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Miscellany

An Interview with NBC's Al Michaels

Next week, NBC’s Al Michaels will call Super Bowl 43 between the Steelers and the Cardinals. This week, he spoke to us. Catchphrases, the mysteries of the Monday Night Football booth, Joe Buck, gambling and the NFL … it’s all here. And even some random topics, like booze, vegetables, and of course, a college football playoff.

Q: For announcers today – or anyone in the sports television field, really – witty catchphrases are a staple. You’ve gone nearly 30 years without one. What’s your take on catchphrases? Is there a reason why you don’t have one?

Probably more than anything, I’ve never found one that would be applicable in all situations. Also, while I was growing up and then breaking into the business, my favorite announcers were Curt Gowdy, Jim McKay and Vin Scully, and none of those broadcasting icons were tied to a single catchphrase. It’s true that Jim will be forever linked to “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” (a line he wrote himself, by the way) but that was the signature open to “Wide World of Sports,” and not something Jim used more than only occasionally when on assignment. Another thing I always thought would be uncomfortable would be to have a catchphrase and then feel subconsciously obligated to use it. I’ve always preferred to let a moment play out and then trust myself to come up with a hopefully unique or singular description. Then again, if my friend Keith Jackson would ever relinquish the rights to “Whoa, Nellie,” this might have to be re-thought.

Q: Since you’re one of the few announcers who has called games at the highest level of all the major sports, can you compare and contrast what its like working on the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, World Series, and the Stanley Cup? Which is the most difficult? Of those four, which were you most comfortable with?Which is the most challenging to prepare for?

The Super Bowl is the most unique because it is one game played in a three to three-and-a-half hour window. You start, you finish and you go home. The World Series, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup Finals are just getting warmed up after Game One. I have always viewed those as a four to seven-chapter book. In a series, there’s plenty of time for story-building. In the Super Bowl, most of the stories have been told to an almost ad nauseam degree in the week or two prior to the game and you have to be acutely aware of what your audience doesn’t want to hear even a single additional word about. I can’t compare these events in terms of difficulty. I do know, though, that a dramatic ending in a Super Bowl or a Game Seven that goes down to the end in is as great as it gets in this business.

Q: The MNF booth has been an interesting cauldron for decades, dating back to you and Boomer Esiason not getting along, and then Tony Kornheiser and Joe Theismann famously feuding. Why has the MNF booth always been so scrutinized? How would you assess the positives and negatives of Kornheiser’s time in the booth? And did you think Dennis Miller’s duration in the booth was as bad as most critics thought?

“Monday Night Football’ is the most fabled show in the history of sports television and that’s why the spotlight has always been intense. I was a part of the show for 20 years and if there’s a synonym for “fantastic times ten,” that’s how I’d describe the experience. My first season, 1986, I did the play-by-play and Frank Gifford was the analyst. In 1987, Dan Dierdorf joined us and we danced the dance for the next eleven years. When eleven years go by in about 15 minutes, you know you’re having a helluva time. I loved every minute and I don’t want to put words in the mouths of Frank and Dan but I’m confident they’d put it basically the same way.

Frank left in 1998 and Boomer Esiason joined Dan and me in ’98 and then Boomer and I worked in a two-man booth in 1999. When Boomer was replaced after the 1999 season by Dan Fouts and Dennis Miller, it was accompanied by a volley of critical comments aimed at me, as well as Michael Eisner and Bob Iger, who were the top guns at Disney. I did what I could to stay out of a dissing contest. I understood Boomer’s anger (who the hell wants to get fired, especially from Monday Night Football), but I was upset by his contention that, on the air, I didn’t set him up properly or had my own agenda for the show. I’ve worked with approximately 100 partners in roughly 20 sports through the years and when you find another one who tells you I cared about anything but making every telecast I’ve been a part of the best overall production it can be, call me collect. Maybe you can’t bat a thousand but I’m happy hitting .990.

