Blowing the Whistle on Monday Night Football: Illegal Formation

Monday Night Football is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. On September 21, 1970, the ABC broadcasting team took the booth at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. A crowd of 85,703 attended the game in person, but millions watched on television. The Cleveland Browns beat the Jets 31-21. ABC doubled the number of cameras per game. Close-ups were used often. The broadcast booth was not like any other that had been on television. The weekly sports show pioneered a variety of technological innovations including slow-motion replays and computerized graphics.

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In addition to the play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson and color analyst Don Meredith, a third chair was added to the booth. Howard Cosell was added to give a bit of controversy to the broadcast. A TV Guide viewer poll in 1978 named Cosell the most loved — and hated — analyst at the same time. With no sports network on 24 hours a day, Cosell provided recaps of the weekly games during half time.

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The first sponsors were Marlboro Cigarettes, Ford Motor Company, and Goodyear Tires. The show would make history as one of the longest-running prime time television series and one of the highest-rated shows among male viewers.

In season two, Frank Gifford took over for Jackson and that trio would continue broadcasting till 1983. In 1975 and 1976, Alex Karras took over for Meredith. From 1979-1983, Fran Tarkenton joined the other three in the booth. Al Michaels and Frank Gifford manned the spot from 1987-1997. A variety of sportscasters joined them in the booth or took over for them until 2005 including O.J. Simpson, Dan Dierdorf, Lynn Swan, Leslie Visser, Boomer Esiason, Dan Fouts, Dennis Miller, Melissa Stark, Eric Dickerson, John Madden, Lisa Guerrero, and Michelle Tafoya.

DENVERus – NOVEMBER 11: (NO ARCHIVING, NO RESALE) In this handout photo provided by ABC, John Madden (R) broadcasts with Al Michaels during the 500th telecast of Monday Night Football in a game between the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders November 11, 2002 at Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver, Colorado. Madden announced his retirement from broadcasting on April 16. (Photo by Craig Sjodin/ABC via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 85970668 GTY ID: 20D_0206

Hank Williams Jr. redid his song, “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” for the theme. When the last show aired on ABC, the song was switched to “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over.”

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In addition to the sportscasters who man the booth, many special guests have appeared on the show. Vice President Spiro Agnew, President Bill Clinton, California governor Ronald Reagan, Placido Domingo, John Lennon, and Kermit the Frog are a few of them.

When ABC first acquired the rights to air MNF in 1970, it did not include any playoff games. The network was eventually allowed into the rotation of channels airing the Super Bowl, starting with Super Bowl XIX in January 1985. When the league expanded the playoffs from a 10-team to a 12-team tournament in 1990, ABC was then given the rights to air the first two Wild Card Playoff games. Originally, ABC’s college football crews would call the first Wild Card Game.

The show would air on Monday nights on ABC until 2005. In 2006, the series moved to ESPN. The show has not been as successful as its earlier days.

In the past fourteen years, there has been a bit of a revolving door to the booth. Showing up on Monday nights we saw Mike Tirico, Tony Kornheiser, Joe Theismann, Suzy Kolber, Michele Tafoya, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, Lisa Salters, Sean McDonough, Joe Tessitore, Jason Witten, and Booger McFarland come and go.

In an article titled “Monday Night Football’s Mid-Life Crisis: From Monopoly to Monotony” by Michael McCarthy in December of 2018, he laid out the current problems.  “As it nears its 50th season, ESPN’s venerable Monday Night Football is struggling with a mid-life crisis. Yes, Monday Night Football changed the face of television. Yes, it can still dominate the sports conversation when it has great games like Rams vs. Chiefs. But Monday Night Football is bad. Too often, the game match-ups are not marquee. The football is not as exciting. The new announce team—featuring three Monday night rookies in Jason Witten, Joe Tessitore, and Booger McFarland—is a work in progress at best, a train wreck at worst. The most famous broadcast booth in sports no longer boasts legendary announcers like Howard Cosell, Dandy Don Meredith, Frank Gifford, John Madden, or Al Michaels. Instead, this season’s crew of Witten, Tessitore, McFarland and Lisa Salters has been roasted by fans and critics.”

