Frank Gifford, Steve Hirdt and Mike Tirico have shared insight on the 40 seasons of Monday Night Football.
ESPN hosted a media conference call Thursday, highlighting Monday Night Football’s 40th season in advance of this week’s Indianapolis Colts-Miami Dolphins game in Miami (8:30 p.m. ET) which will be played on Sept. 21 — the anniversary date of the first MNF game between the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns in 1970.
Interviewed were Pro Football Hall of Famer Frank Gifford, whose 27 years (1971-1997) in the booth make him the longest tenured commentator in MNF history; Steve Hirdt of Elias Sports bureau, the longtime research and statistics guru who has been a member of the MNF production team for the last 28 years; and Mike Tirico, one of the top play-by-play commentators in sports and the current voice of sports television’s signature series.
An excerpt of the conversation with the ESPN legends:
Gifford on whether there was pressure the first time he stepped into the MNF booth in 1971 …
“Did we feel any pressure? Not really because there was no pressure at ABC period. There were only three networks – CBS, NBC and ABC. … CBS dominated TV at the time, followed by NBC, and ABC was just struggling. It’s something Roone Arledge really wasn’t gambling on.
He talked ABC into putting it on Monday night. We were going up against ‘I Love Lucy’ and everyone kind of laughed at the fact that football would be so presumptuous to think that they could put anything on primetime television and certainly not against ‘I Love Lucy’. I think two or three years later ‘I Love Lucy’ moved from Monday night to Wednesday or Thursday because we totally dominated and nothing really has changed.”
Tirico on his MNF experience …
“I am 42 – it has spanned my entire lifetime. The chance to be around Frank and really celebrate the unbelievable television legacy of 40 years, one show, two networks, about 20 of us now in the booth all together, is such a privilege and will be a career highlight no matter how short or long the run turns out to be.”
Hirdt on the specialness of MNF …
“The meter of how many celebrities have been in the booth has gone up and down over time. … Monday night really stood for excellence. If you look back over time, Monday night was the show where so many innovations were born. … Something about the show at night made it unique from the outset. The brilliance of the nighttime pictures and the reflection of the lights against helmets always marked it as special and inspired or propelled the rest of us to bring our game up to the same level.”
Gifford on the night John Lennon’s death was announced on MNF …
“We were on the air the night that John Lennon was killed in New York. We were in Miami and I remember refusing to let Howard (Cosell) make that announcement on the air until we knew for certain that it had indeed happened. Communication not being like it is today, we just got a phone call from New York.
I didn’t know whether someone was making it up because I just could not believe that it had happened. It had been just 2-3 years before that I had invited John Lennon to be in our booth in Los Angeles, never dreaming he would come, and he did come. It was an interesting night, because we also had Ronald Reagan, who I had known in the film business.
He was standing there with John Lennon behind the broadcast team and he was trying to explain football to John Lennon. Howard was scheduled to interview governor Reagan at halftime and he turned around and immediately saw that John Lennon was also there. He said, ‘Gifford, you take the governor and I’ll take the Beatle.’”
Hirdt on a memorable MNF moment involving the Miami Dolphins …
“The biggest was between the Bears and Dolphins in 1985 when the Bears had gone unbeaten, coming into Miami and Don Shula had several of his old players who were members of the ’72 Dolphins along the sidelines to urge his current team on, and his current team responded — beat the Bears that night and it was the only loss Chicago had all year.”
Gifford on the infamous one-finger salute from a MNF game in Houston …
“The one-finger salute, when you have 25-30 million people watching and Howard was pontificating on what a dull game this was. Our director, Chet Forte, was looking to be creative and found somebody sleeping in the stands in the corner of the end zone.
Just as we pulled an extreme close up and just as Howard was describing how dull this game really was, this little Houston Oiler fan woke up, saw the lens of the camera from across the field with the little red light and he immediately gave us a we’re No. 1 signal. At least that’s what Don told Howard, ‘How about that Howard, they still think they’re No. 1.’ That was very memorable.”
Tirico on balancing sports and entertainment on MNF …
“If you go back to some of the things Frank spoke of with John Lennon and Ronald Reagan among the many stars that would be in the Monday night booth, to start with, MNF was special and then the pop culture cross-over to it over the 1970’s and 80’s added to that.
Over time the series became more about football and less about celebrity, although there were still celebrities that would come by the booth on a pretty regular basis. I think that now we’ve jumped to this 500-channel universe, and there’s so much of that elsewhere, that more and more people want their football in their football and they have 40 other channels if they want to go find the other pop culture and entertainment stuff. I think our initial effort (on ESPN) was to tap into the legacy of Monday night. The reality over time is that people will find those things elsewhere.”
Gifford on whether he’s contemplated being an analyst again for even one night…
“Probably, but not sure I could stay up that late. Not really, nobody has asked me. I have multiple things I do now. … It might be fun to get involved in some ways. I was really intrigued the other day in New England to see what ESPN was doing and how they were doing it. It certainly is intriguing for me when I think back to almost the caveman methods we had at the time, certainly at the beginning. It’s really amazing what you can do to a telecast.”
Gifford on watching MNF now …
“I do marvel at it, because I know the technology that is available to a producer and director and consequently the announcers, and what I really marvel at is how ESPN restrains the use of too much of it. Because I think you can really clutter up a telecast with too much of it. A really good crisp telecast is one that covers the action on the field, the interaction with coaches on sidelines, showing the crowd and how they are reacting to the game and capturing the entire feel of the game without going crazy with all the little toys you have to work with.”
Tirico on the evolution of MNF …
“The times have changed. That quaint world we grew up in or may have cut our teeth in has evolved just like everything else. It’s all a matter of adjustment and being good gatekeepers to what really matters. What will people remember at home on a nightly basis? They don’t care about the choices or the tape machines or how quick you can turn around a highlight. You just have to give them, whether its words, or more importantly the right picture with the right moment, and giving them something to remember.”
ESPN is highlighting memorable moments in MNF history with weekly vignettes voiced by and featuring Frank Gifford. Monday’s vignette highlights this legendary game between the Bears and Dolphins from December 2, 1985, which remains the highest-rated game in MNF history (29.6 rating/46 share). To view the vignette, CLICK
Monday Night Football Fun Facts:
First game: Sept. 21, 1970 — Cleveland Browns def. New York Jets, 31-21
Commentators: Howard Cosell, Keith Jackson and Don Meredith
Producer: Roone Arledge
Director: Chet Forte
Total games: 611 regular-season games (on 604 Mondays). Now in its 40th season, MNF is the 2nd-longest-running primetime show on American television (CBS’ 60 Minutes — 41 years)
Longest MNF commentator tenure: Frank Gifford, 27 seasons (1971-97)
(Steve Hirdt of Elias Sports Bureau has been part of MNF production team for 28 seasons, 1982-present)
‘Memba When: Broadcast TV listings for the night MNF made its debut on September 21, 1970:
ABC The Young Lawyers The Silent Force NFL Monday Night Football
CBS Gunsmoke Here’s Lucy Mayberry R.F.D. The Doris Day Show The Carol Burnett Show
NBC The Red Skelton Show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In NBC Monday Night at the Movies