For the record, it was Don Ohlmeyer, a television legend, who fired Boomer. Don (who had been with the show in its formative years before going on to a spectacular run at NBC), came back to produce MNF in 2000. Don is an innovator and wanted to try something totally “out of the box.” Enter Dennis Miller. Dan Fouts joined the show as the “conventional” analyst. We had a blast for two seasons. Of course, Dennis was a lightning rod and created a tremendous amount of buzz. But that was part of the appeal for Don. On balance, we tried something that had never been attempted before and it was energizing for everyone on the crew. The shelf life was two years because in 2002, John Madden became available. In simple terms, when someone who’s represented the gold standard in any endeavor becomes available, you don’t pass up the opportunity, And ABC didn’t. And before I end this little history lesson, let me digress for a second. I don’t want Dan Fouts to get lost in this narrative shuffle. Dan Fouts is a major mensch, a Hall of Fame player and a Hall of Fame man. He’ll always be in my Fave Five. A team player with a capital ‘T.’

Q: Kornheiser has been one of the biggest announcing pinatas over the last few years, right up there with Dick Vitale, BIlly Packer, and Tim McCarver. The latest name to vault to the top is FOX’s Joe Buck. What’s your take on the internet beatings he’s taken?

When you’re broadcasting a game to millions of viewers, there’s no such thing as universal love. Criticism comes with the territory. Often, just reciting a statistic that points out some level of futility
for a viewer’s favorite team or player, is taken as a ‘rip.’ I mentioned Curt Gowdy and in the days of ‘snail mail,’ he used to joke that one critical letter about an announcer to a network was a ‘groundswell,’ two letters were a ‘barrage’ and three were a ‘deluge.’ Now, of course, because of technology and the internet, you can multiply this by hundreds or thousands. Some viewers listen with their hearts and not their ears, some want to slay the messenger and some detest all announcers, period. It’s just part of the deal. In Tony’s case, he’s filling a role occupied by the most criticized sports broadcaster in history, Howard Cosell. Tony’s there to offer opinions. That role is a verbal op-ed page and is, by its very nature, polarizing. And when it comes to just about everyone else in the business who has had a long run, occasionally familiarity breeds contempt. You don’t have 15 or 20 or 30-year runs in this game unless you have the goods to begin with.

If your team is trailing by 14 and the announcers bring up something that, in the listener’s mind, disparages the team, then it’s kind of a slay the messenger kind of thing. Joe Buck does a lot of big events and at a certain point – no matter what the skill of the broadcaster – people might think that they need a rest. I’m kind of unaware of what’s out there as far as [Joe and Troy Aikman] are concerned. I think they’re great professionals, and I enjoy listening to them.

Q: Almost nobody walks away from ESPN, which, globally, has grown larger than the NFL, NBA and MLB combined. Was this a difficult decision for you, knowing where ESPN was, and where it was heading?

It wasn’t a matter of walking away from ESPN. I was very lucky. I was given the opportunity to either stay with Monday Night Football or to do Sunday Night football on NBC.

In the summer of 2005, NBC came after me, and we couldn’t make a deal. I had a deadline, and because of the deadline, I choose to do Monday Night Football at ESPN. As the season evolved, ESPN had its ideas about what they wanted to do with Monday Night.

In the meantime, my producer and director and John Madden were all going over to NBC. As we reached the end of that season, I just felt it was a better fit for me at NBC. I went to the powers that be at Disney, told them my feelings, and they were good enough to release me. This was just a matter of the people I had done the games with for so long were all going to NBC.

Q: Did ESPN not offer to retain the rest of your team?

As I recall, when ESPN got the rights to MNF, the feeling was that they wanted mainly ESPN people to do Monday Night. The folks making decisions were more comfortable, certainly in the production area, with the people that had been doing games at ESPN and not at ABC, even though they were under the same corporate umbrella. If I had stayed, it would have been me and Joe Theismann in the booth with Michelle Tafoya and Suzy Kolber doing the sideline reporting.

