Legendary TV executive Dick Ebersol (who ultimately gave the green light, for some reason, to bring PFT under the NBC umbrella in 2009) has a new book that details his decades of experience, from the creation of Saturday Night Live to mastering the art of Olympics broadcasting to making Sunday night into Football Night. And there’s an intriguing little nugget regarding the process that resulted in NBC hiring Al Michaels and John Madden in 2006, from ABC’s Monday Night Football.
In From Saturday Night to Sunday Night, Ebersol explains that he had secured Madden, MNF producer Fred Gaudelli, and MNF director Drew Esocoff for Sunday Night Football. Al, however, had signed a new contract with ABC/ESPN.
Ebersol needed someone to handle play-by-play duties, a person to pair with John Madden. Fox and CBS had their top announcers under contract, and Ebersol concluded that “there weren’t any young up-and-comers” to pair with Madden.
That’s when Ebersol improvised. He had Cris Collinsworth, who’d signed up to work in the Football Night in America studio, “begin a crash course in learning how to be a play-by-play announcer.”
Collinsworth initially thought Ebersol had “lost [his] mind,” but Cris decided to give it a try. Collinsworth practiced, working with Merril Hoge to call several games. In January 2006, Collinsworth and Madden worked together via the live feed of a Patriots-Broncos playoff game.
During the second half of that game, Ebersol learned from PR chief Mike McCarley that Al Michaels was back in play, with ABC/ESPN willing to release him from his deal. Collinsworth happily relinquished the play-by-play duties and, after Madden retired, became the analyst who worked with Al Michaels.
Michaels, of course, is now at Amazon. You’ll see and hear him tonight on the Dolphins-Bengals call. Collinsworth remains in his job at NBC, but not in the one he would have had if Ebersol couldn’t have hired Al Michaels in 2006.
It would have been rare for a former player to become a play-by-play announcer, but not unprecedented. Pat Summerall (a former NFL kicker) did it. Also, Frank Gifford (Hall of Fame halfback) handled play-by-play in the glory days of Monday Night Football, working with Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.