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I could not find any announcement of who will be in the booth when football returns. (Note: This came out right before I published my blog this week: A three-man booth of play-by-play man Steve Levy and color commentators Brian Griese and Louis Riddick — who all called the back half of the 2019 Week 1 MNF doubleheader — have been upgraded to the top team for 2020. They replace Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland. Lisa Salters remains the sideline reporter, a role she has had since joining Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden in 2012. Retired official John Parry returns for a second season as the rules analyst.)

Now ESPN has the added pressure of the Covid-19 virus.  No one knows if there will be a football season or what it will look like if there is. You would think if a show like Monday Night Football lasts for fifty years, they would have it made.  Never take anything for granted. At least ESPN has some extra time to try to figure out a better crew for the next season.

On a lighter note, here are some fun facts about the series. The most Monday night appearances belong to the Miami Dolphins with more than 80. The San Francisco 49ers are the most winning team with 49 wins. The Broncos have played the Raiders 19 times as of 2019 and The Cowboys have faced off against the Redskins 17 times. Candlestick Park in San Francisco, no longer used for the team, hosted the most wins, coming in at 36 including its final Monday night game in December of 2013. The highest-rated Monday Night Football telecast on ABC was the Miami Dolphins’ victory over the previously undefeated Chicago Bears on December 2, 1985, which drew a national Nielsen rating of 29.6 and a share of 46. ABC’s lowest-rated MNF game was the St. Louis Rams’ defeat of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on October 18, 2004, which drew a 7.7 rating. Regardless of the technical difficulties, watching Monday Night Football is always a win if you’re a fan of the sport.

Life Coach: Hayden Fox

Many of us enjoyed the Super Bowl yesterday. Maybe you are a football fanatic, maybe you just wanted to catch the commercials, or perhaps, like many of us, you just wanted someone, anyone, besides the Patriots to win this year. For many Americans, the Super Bowl has become an unofficial holiday.  We prepare certain foods, we throw parties, and decorate the house.

Many movies have been written about football; my favorite is still Remember the Titans, although Brian’s Song (appropriately with Shelly Fabares as Joy Piccolo) still makes me cry. On television we had Friday Night Lights, but when I think back to the classic sitcoms, the only show that came to mind was Coach.

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I remember watching Coach when it was originally on the air from 1989-1997, but my viewing was hit and miss. In my defense, I had two young children then, and they kept my evenings busy. This past year, I caught part of the Coach marathon on Decades. I’ve also been watching it on Antenna TV, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The characters still ring true for me. Hayden, Christine, Luther, Dauber, and Judy are just exaggerated enough to be fun and quirky. My youngest son attends Minnesota State Mankato, and I knew there were some connections with the show, but I was unsure what they were. I decided this was the perfect time to learn some of the behind-the-scene details of the show and celebrate our national pastimes of football and television watching.

COACH – “Did Someone Call Me Snorer?” – Airdate: January 9, 1995. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) L-R: BILL FAGERBAKKE;JERRY VAN DYKE;CRAIG T. NELSON

Hayden Fox (Craig T. Nelson) is the head coach of a NCAA Division I college football team. His staff, primarily Michael “Dauber” Dybinski (Bill Fagerbakke, later the voice of Patrick on SpongeBob Square Pants) and Luther Van Dam (Jerry Van Dyke), help him coach the Screaming Eagles. His girlfriend is Christine Armstrong (Shelly Fabares), a local newscaster. Christine doesn’t especially love sports, but she loves Hayden even though his narrow mindedness can make her crazy. Their relationship is a give and take that gradually entwines them and allows them to grow together, understanding more about each other, but still retaining very different personalities and points of view. Hayden truly cares about his friends, he just has a gruff manner when showing it. Feelings make him uncomfortable.

