It could easily have been Frank Gifford’s worst year on ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” Instead it has been his best.
Heading into the 18th season of “MNF,” television critics, as usual, were nipping at the heels of Gifford, the show’s senior man.
He was in his second season as a color commentator, rather than the more familiar play-by-play role, and to top it off, a third sportscaster with a dominant personality was being squeezed into the booth beside him--not to mention that the season had been fractured by the NFL players’ strike.
But Gifford, showing much of the same steadfastness and adaptability that landed him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, has played the hand that was dealt him and laid a fistful of aces on the table.
It’s no longer a World Serious every Monday night. It’s a football game. And Gifford, Al Michaels, and the newcomer, Dan Dierdorf, have fun doing it.
Michaels is one of telecasting’s most respected play-by-play men. Dierdorf, the St. Louis Cardinals’ former all-pro offensive lineman, brings a dynamic style with his sometimes pointed commentary. All of this has brought out pointed comments, and surprising humor, from Gifford.
From Gifford’s standpoint, what you see of him and Dierdorf is what there is.
“He’s a funny guy, and we have a lot of laughs going to practices, meetings and meals,” Gifford said. “It’s carrying over into the telecasts in a lighthearted way.”
Gifford has always been happy doing NFL games. He spent his first 15 years in the play-by-play role, starting the second year of “MNF.” But describing the action didn’t leave him much elbow room for humor.
“I enjoy the game, and I enjoy what I’m doing,” he said.
Gifford has taken his share of shots from critics, but he always ranks high in fan-opinion polls. Viewers like him because he comes off as the true-blue straight arrow that he is--honest, earnest, sincere and amazingly good-looking for a 57-year-old grandfather.
“I don’t pay attention to the critics. I have to please the audience,” he said. “I know what I am. That’s more important than reading what others think. I know this game. I’ve always studied it, and I continue to do my homework.”
Gifford said he probably spends more time preparing to televise a game than he did preparing to play one. It has paid off. As first a player, then a play-by-play announcer and analyst for the past 36 years, he’s earned the nickname “Faultless Frank.”
Gifford started sportscasting 30 years ago while playing for the New York Giants. In 1976-77, he won the Emmy as television’s outstanding sports personality.
A host on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” Gifford has covered three summer and three winter Olympic Games since 1972 and will cover the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada.
A year ago he married Kathie Lee Johnson, who with Regis Philbin hosts WABC’s top-rated morning show in New York. Gifford fills in for Philbin three or four weeks a year. He also has served as a guest host of ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
But he is best known for his long-running stint on “MNF,” where he has become television’s marathon man. By the end of this season he will have worked 336 prime-time football games. That’s 1,120 hours, using 3 hours 20 minutes as the average duration for a game. To that, add six Olympics and other prime-time specials.
Last year, to make room for Michaels, Gifford switched to analyst. This year Dierdorf moved into the booth as ABC returned to the three-man format used in the days of Don Meredith, Howard Cosell, Fred Williamson, Alex Karras, Fran Tarkenton, O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath.
They came, and they went. Frank Gifford stayed. He took over for Keith Jackson, who did the first season of play-by-play on “MNF.” At the time, ABC sports monarch Roone Arledge admitted that he wanted to sign Gifford from the outset but had to wait a year while Gifford was under contract to CBS.
Gifford is renowned for his loyalty to the NFL. His critics have said he doesn’t criticize players. A fairer statement is that he doesn’t take cheap shots when a player drops a ball or misses an assignment. Gifford said he thinks he’s done his job if he points out that a ball “could have been caught.”
His love for the game comes through clearly. More than a few times he has cut off aimless banter and clowning in the booth with, “Hey, guys, there’s a game going on down there.”
Criticism doesn’t seem to wound him, either.
“I’ve been criticized since I was a sophomore in high school,” he said, “and I’ve had my share of accolades. In this arena you’re going to have critics, and you’d better get used to it. I try to keep myself prepared. I know a hell of a lot about what I’m doing.”
When Howard Cosell slashed him in his book, “I Never Played the Game,” Gifford held back. He admitted that he was angry for about five minutes but decided that it was sad that Cosell chose to flail away at those who had made his career possible.
He also believes that too much is often made of the personalities in the booth.
“The game is the thing, and everything else, including the sportscasters, is a distant second,” he said. “We are not more important than the game. We are there to enhance the enjoyment of the viewers. Good games bring good ratings, and bad games bring bad ratings. We help a little, but the bottom line is that a good game makes a good show.
“In the early years of ‘Monday Night Football,’ we were treated like lords and gods as we went from city to city. We were getting keys and parades and luncheons. How many times can you get the keys to a city?
“That’s toned down in recent years, although Monday night is still very special in the stadiums. There’s an aura of excitement attached to playing under the lights in an ABC game.
“You know,” Gifford recalled, “when it all began, Monday night football was offered to NBC and CBS. They turned it down; ABC took the package because it had nothing else. It sure has been successful. I never even dreamed it could be so successful.”
But then Gifford has been attached to success all his life. As tailback and defensive back at USC, he was an All-America selection and in 1975 was inducted into the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame for his record performances.