Leading Off

Frank Gifford led greatest ‘MNF’ team

Former New York Giants player Frank Gifford looks on before an NFL football game between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos in East Rutherford, N.J. In a statement released by NBC News on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015, his family said Gifford died suddenly at his Connecticut home of natural causes that morning. He was 84.
Former New York Giants player Frank Gifford looks on before an NFL football game between the New York Giants and the Denver Broncos in East Rutherford, N.J. In a statement released by NBC News on Sunday, Aug. 9, 2015, his family said Gifford died suddenly at his Connecticut home of natural causes that morning. He was 84. AP

If you had to ask who Frank Gifford was when news of his death at age 84 came Sunday morning, you’re probably too young to remember the pioneering days of “Monday Night Football.” Which means you missed something special.

Before “Monday Night Football,” NFL games on Sundays were no more special than the NBA or major-league baseball games.

Decades before the age of 24-hour sports programming, pro football was a once-a-week affair forgotten by Monday afternoon.

With TV ratings down, ABC innovator Roone Arledge, with a nudge from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, came up with a simple but brilliant concept: televising a pro football game once a week in prime time.

“Monday Night Football” debuted Sept. 21, 1970, with the incomparable Keith Jackson doing play-by-play alongside colorful commentators Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. It became more than a game. “MNF” became a spectacle, an event watched by millions, including many who weren’t sports fans.

But “MNF” didn’t really hit its stride until Gifford, a New York Giants star of the 1950s and 1960s, replaced Jackson in 1971. Gifford’s professional, straightforward approach and his knowledge made him the quarterback of the greatest broadcast team in pro sports history.

Cosell’s flamboyance made him the biggest star in the “MNF” broadcast booth. Somehow his bombastic, big-city personality meshed with “Dandy Don” Meredith’s good ol’ country boy’s insight.

That circus of a broadcast team, which broke the news of John Lennon’s death in 1980, worked because of Gifford, its ringleader.

Now, they’re all gone; Cosell and Meredith preceded Gifford in death. “MNF” has endured, but it never has been the same.

Victor Contreras: 916-326-5527, @sacbeevictor

Playbook

  • WHAT TO WATCH: Baseball, Houston at Giants, 7:15 p.m., CSNBA: After being swept by the Cubs and losing seven of 10 on the road, the Giants return home to play the first-place Astros.
  • TWITTER CHATTER: “What little I know of football I learned mostly from Howard Cosell, Dandy Don and Frank Gifford. All of them gone now. Sad day.” – @Espngreeny (Mike Greenberg)
  • ON THIS DATE: On Aug. 11, 1991, John Daly wins the 73rd PGA Championship, shooting a 1-under-par 71 to finish three strokes ahead of Bruce Lietzke.
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