Howard Cosell life and biography

Howard Cosell picture, image, poster

Howard Cosell biography

Date of birth : 1920-03-25
Date of death : 1995-04-23
Birthplace : Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-09-06
Credited as : Television sportscaster, host of "Monday Night Football", Emmy Award (posthumous) for lifetime achievement 1996

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Despite obvious drawbacks--a nasal Brooklyn accent, an obvious toupé, and a propensity for prolix pronouncements--American sportscaster Howard Cosell changed the face--and voice--of sports broadcasting forever, replacing bland, sycophantic, sanitized commentary with hard-nosed observations and often-unpopular stands on principle. "History will reflect that Howard Cosell was easily the dominant sportscaster of all time," wrote colleague Al Michaels in the foreword to Cosell's book What's Wrong with Sports, "and certainly the most famous." Cosell was "a broadcasting pioneer who changed the way people listen to and watch sports," recalled ABC radio sports director Shelby Whitfield in People magazine. In his book I Never Played the Game, Cosell summed himself up in his typically self-aggrandizing style: "I'm one helluva communicator."

Born Howard William Cohen on March 25, 1920, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Cosell was the son of Isidore and Nellie Cohen. "For the record," Cosell noted in Cosell, "Cosell--once spelled with a K--is the family name. . . . As a Polish refugee, my grandfather had been unable to make his name clear to a harried immigration inspector. The official simply compromised on Cohen and waved him through."

Isidore Cohen, an accountant for a clothing company, moved his family to Brooklyn shortly before Howard turned three. He aspired to a middle-class existence, but, like millions of others, struggled--often unsuccessfully--to provide for his family when the Depression hit and jobs dried up. "I remember the electricity being turned off in our house for nonpayment of rent and my dad fighting with the janitor to try and get it turned back on," Cosell recalled. Always on the ragged outer edges of prosperity, Cohen wanted the security of a profession for his son.

Entered Law Profession to Honor Family Request

Howard's intelligence was apparent early on, his mother claiming that he started talking at age nine months. An excellent student, he attended Brooklyn public schools, including P.S. 9 and Alexander Hamilton High School, where he wrote a sports column for the school newspaper called "Speaking of Sports"--he later gave the same title to his radio program. He went on to New York University, where he earned a degree in English literature and a membership in Phi Beta Kappa. Bowing to his parents wishes, he then earned a law degree at the same university, editing NYU's law review and passing the bar exam at age twenty-one. "I'd never really wanted to become a lawyer," he told Playboy interviewer Lawrence Linderman. "I guess the only reason I went through with it was because my father worked so hard to have a son who'd be a professional."

Before he could settle into a practice, however, World War II intervened and Cosell enlisted in the U.S. Army. Following a pattern he would often repeat, he began as a private and left four and a half years later as a major. After his discharge, Cosell tried to forgo the legal future his parents had ordained for him by auditioning as a radio announcer at WOR. The station flatly rejected him, saying his nasal Brooklyn-inflected voice made him completely unsuitable for radio.

Cosell returned to the law in 1946, opening an office in Manhattan. His practice included many sports and entertainment figures, among them Willie Mays, and it came about that he was asked to oversee the incorporation of Little League Baseball in New York. This brought Cosell to the attention of ABC Radio, which asked him to host a fifteen-minute Saturday-morning show in which Little Leaguers interviewed sports pros. Cosell took the ball and ran with it, getting far more than the network had expected--in one episode New York Yankee baseball player Hank Bauer aired his beefs with team manager Casey Stengel. Nearly 20 years later Cosell was still chuckling about it, telling Linderman: "We made news with that show!"

ABC then signed Cosell to do ten five-minute weekend sports broadcasts, paying him the below-scale sum of $250 a week for the privilege. Lugging a 30-pound tape recorder on his back, Cosell took every interview he could get. As he recalled in Cosell, "There was nothing being done in depth, a total absence of commentary and little in the way of actuality." He wanted to change the status quo: "I was infected with my desire, my resolve, to make it in broadcasting. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and how." Determined to succeed, Cosell quit his $30,000-a-year law practice.

Out on a Limb for Broadcast Excellence

In 1961 Cosell began his daily Speaking of Sports broadcasts for ABC News, a radio staple that ran until 1992. Each show began with Cosell's familiar staccato delivery, which Dave Kindred of the Sporting News described as "to voices what the Grand Canyon is to ditches. . . . 'HELLO AGAIN, EVERYBODY, THIS IS HOWARD COSELL SPEAKING OF SPORTS.'" Cosell's penchant for polysyllabism prompted Kindred to quote sportswriter Jim Murray, who said Cosell "has the vocabulary of an Oxford don and the delivery of a Dead End kid." Cosell always closed with another of his famous tag lines: "This is Howard Cosell telling it like it is."

