Top Ten Sports Journalists in My Lifetime, According to Me
In the interest of full disclosure, this list will be partisan.
First, I'm from Buffalo. I did most of my radio sports listening in Buffalo and since leaving Buffalo have been exposed mostly to national level correspondents on the various networks, or in a couple of cases, newspapers.
Believe it or not, my exposure to two of my favorites has been through the Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.
I list the sports writers and announcers who have been able to earn my admiration partially because of their journalistic skill, partially because of their humor and personality, partially because of their outlook in some cases, and because of the way I feel about the sports reporting and commentary I am receiving from them.
So, here's my list of the top ten sports journalists, or teams of journalists, in my lifetime.
No.10: Pat Summerall (CBS/Fox)
Pat Summerall is the quintessential icon of NFL football broadcasting. He is to the NFL what Harry Carray was to the Cubs.
His broadcasting career spanned 33 years, and included 16 Superbowls.
He is known as the voice of the NFL on CBS and later on Fox, was teamed for several years with John Madden until Madden left Fox to join the Monday Night Football team.
Because he spent his entire career covering NFL (pre—merger) and later NFC (post—merger) games, he is even more closely associated with the old NFL than any other single broadcaster.
No.9: John Madden (CBS/Fox/ABC)
He was a great coach in the AFL, but he was an even greater broadcaster, largely because he brought his coaching insight and experience with him to the broadcast booth.
He was among the first, if not the first former head coach to give up the clipboard for the broadcast booth, and as technology advanced, Madden recreated his coach's clipboard on the telestrator with his x's, o's and squiggly lines.
What made Madden good was what some people found insufferable about him. He said what he thought, shot from the hip, and used way too many words to say it.
He was emotional, demonstrative, and colorful. He was opinionated. He was wonderful.
No.8: Andrea Kremer (NBC)
When you think of female sportscasters two names come immediately to mind. Andrea Kremer and Robin Roberts.
We will include Roberts as a team member a little later but in individual competition, Kremer prevails as the best woman in the business thus far.
What makes her good is her unquestioned femininity combined with an assertive and authoritative presence, depth of knowledge, and smooth broadcasting style.
She is all woman, all journalist, and all sportscaster. She doesn't try to hide her femininity or exploit it. She is unselfconscious about it, and is simply very good at what she does.
She could be your wife, girlfriend, sister, colleague or boss, because she is real, endearing, articulate, authoritative, and insightful.
No.7: NFL on NBC
Over the years, NBC's coverage of the AFL, pre—merger, and then the NFL/AFC, post—merger has been the consistently overall best coverage of America's game throughout the years.
While CBS/Fox had Pat Summerall and ABC had the MNF teams, NBC produced the greatest number of quality individual football broadcasters and the greatest number of good broadcast teams, and any era's lineup was as good as any others.
Curt Gowdy, Al DeRogatis, and Charlie Jones provided legendary coverage of the AFL and early AFC years.
Later, former Bills legend Paul McGuire and Cincinatti Bengals standout Chris Collinsworth morphed very successfully into the broadcasting role, along with former Bill Amad Rashad.
Fortunately, once NBC lost their contract to CBS, most of the team NBC had complied made the move to the new network, providing seamless coverage of the AFC. But it was still NBC's team.
They made the NFL viewing experience a decadent treat from the pre—game show to the post—game wrap up.
No.6: NPR Sports Commentators--Sports for the Thinking Person
In their very divergent and complimentary styles, John Feinstein, also on staff at the Wall Street Journal, and Frank DeFord, provide intelligent, cliche free commentary on sports, the business of sports, and the sense in which sports and life overlap, for National Public Radio.
Part of what makes them so good is that sports reporting on NPR is a sort of guilty pleasure for what is otherwise a generally very serious,in—depth approach to news reporting and talk.
Because it is NPR Feinstein and DeFord are given enough time to say something substantive, and nearly always surprise their listeners with their choice of topic, their angle on a popular topic, and/or their depth of knowledge.
Both are writers first and sports journalists second, which doesn't hurt.
No.5: The MNF Team 1987 (ABC)
I would call this the Al Michaels era of MNF. But it didn't get good until they returned to the three person format in 1987.
Michaels along with Gifford and newcomer Dan Dierdorf made for an excellent team, and made Monday night something to look forward to, even if the quality of the games themselves frequently underwhelmed.
No.4: The MNF Broadcast Booth 1971 (ABC)
Brash boxing announcer Howard Cosell always said exactly what was on his mind: no thinking before speaking, no editing, certainly no political correctness.