Q: How many times a week/month/year does someone shout “Do you believe in miracles?” when they see you? Assuming you’ve been hearing it for 28 years, when did it get annoying? How long did it take after the game for the historical perspective to set in?

When did it get annoying? Never. I’m lucky it’s a calling card. I’ll see a lot of fathers with their kids, and you can tell the father has transmitted the story to the kid, and the kid gets excited about it. Obviously they didn’t see it, but they’ve probably seen the tape, or the documentary, or the movie, or they read about it. I couldn’t have been luckier to walk into what Sports Illustrated called the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

For me, the greatest thing about it is that I see the joy it has brought so many people … just to hear it about. People just love to hear stories like that. To see them, hear them … it just makes you feel better. There was a great line in Sports Illustrated about the win, and I’m paraphrasing here, but it went something like, “It made you want to hug your TV set.” That’s the way the country felt at that point.

If you were to say to me, envision a scenario which would top this, I couldn’t. What do you come up with? You can’t. It’s a different world right now, the Olympics will never be the same, and I don’t think we’ll have an arch enemy such as the Soviet Union was in 1980. You can’t go out and play a game against Al-Queda. Right?

Q: Do you think you it’s a good idea for announcers to try and script a final quote – say, jotting some 1-liners while the final drive is happening, preparing something memorable during a final timeout or pitching change – or to let it just happen organically? We enjoyed your call on the Darren Sproles TD on the final drive against the Colts in the playoffs – it was short, sweet, and then the crowd noise was all viewers heard for the next 70 seconds. Is it tough to gauge when to begin speaking again after a great moment? Are producers in your ear telling you to wait a certain amount of time?

If you script something it sounds like you scripted it. We’re in a business that is about spontaneity, and doing things on the fly. Anybody who does this for a living will tell you that the spontaneity is the thrill of the business. The unexpected. I think what you have to do is trust your instincts, and trust that you’ll be able to come up with the right words, even though they may not be words that will live in perpetuity.

If you think of something to say, it’s going to sound false, unless you get really lucky. But you don’t want to take that chance. When Mark McGwire was chasing the Roger Maris record in 1998, a couple of guys who do baseball games called me, because they thought they might wind up in St. Louis and do that game. I talked to a couple of these guys, and they asked me ‘what do you think I should be thinking about? What do you think I should say?’ I said, number one: You have no idea what the 62nd home run will look like. Will it be a mammoth bomb into the upper deck? Opposite field fly ball that just climbs over the fence? Something down the line that may be fair or foul and results in controversy? Not that McGwire could hit an inside-the-park home run, but let’s just say the outfielder hit his head on the wall and fell unconscious. I said, ‘you cannot sit here right now and tell me what McGwire’s home run will look like. Just go with it. See what it looks like, and trust yourself.’

A lot of times when you try to script something, it might be very disconcerting – people will see one thing, and then if you hear something that doesn’t apply to the picture, people will say, ‘what?’ I’d rather have something relatively mundane come out than have somebody say, ‘what the hell’s he talking about?’

Q: On Real Sports, you had a great take on gambling and the NFL: “If a law were sponsored to outlaw gambling on the NFL, would the NFL endorse it? No way.” If the NBA or MLB wanted to try and cut into the NFL’s popularity, wouldn’t gambling regulation be a logical step? Other than you and Brent Musburger, everyone else seems to either not pay attention to the lines for games, or chooses not to say anything. Is it the broadcaster taboo, outside of cursing?

The bottom line is it’s good to have a little rascal in you. And I’ve always had a little rascal in me. Years ago, when I was doing college football, I was aware of what the spreads were. And you’re right, Brent talks about the spreads … overtly. But this is not a moral issue. When I do what I do, and do a backdoor, ‘hey, I know what the line is, I know what the over/under is,’ it’s fun. It really doesn’t mean anything.