Cosell was determined to get into television as well as radio. His less-than-glamorous looks and grating voice, however, made ABC executives equally determined to keep him off the air. Undeterred, he formed a production company and filmed a well-received documentary titled Babe Ruth: A Look behind the Legend. His followup effort was Run to Daylight, a look at Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers that Linderman called "still the most highly acclaimed TV sports documentary ever made." Unable to ignore Cosell's talent, ABC began to include him on their popular Wide World of Sports broadcasts.

In 1962 Cosell met the great boxer Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, and began to cover Ali's fights. Thus began a series of interviews and dialogs that brought both fighter and sportscaster into the national limelight for the first time. Dick Heller noted in the Washington Times that Cosell "discovered Muhammad Ali and vice versa--a marriage surely made in athletic heaven." The two developed an enduring friendship, despite the mock arguments that permeated their on-air banter. Their relationship was firmly cemented when Cosell openly supported Ali's name change and entry into the Nation of Islam. Cosell was "angry and finally furious" at those who opposed Ali's decision: "they wanted . . . another Joe Louis," he wrote in Cosell. "A white man's black man. . . . Didn't these idiots realize that Cassius Clay was the name of a slave owner? . . . Had I been black and my name Cassius Clay, I damned well would have changed it!"

Cosell also voiced his disapproval in 1967 when Ali was stripped of his title and convicted of evading the draft after declaring himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. (Ali's conviction was later overturned on procedural grounds by the U.S. Supreme Court.) As Tom Callahan noted in Time magazine, "Cosell knew that Muslim Ali stood on firm legal ground in conscientiously objecting to the draft. But he also felt Ali was right." Cosell was equally vociferous in his support for John Carlos and Tommie Smith when they silently supported the Black Power movement with upraised fists on the medals dais at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

Joined Monday Night Football Lineup

Monday Night Football was the brainchild of National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle and Roone Arledge, Cosell's mentor at ABC. Its debut, on September 21, 1970, featured veteran commentator Keith Jackson, former Dallas Cowboy "Dandy" Don Meredith, and Cosell. Unfortunately, Cosell's open support for Ali unleashed a firestorm of criticism directed at both ABC and Cosell himself. Others were skeptical that anyone who had never played the game could cover it adequately. And there were plenty who raged at his trademark delivery--"the tone of someone describing battles in World War II," claimed Ralph Novak in People--and his pompous verbosity and biting commentary.

Stung but undaunted, Cosell continued to persevere, and by the time Monday Night Football covered the Packers at San Diego, Cosell's popularity began to rebound. His knowledge of the Packers, accumulated during the Lombardi documentary, was impressive, and viewers voted with their television sets: the program began to earn sky-high ratings, much of it due to Cosell. As Cosell quoted the Encyclopedia Britannica 1973 yearbook in his book Cosell: "sportscaster Howard Cosell made pro football addicts of more than 25 million viewers on Monday nights"--despite having "a voice that had all the resonance of a clogged Dristan bottle."

During the 1970s Cosell became a national icon, one survey showing that 96 percent of those questioned recognized his name. Some people loved him, others just loved to hate him. A TV Guide poll of viewers in 1978 named him both the most- and least-liked sportscaster on the air. His trademark style was instantly recognizable and often parodied. He played himself in numerous film and television appearances, including a role in Woody Allen's 1971 film Bananas and a turn as host on Saturday Night Live.

Cosell's hard-edged criticism of certain athletes was well known, but his views on the corporate organizations running professional sports were equally harsh. In I Never Played the Game he accuses baseball's "carpetbagging owners" of taking established teams like the Dodgers and Braves to new cities and lashes out at the sport's iron grip on its players. Cosell also publically applauded Curt Flood's attempt to strike down baseball's reserve clause as a violation of antitrust laws and even testified before Congress in favor of free agency. (The reserve clause was effectively abolished in 1975.) Despite these stands against team owners, so powerful was Cosell's draw that ABC assigned him to Monday Night Baseball as a sportscaster.

