- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

Turn out the lights. The party’s over.

That’s how cowboy color analyst Don Meredith used to serenade blowout games during the formative seasons of “Monday Night Football.”

Tonight, Meredith will make a taped appearance on the last edition of “Monday Night Football.” It ends its 36-year run on ABC as the second-longest running series in prime-time history behind only “60 Minutes” and as the most important sports program in television history.

Yes, “MNF” will move to ESPN next season, but there’s nothing special about that. Sports are on cable television every night.

“Monday Night Football” — the brainchild of producer Roone Arledge — began as an experiment Sept. 21, 1970, before it became a cultural phenomenon and eventually a standard viewing practice.

Back then, sports were not in prime time, and Arledge changed all that. Soon, the Super Bowl, the World Series and every other major sporting event followed “MNF” and the money.

Equipped with twice the cameras of a Sunday NFL game and three broadcasters, “Monday Night Football” was an event. It was the Super Bowl before the Super Bowl.

But wait just a second — let’s tell it like it is: “Monday Night Football” is and always will be the legacy of Howard Cosell, a small Jewish man with a nasally voice and a voracious vocabulary.

Arledge invented that third spot in the booth — a sort of freelance blowhard — for Cosell, who used the position to annoy and delight. He was hated and beloved. Imagine any sports talk radio show host of today — except good.

The salad days of “MNF” are really those first four seasons, when Cosell, Meredith (his lovable foil) and Keith Jackson (for the first season) and Frank Gifford (thereafter) poked and prodded each other and became these sort of broadcasting celebrities.

“Monday Night Football” welcomed its share of celebrities. Richard Nixon, Burt Reynolds, Ronald Reagan, Kermit the Frog and John Lennon all visited the booth.

Later, when Lennon was murdered Dec. 8, 1980, Cosell was the first to bring the news to America during a “MNF” telecast.

Through the years, “Monday Night Football” changed viewing habits and other habits, too. Movie attendance on Mondays dropped. Bowling leagues moved to Tuesdays. Bars invited patrons to throw a brick at television sets when they saw Cosell.

With the departure of Meredith and then Cosell, “MNF” tried all sorts of jocks with varying success. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson and his gold chains lasted just one preseason. Alex Karras (“Webster”), Fran Tarkenton (“That’s Incredible”), O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath each took a turn.

In 1986, Al Michaels, the show’s first true play-by-play man since Jackson, teamed with Gifford and Dan Dierdorf for an 11-year run — by far the longest of any “Monday Night” team.

In recent years, Michaels partnered with Boomer Esiason (whom he hated), comedian Dennis Miller (who flopped) and Dan Fouts (who was barely there) before finding a comfort level with John Madden for the past four seasons.

The two most famous moments in “Monday Night” history came during Washington Redskins games.

The first was one of Cosell’s last, when he called Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett “a little monkey” in September 1983. Cosell resigned after the season, calling the NFL “a stagnant bore.”

The other was one of the most gruesome injuries in NFL history. On Nov. 18, 1985, Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg and ending his career.

That’s when Theismann’s broadcasting career essentially began, and it will continue next season with Michaels on “Monday Night Football” on ESPN.

ESPN paid $1.1 billion a season for “MNF” over the next eight years. The network is paying for a product ABC deemed a money loser, a product that makes a smaller and smaller ripple each year in a 500-channel world.

In other words, it’s time to cue Meredith: Turn out the lights. The party’s over. They say that all good things must end.

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