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In addition to Christine, Hayden has to learn to be a father again. His ex-wife raised their daughter, and now Kelly (Clare Carey) has enrolled at Minnesota State. Kelly has much more in common with Christine than with Hayden. Eventually she dates and marries Stu, a guy Hayden cannot relate to at all. In 1991, the marriage ends in divorce when Stu falls in love with someone else, and Hayden is relieved to have him out of their lives. Kelly graduates in 1993 and is offered a job at an ad agency in New York and only guest stars after that time. Oddly enough, Carey was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in California but got the part because she was a believable Midwesterner.

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In addition to trying to influence the players on his team to become good men and citizens, Hayden “parents” Dauber who is much younger and Luther who is much older. Luther is a bachelor and has a lack of self-confidence, but he’s a great coordinator and Hayden appreciates him. Dauber has a heart of gold but is not the most intelligent though he can be wise at times. He continues to work with the team, eventually gathering three degrees and dating the women’s basketball coach, Judy (Pam Grier).

Judy and Hayden do not see eye to eye, and she does not have the patience or motivation to be nice to Hayden. Hayden often has harsh words for his athletic director Howard Burleigh, (Kenneth Kimmins) who always has his finger on the bottom line, but Hayden and Christine are friends with Howard and his wife Shirley (Georgia Engels) and, despite their working relationship, we see their underlying friendship developing.

At the end of season seven, Hayden is offered an NFL dream job with the Orlando Breakers. He accepts and takes his staff with him. By this time, he and Christine are married, so she also moves with the coaching staff. The owner of the team, Doris Sherman (Katherine Helmond), is more interested in the perks she gets being an owner than the success of the team. However, Fox gets the Breakers to a wild spot playoff game in the last season, although they lose to Buffalo. Also in the final season, Christine and Hayden adopt a baby boy. The Breakers were a parody of the Jacksonville Jaguars who, like the Breakers, entered the NFL in 1995 and made the playoffs against Buffalo in their second year as a team. The view Hayden sees when he looks out his office window at the stadium is actually the Milwaukee County Stadium, another tie to my Midwest.

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In the season finale, the cast thanks the audience for nine years of support. Van Dyke refuses to believe the series is really over, despite all his co-stars trying to convince him. The fans also are treated to an summary of what the characters did after Coach. Hayden and Christine return to Minnesota to raise their son, even though other NFL teams are interested in Fox as a coach. Luther and Doris are in a relationship, and they build a house similar to Graceland as a tribute to Elvis. Howard and Shirley sell their rare collection of Barbie dolls and use the proceeds to buy a dinner theater in Florida. Dauber takes over the Breakers team as head coach. He wins back-to-back Super Bowls, and when he retires, he joins the Monday Night Football crew as an announcer.

COACH – “Inconceivable” – Airdate: October 17, 1994. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) JERRY VAN DYKE

Barry Kemp originally created the role of Hayden Fox for Dabney Coleman, but when ABC was ready to air the show, Coleman was unavailable. Kemp was also the creator of Newhart, and he gives a nod to his previous hit from time to time. In one episode, Christine is reading a book, How To Fly Fish by Dick Louden. In the finale, when Christine and Hayden return to his cabin, there just happen to be several people living there: Larry, Darryl and his “other brother Darryl,” whom all Newhart fans recognize immediately.

Another interesting twist on Coach was the appearance of stars who had personal relationships with the cast. Nanette Fabray, Shelly’s aunt, shows up as Mildred Armstrong, Christine’s mother. Mike Farrell, from M*A*S*H, Shelly’s husband, also appears on an episode. Nelson’s son, Noah, guest stars as a football player in one show, a delivery boy in one show, and the biological father of Fox’s adopted son in two later episodes. Perhaps the most unusual appearance was related to Luther. When Luther learns he was adopted and attends his birth family’s reunion, he tells Hayden that there was no way he could be related to any of these people. At that moment, a guy walks by them. He doesn’t have any lines, but it is Dick Van Dyke, Jerry’s brother.

