Remembering the superstar sportscaster born in the Triad 100 years ago
“Arrogant. Pompous. Obnoxious. Vain. Cruel. Persecuting. Distasteful. Verbose. A showoff. There’s no question that I am all of those things.” — Howard Cosell
One-hundred years ago, Howard Cosell, one of the most influential broadcast journalists of all time, was born on March 25, 1918, in Winston-Salem. Cosell was gruff, quick-witted, worked without a script, said whatever came to mind.
He spoke in extreme hyperbole and wouldn’t be throttled. Cosell was one of the most volatile and unpredictable television personalities of the 20th century.
Cosell brought gravitas to sports reporting, and his every segment was a big event. It was a skill he honed in the early-1960s as a field correspondent for ABC’s groundbreaking Saturday afternoon series Wide World of Sports, the first to televise competitions from around the globe. His relentlessly upbeat staccato vocal style could make a game of pool seem out of this world.
He was broadcasting ringside when underdog Cassius Clay won the World Heavyweight Championship in 1964. When Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Cosell was first to refer to him that way. Cosell was unwavering in his support even when much of the country turned on Ali after he refused on religious grounds to be drafted into the army.
Hate mail and death threats failed to sway Cosell. He kept Ali’s name and face before the American public, declaring the champion to be the “greatest of all time,” during the period Ali was banned from boxing.
“Ali and Cosell played off of each other so well, their interview segments were legendary,” said Andy Durham of www.GreensboroSports.com. “The gab and the jab, I guess, but it was great.”
In 1968, Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith held their fists in the black power salute during the medals ceremony. Afterward, they bypassed the braying press pool and went straight to Cosell.
As Smith recalled in a T.V. interview years later, “I don’t think he had the answers, but he understood the problem and asked questions that gave a young athlete like myself enough space to say what I felt.”
When Cosell asked Smith if he was proud to be an American he replied, “I’m proud to be a black American.” The nation had never seen anything like that on T.V.
Cosell was one of the three original play-by-play commentators on Monday Night Football. However, co-host Frank Gifford told the Television Academy Foundation in an interview that traditionalists in the 1970s were not fans. Gifford said that Cosell bore most of the criticism and it affected him.
“He turned like a snarling cat,” Gifford said in the interview. “He started taking on the media himself; he realized he had a bigger platform than they did.”
Only 9 months old when his family moved from Winston-Salem to Brooklyn, growing up poor may explain why Cosell was so driven and utterly disparaging of those he believed to be his inferiors.
“I don’t care any longer what they write about me,” he ranted about sports reporters in a 1974 documentary. “In general, they’re a disgrace to the journalism they pretend to be part of. You know, it was almost conspiratorial, it seemed to me, the way certain classes of sports writers came out of the woodwork to go after me. They’re a seedy lot, hangers-on, traveling with the clubs, living with the clubs, dugout mentality, no horizons.”
In the annals of sports, Cosell and Ali will be inexorably linked. If you think about it, their bond couldn’t have been more natural. Both men were revered and deeply hated, both set out on an unlikely path to becoming the greatest in their fields of endeavor. It was a genuine friendship that humanized two larger than life figures. The camera doesn’t lie.
Cosell died in 1995 but not before appearing on screen at a tribute to Ali and spoke tearfully.
“It’s hard to believe, all the years, everything that’s passed between us. It’s so hard to believe and so memorable. And now, it’s time to say to you Muhammad; God bless you. Happy birthday. And you know something? You are exactly who you said you are. You never wavered.”
The same could be said of the man who spoke those words.
Billy Ingram is the author of 5 books including Hamburger², (mostly) about Greensboro. He is working on a memoir of his time as one of the ‘New York Yankees of Motion Picture Advertising.’