Cosell ego bursts seams of ESPN interview

When Howard Cosell dies he should leave his ego to science, but they don't make glass jars the size of Montana.

As we're reminded in "The Life and Times of Howard Cosell" (8 p.m. tonight, ESPN), the Cosellian ego is a wondrous, many splendored thing that is to the normal human ego what the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are to a K mart Garden Center.


"I knew that I was the right one to tell America that John Lennon had been assassinated. I had a very special relationship with him," Cosell says in a one-hour monologue interrupted by questions by New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte.

Howard is right. Given the alternatives in the booth that night -- Faultless Frank Gifford or Dandy Don Meredith -- clearly he was the right one to break into "Monday Night Football" on Dec. 8, 1980, with the news that Lennon had been gunned down.


Cosell, of course, wasn't limiting himself to his broadcast partners, or even to America. That's part of his maddening charm, the breathtaking bravado that keeps you watching, even as you reach for the Excedrin.

"I happen to be a terribly, terribly bright man," Cosell says, perhaps a bit brighter than his interviewer, who is no intellectual midget.

Lipsyte starts out in a challenging posture ("You are a terribly arrogant man"), but the indomitable Cosell ego wears him down, and toward the end of the hour Lipsyte is lobbing encomiums, not questions.

"You had a very special relationship with the '60s, the people who were coming of age and consciousness then," he says.

"I think that is true," Cosell says. "I told you often that I was right for my time. There's no question about it. Look at those times. The birth of the pill. The birth of the drug culture. The unending and unwanted [Vietnam] war.

"And the most ignominious moment in the history of my time -- the shoot-down at Kent State. And I was, curiously, a part of all of that, and I sought desperately to convey those times to my listenership and viewership."

And he succeeded to an extent unimaginable for any of today's TV sports journalists. But one of his worthier successors, Dick Schaap, probably is right in noting that style overwhelmed substance in the later years.

"He went from telling it like it was, to telling it like he thought it was," says Schaap.


Others interviewed on the show include Arthur Ashe, U.S. Sen. ** Bill Bradley, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray and comic Billy Crystal, who does dead-on impressions of Cosell and Muhammad Ali.

Cosell, 73, looks and sounds well, his decrepitude evident only when he raises a tremulous hand to his face. There's a stabbing sense of mortality when the camera cuts from this aged Cosell to film of Ali, puffy-faced and nearly silenced by Parkinson's disease.

He speaks affectionately about Ali, witheringly about Casey Stengel ("I believe that Casey Stengel hurt young people") and glowingly about himself. He regrets having backed away from a run for the U.S. Senate in 1976.

"I had recognition factor that was unparalleled. Good lord, I had just created Sugar Ray Leonard," he says, referring to his coverage of Leonard's gold medal at the Olympics. "I would have been elected. No one knew who [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan was."

At times, Cosell is as tough on himself as he once was on others. When Lipsyte innocently asks what was the most fun about doing "Monday Night Football," Cosell surprises him.

"The fun was vanity," he says. "I was on an ego trip, there's no question about it. I was the center of attention, and I knew my stuff. I know how to communicate."


How does Cosell summarize his legacy? With breathtaking grandiosity, of course.

"What is popular is not always right; what is right is not always popular. That was the credo of Daniel Webster, who was right at a time when he couldn't safely walk out on the streets of this country. He was right then, and I'm right now."

Roone Arledge, Cosell's mentor at ABC, says of Howard and his times, "I think we'll not see a person like that in a setting like that for a long time."