing relationship between ABC and the NFL. Monday Night Football was moved to ESPN. The Monday night games are now, more often than not, second-tier affairs. Some would claim that ESPN ruined Monday Night Football. The NFL has also had a strong hand in the decline of Monday Night Football and should, therefore, shoulder some of the blame.
History of Monday Night Football-A Full Trajectory
Monday Night Football has run a full course. It burned brightly during its first few years, transforming NFL football from mere sporting event to an addicting combination of sport and entertainment. It was must-see TV. That kind of brilliance is seldom sustained and Monday Night Football was no exception. But, for the next 30+ years ABC and Monday Night Football provided NFL lovers with games that were well-produced and well-broadcast. We were fortunate to have had it for as long as we did.