Sports Arena Reflected Increased Social, Political Conflicts

Sports and history had a gruesome collision in the summer of 1972 when Palestinian terrorists hijacked the Munich Olympics and murdered eleven Israeli athletes. The tragedy had a searing impact on Cosell. As he recalled in Cosell, it was "the most trying and dramatic . . . [time] of my life. . . . I had never felt so intensely Jewish." Although his grandfather had been a rabbi, the family was not religious; Cosell had not even been bar mitzvahed. The Munich massacre, however, led him to a deeper recognition and appreciation of his Jewish heritage, one outgrowth of which was the Cosell Center for Physical Education at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In September 1983 Cosell started another firestorm after innocently commenting on a play by Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett. As he recalled in I Never Played the Game, he remarked, "That little monkey gets loose, doesn't he?" after a particularly good run by Garrett, who is black. Despite Cosell's sterling record on racial and civil-rights issues, and his insistence that the remark was not only laudatory but one he used affectionately with his own grandchildren, many were quick to denounce him. Cosell refused to apologize and defended himself against the charge of racism. Despite support from celebrities like Bill Cosby and Willie Mays, furor continued to rage around him. The incident eventually faded, but Cosell was disgusted. He left Monday Night Football two months later, at the end of the season. Nor was he surprised when the show's ratings fell during the 1984 season: "Without me," he claimed in I Never Played the Game, "the nature of the telecasts was entirely altered. I had commanded attention. I had a palpable impact on the show, giving it a sense of moment. . . . If that sounds like ego, what can I say? I'm telling it like it is."

A year earlier Cosell had turned his back on professional boxing as well. "For almost a quarter of a century, I was ABC's boxing specialist," Cosell explained, going on to add that: "Boxing gave me my first glimpse of media stardom, and I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that I was gripped by a spellbinding attraction to the sport." He had known for years that "corruption was all around" boxing and its promoters, and he had tried hard to "expose the dirty underbelly of the sport." The Holmes-Cobb fight on November 26, 1982--a lopsided match-up designed to ensure a Holmes victory--was Cosell's breaking point. The fight, he wrote, was "an unholy mess" and "a bloodbath." Holmes landed twenty-six unanswered blows and inflicted merciless punishment on Cobb, yet the fight was not stopped. Cosell declared then and there that he would never cover another professional boxing match.

During his long career, Cosell wrote four books: Cosell, 1973; Like It Is, 1974; I Never Played the Game, 1985; and What's Wrong with Sports, 1991. Like his sports broadcasts, each is filled with unvarnished appraisals of players, teams, and other broadcasters. His third book, in particular, written after he left ABC, contains harsh, even savage, assessments of colleagues such as Roone Arledge, his mentor at ABC, and Monday Night Football alums Frank Gifford and Don Meredith. Ralph Novak, in a review of the book for People, called I Never Played the Game "full of paranoia, condescension and hypocrisy."

When Cosell's beloved wife Emmy died in 1990 after 46 years of marriage, much of the fire seemed to go out of him. He had a cancerous tumor removed from his chest the following year but continued to do his daily radio broadcasts until 1992. Inducted into the American Sportscasters Hall of Fame in 1993, Cosell died of a heart embolism on April 23, 1995, at New York University's Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York City; he was awarded a posthumous Emmy for lifetime achievement the following year.

So powerful was Cosell's legend, however, that the media would not let him go. In 1999 HBO broadcast the cable television documentary Howard Cosell: Telling It like It Is, borrowing Cosell's ubiquitous tag line for its title. TNT aired the movie Monday Night Mayhem in 2002, with John Turturro portraying Cosell. Edward Achorn, writing in the Providence Journal, noted that the film "treats Cosell almost reverently, depicting him, for all his many quirks and faults, as a loyal and loving husband and family man, a quietly generous fellow, a crusader against racial prejudice, a dazzlingly talented professional who happened to be tormented by his insecurities. How many of today's glib sportscasters will stir this kind of attention 20 years from now? It's not going out on a limb to venture the answer: none."

Emmy Award (posthumous) for lifetime achievement, 1996.


* 1918 Born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina
* 1918 Moves to Brooklyn, New York
* 1940 Graduates with honors from New York University law school
* 1944 Marries Mary Edith Abrams
* 1946 Begins practicing law in New York City
* 1953 Agrees to serve as unpaid radio host for ABC
* 1956 Signs six-week contract with ABC
* 1961 Becomes nightly sports reporter on WABC-TV in New York
* 1967 Defends Muhammad Ali's constitutional right to refuse military draft
* 1971 Shares Monday Night Football booth with Don Meredith and Frank Gifford
* 1975 Hosts short-lived Saturday Night Live With Howard Cosell
* 1982 Quits work as boxing announcer after brutal heavy-weight title fight
* 1984 Quits Monday Night Football, now bored by the sport
* 1985 Produces Sportsbeat television newsmagazine
* 1985 Releases autobiography I Never Played the Game
* 1985 ABC responds to criticisms in autobiography by canceling Sportsbeat
* 1990 Emmy Cosell dies
* 1992 Retires from broadcasting
* 1995 Dies of heart embolism in New York City


* Great Moments in Sport: A Sport Magazine Anthology, Macfadden-Bartell, 1964.
* Cosell, Pocket Books, 1973.
* I Never Played the Game, Morrow, 1985.
* What's Wrong With Sports, 1991.

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