When an ABC Sports executive wanted to spin off Monday Night Football into a Saturday morning animated series, Howard Cosell was said to be livid. “Do you know who you’re speaking to? I am the biggest name in show business today. And you want to make a cartoon character out of me?” The irony, of course, is by then that’s exactly what Howard Cosell was: a cartoon character. But after reading Mark Ribowsky’s withering new biography of the sportscasting legend, I can’t help but remember him in all three dimensions. Then again, I’m a child of the Seventies; when Cosell was a bigger pop icon than Justin Timberlake is today. Howard was everywhere: quizzing a glistening Mohammed Ali, enabling a young Joe Namath, lording over such heavyweight fare as Battle of the Network Stars. Yes, the man born Howard William Cohen (in Winston-Salem, no less!) enjoyed a most unlikely career, turning untold hubris and his loquacious nature into a ringside seat to the Twentieth Century.
At 436 pages, Ribowsky’s book seeks to cover much of Cosell’s rise and fall. Especially the fall. With a subject as repugnant as this, it’s understandable … but in so gleefully depicting every instance of Howard dancing on some enemy’s grave, the author commits a little schadenfreude of his own. Still, the book’s a ripping good read, if not, like the man at the center of it all, a bit long-winded. I guess that’s only fitting, like a custom-made toupee or a mustard yellow ABC Sports-jacket. That’s what I’ll remember about this American Original. That and the staccato barrage of his trademark nasal tone. Howard Cosell didn’t just love language. He molested it. And while that was enough to win my teenage admiration, I’ve grown to know enough gifted communicators to recognize a few as straight-up assholes. Howie certainly seemed to be that and so much more. But he forged new territory in television and brought the kind of gravitas and grit to sports commentary that Bryant Gumble is still trying to pull off. All while sucking the air out of every room and knocking back lots of vodka.
Hard to hate on that.