What I’m saying is, ‘I know, you know, I know, you know.” I’m with you. I hear you know. I know that a lot of you have a vested interest in this. It takes two or three seconds. I’ve been doing that for almost my entire career. It’s just having a little bit of fun. When people perceive something is taboo, and you work the edges of it, they like that. It’s fun

The NFL is very sensitive to this, and they should be. What happened with the NBA was terrible, but they’ve overcome it. But here’s the great thing about sports – nobody knows. Nobody knows. I have this incredible access – I know both teams, I know players on both sides, I know front offices, I study it, I’m working with John Madden, we have a crew, and we know more than 99.9 percent of the country knows.

And if you were to say to me, ‘you have to make a living betting on football,’ there’s no way I could do it. I’m no better than a guy throwing a dart at a board. There are too many variables. A challenge gets overturned, or somebody scores a garbage time touchdown, crazy stuff like the San Diego-Pittsburgh game … I get a kick out of listening to guys on the radio on a Saturday touting their picks, and I think, ‘what in the hell could they possibly know, that I don’t know?’ Even if they know it, are you going to say, a guy’s going to fumble on the 1-yard line? Somebody’s going to run a kick back? It’s crazy. It’s fun to bet a few bucks on the game, but nobody really knows. That’s the beauty of sports.

Q: Why don’t we have a college football playoff? We need one, right? Please tell me you are endorsing one.

You mean like Obama, right? I would like to see it because it does need a definitive ending. You know what? No matter what happens, there are still going to be a bunch of arguments. How many games can you ask these guys to play to determine a champion. If you have an 8-team tournament, the 9th team is going to say, “Wait a minute! We should be in there, too!” You’re always going to have an argument. You’re always going to have controversy.

QUICK HITTERS
At a bar with friends, you’re ordering ___ to drink. I’m ordering either a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks or a very recent discovery, Fat Tire beer. Then again, if someone else is picking up the tab … Johnnie Walker Blue.

You are not a fan of vegetables. But if you must have two on your plate, they are … I have never eaten a vegetable in my life and you can put that on my tombstone. Ask John Madden about the night I ordered French Onion soup in Green Bay and asked them to hold the onions. They got it right — just the broth, cheese and crouton. Delicious. If you threatened me at gunpoint and insisted I have two on my plate, one would look like a big, juicy Porterhouse and the other would look eerily
similar to lemon meringue pie.

If you’re not watching sports, some of your favorite TV shows include _____. No one in history has watched CNBC more than yours truly. Squawk Box, Closing Bell, you name it, I’m
there. All I can tell you is that I feel Maria Bartiromo, Mark Haynes, Joe Kernan, Michele Caruso-Cabrera and the whole CNBC gang are part of my extended family. Of course, it’s easy to connect the dots — I DO have the trading gene. I watch a lot of news programming across the spectrum. And The Weather
Channel, a habit I can’t explain but I know there are a few million other maniacs across this great land who need their TWC fix, as well.

Your favorite athletes of all-time in MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL.
Baseball – Pete Rose. I announced the Reds from ’71 through ’73 and watched Pete play close to 500 games. All out, all the time whether it was spring training or the World Series. His dedication and work ethic were over the moon. The rest of the Pete Rose saga is just sad. Very sad.

NFL – Jerry Rice. When you know you’re watching the greatest to ever do what he does and there’s no argument, you just want to sit back and savor it. Name your cliche — poetry in motion, artist at work, worth the price of admission alone – everything fits.

NBA – Kobe Bryant. I never got to cover Michael Jordan or this choice might have been altered. Living in L.A., I get to see alot of Bryant and he’s the kind of player that just takes your breath away dozens of times a season.

NHL – Wayne Gretzky. I only got to cover him a handful of times but as a longtime L.A. Kings’ season ticket-holder (yeah, I know I’m sick), I remember one thing. When Wayne was on the ice, there may have been 11 other players out there with him but your eyes were riveted on number 99. Simply magical.

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