ABC took a risk making him the anchor of their new prime time NFL broadcast, but it worked.
Cosell was real, honest, often obnoxious, but lovingly so. He was rash, brash, pompous and insufferable. While the first year of MNF with Keith Jackson was almost as good, the addition of Frank Gifford gave the team that extra degree of chemistry, of combustion, of balance between vivid play by play, bombastic opinionation and insider illumination.
Gifford was the play by play, Cosell was obviously the color, and Dandy Don Meredith brought the insider's view, as a former Cowboys quarterback.
Cosell and Meredith often argued vigorously, and if it was an act, it certainly didn't seem to be, and that was the magic. The know-it-all outsider, the Texas-ego insider battling it out while Gifford gave the steady-as-she-goes play by play, even though the more interesting competition was often going on next to him in the booth instead of down on the field.
No.3: Jim McKay (ABC Wide World of Sports)
What Pat Summerall was to NFL football, Jim McKay was to the Olympics and to a variety of mostly Olympic style sports on ABC's long running Wide World of Sports "spanning the globe...(to show) the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat."
Wide World was a montage of excerpts from various competitions, sometimes live, from around the world.
McKay was the anchor. He was a class act all the way. He invited himself into our living rooms each Saturday afternoon and introduced us to each segment, quietly, professionally, colorfully and compellingly. He was a true gentleman journalist and sportscaster.
No.2: The Buffalo Three-- Miller, Ranallo, Northrup
The three best sports journalists in Buffalo, my hometown, in my lifetime, were all connected by their coverage of the once, brief, but mighty Buffalo Braves (now, not so mighty Clippers) of the NBA.
Van Miller was the play by play announcer for WBEN radio. Miller continued to broadcast the Bills for decades after the Braves left town, just as he had for many years pre—dating the Braves era. He was also the senior sports anchor for WBEN and later (name change) WIVB Channel 4, Buffalo's CBS affiliate.
But Miller's special gift was play by play. The recently retired Miller combined intelligent language, sports cliche and more than a little of his own spontaneous poetry as he painted a vivid enough picture of action on the court or the field to make a blind person think he or she was viewing the game.
Phil Ranallo, columnist for Buffalo's now defunct Courier—Express (morning newspaper) was a local icon not well known outside of Buffalo because he wasn't syndicated, but he was a brilliant writer who happened to cover sports, and he loved the Braves as much as any fan.
His columns "What's New Harry?" were hard to find after the newspaper shut down but Tim and Chris Wendell have managed to piece together a series of Ranallo's columns in their newly released book, 'Buffalo, Home of the Braves', Sun Bear Press. These columns along with fantastic photos from the Buffalo Evening News photographer Robert Smith, go a long way to tell the story of this wonderful yet star-crossed team.
Milt Northrup covered the Braves for the Buffalo Evening News. When former Brave and Buffalo sports icon Randy Smith recently passed away, I noticed an article at The Buffalo News website about Smith written by Northrup. He still has the gift.
I'm certain I read every one of Northrup's game recaps, each day-after. Again, not well known outside of Buffalo, Northrup could keep up with the best in his field. Had he lived in New York he would have won the honor of covering the Knicks for the Times.
I wouldn't have felt any worse if my best friend had died. That final broadcast of NFL Prime Time was a humongous loss for me. And the best Prime Time Team was the original one: Chris Berman, Tommy Jackson, and Robin Roberts.
Of course in my mind it was Berman and company. Jackson and Roberts played their supporting roles masterfully. Both are excellent journalists, broadcasters, professionals in their own right, but they were Ed McMahon to Berman's Carson.
Berman could be described as Howard Cosell with manners. He could also be described as the Tim Russert of sports broadcasting, or perhaps a cross between Cosell and Russert. Like Russert he had a weakness for the Buffalo Bills, which certainly adds to his esteem in my mind. "Nobody circles the wagons, like the Buffalo Bills," he liked to say.
His famous tag line, "He...could...go...all...the...way," and his alliterative nicknames for everyone were his signatures, but he brought his true personality, whole self, his love of sport and of broadcasting with minimal filters, and all his passion.
While he continues in a similar role on ESPN, the old Prime Time format was a much better vehicle for him, and much better for the network as well.
Therefore it is not Chris Berman in the abstract who sits atop the list. It is Chris Berman at Prime Time with Jackson and Roberts at either flank.