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Other guest stars included Tim Conway, Elinor Donahue, Lisa Kudrow, Dick Martin, Lucy Liu, Tom Poston, Rob Schneider, and Alan Young.

This show might have more stars appearing as themselves as any sitcom ever. Just a few of these sports heroes include Troy Aikman, George Allen, Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Eddie George, Frank Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford, Bob Griese, Lou Holtz, Keith Jackson, Jimmy Johnson, Keyshawn Johnson, Jerry Jones, Al Michaels, Hank Stram, Joe Theismann, and Johnny Unitas.

Kemp was an alumnus of The University of Iowa. He chose the name Hayden Fox as a tribute to Iowa coach Hayden Fry. Even though the show is supposed to be set in Minnesota, much of it is filmed in Iowa. Many of the exterior shots on the show were taped at the Memorial Union. A couple of residence halls and the Field House also end up on the show.

The theme song was performed by the Iowa State University marching band. They won a national contest, earning the right to record the song.

The footage of football games is actually film from The University of Minnesota football seasons.

The Screaming Eagles was a nod to the line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles which Nelson collected.

Photo: A real photo from Mankato. I could not find a history of the names but how appropriate to have “Armstrong” for Christine and “Nelson” for Hayden’s real name.

In 1989 when the show first aired, there was no Minnesota State University. However, in 1998 Mankato State University became Minnesota State University Mankato ( and Moorhead became Minnesota State University Moorhead). However, there are some similarities between Mankato and the fictional college. Both have purple and gold as their school colors. The campus is about an hour from St. Paul-Minneapolis as is Mankato. (Christine lives in the Twin Cities when they first begin dating.) Hayden lives on a lake and in Mankato, faculty members do live on Lake Washington. The television university was founded in 1867, and Mankato was also created at that time.

Although the finale summed up the lives of the characters, that was not the end of the story. In 2015, NBC ordered 13 episodes of a Coach sequel. Nelson and Kemp came up with a concept where Hayden’s son takes a coaching job at a small college in Pennsylvania. The plan was to retain the original viewers while attracting a new, younger audience. Hayden, now a widower, comes out of retirement to be his son’s assistant coach. Dauber, now married to Judy, also signs on to help with the team. The pilot was filmed, but then NBC changed its mind. There are rumors that the revival may still happen, and other networks might be considering it. We’ll have to stay tuned.

Although the reboot has not come to fruition yet, Nelson, Van Dyke, and Fagerbakke did star again in an episode of The District. Nelson starred in the show from 2000-2004. In “The Black Widow Maker,” Jerry is a grumpy small-town judge and Bill is a police officer.

It’s too bad that the revival has not been fully developed. Considering the shows that were resurrected, often badly, this one sounds like it might have been a hit. Nelson won an Emmy during his time on Coach, but the network moved the show constantly, making it hard for fans to become loyal viewers. It was on every night except Thursday and Sunday. It survived because it worked. The writing was solid, and the characters were realistic. Hayden always had good intentions, and Christine was aware of that. Also, the show was able to survive the changes with Kelly graduating and moving, with the NFL team move; the crew stayed together while circumstances kept the show fresh.

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The show went on the Antenna TV schedule last January. Do yourself a favor and get to know the Minnesota State crew.

Let’s end with some dialogue that captures the relationship between Hayden and Christine’s real marriage and Hayden and Luther’s work marriage:

Assistant Coach Luther Van Dam: I’ve made out my will, and I’d like you to be my executioner.

Coach Hayden Fox: I think you mean “executor.”

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Coach Hayden Fox to his wife: You think I didn’t respect you Christine, but the truth is, I didn’t even think of you.

Poor Hayden, even when he takes two steps forward, he fumbles and loses yardage.