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'Monday Night Football' debuted 39 years ago tonight

Frank Gifford, on the right, in 1972.

Frank Gifford, on the right, in 1972. (Credit: AP Photo/)

"Monday Night Football" premiered 39 years ago tonight with a Jets-Browns game.

I am fairly sure I watched, and fairly sure I was told to go to bed before halftime.

ESPN held a conference call last week featuring Frank Gifford, long-time MNF stats man Steve Hirdt and current play-by-play man Mike Tirico to discuss the anniversary.

I was unable to participate, but through the magic of emailed transcripts I can share some highlights from Giff with you here:

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.”

(WatchDog here with a couple of technical notes about the above answer. The show was called "Here's Lucy," not "I Love Lucy," in that era, and while it did go head-to-head against MNF in 1971-72 - Giff's first year on the show - it was on at 8:30 in 1970-71.)

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.’”

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.”

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.”

Photo: AP


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