Cosell was born in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to accountant Isidore Cohen and his wife Nellie (Rosenthal) Cohen. The grandson of a rabbi, he was raised in Brooklyn, New York. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from New York University, where he was a member of Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. He then earned a degree at New York University School of Law, where he was a member of the law review.
Cosell's grandfather's name had been changed by immigration authorities when he entered the United States. Howard Cosell said he changed his name from "Cohen" to "Cosell" while a law student as a way to honor his father and grandfather by reverting to a version of his family's original Polish name.
Cosell was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1941, but when the U.S. entered World War II, Cosell entered the United States Army Transportation Corps, where he was promoted to the rank of major. During his time in the service, he married Mary Edith Abrams in 1944 in a judge's chambers in Brooklyn. He left the service in 1945.
After the war, Cosell began practicing law in Manhattan, primarily union law. Some of his clients were actors, and some were athletes, including Willie Mays. Cosell's own hero in athletics was Jackie Robinson, who served as a personal and professional inspiration to him in his career. Cosell also represented the Little League of New York, when in 1953 an ABC Radio manager asked him to host a show on New York flagship WABC featuring Little League participants. The show marked the beginning of a relationship with WABC and ABC Radio that would last his entire broadcasting career.
Cosell hosted the Little League show for three years without pay, and then decided to leave the law field to become a full-time broadcaster. He approached Robert Pauley, President of ABC Radio, with a proposal for a weekly show. Pauley told him the network could not afford to develop untried talent, but he would be put on the air if he would get a sponsor. To Pauley's surprise, Cosell came back with a relative's shirt company as a sponsor, and "Speaking of Sports" was born.
Cosell took his "tell it like it is" approach when he teamed with the ex–Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher "Big Numba Thirteen" Ralph Branca on WABC's pre- and post-game radio shows of the New York Mets in their nascent years beginning in 1962. He pulled no punches in taking members of the hapless expansion team to task.
Otherwise on radio, Cosell did his show, Speaking of Sports, as well as sports reports and updates for affiliated radio stations around the country; he continued his radio duties even after he became prominent on television. Cosell then became a sports anchor at WABC-TV in New York, where he served in that role from 1961 to 1974. He expanded his commentary beyond sports to a radio show entitled Speaking of Everything.
Cosell rose to prominence covering boxer Muhammad Ali, starting when he still fought under his birth name, Cassius Clay. The two seemed to have an affinity despite their different personalities, and complemented each other in broadcasts. Cosell was one of the first sportscasters to refer to the boxer as Muhammad Ali after he changed his name and supported him when he refused to be inducted into the military. Cosell was also an outspoken supporter of Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith after they raised their fists in a "black power" salute during their 1968 medal ceremony. In a time when many sports broadcasters avoided touching social, racial, or other controversial issues, and kept a certain level of collegiality towards the sports figures they commented on, Cosell did not, and indeed built a reputation around his catchphrase, "I'm just telling it like it is."
Cosell's style of reporting very much transformed sports broadcasting. Whereas previous sportscasters had mostly been known for color commentary and lively play-by-play, Cosell had an intellectual approach. His use of analysis and context arguably brought television sports reporting very close to the kind of in-depth reporting one expected from "hard" news reporters. At the same time, however, his distinctive staccato voice, accent, syntax, and cadence were a form of color commentary all their own.
Cosell earned his greatest interest from the public when he backed Ali after the boxer's championship title was stripped from him for refusing military service during the Vietnam War. Cosell found vindication several years later when he was the one able to inform Ali that the United States Supreme Court had unanimously ruled in favor of Ali in Clay v. United States.
Cosell called most of Ali's fights immediately before and after the boxer returned from his three-year exile in October 1970. Those fights were broadcast on taped delay usually a week after they were transmitted on closed circuit. However, Cosell was passed over for perhaps his biggest assignment of his career, the first Ali–Joe Frazier bout in March 1971. Promoter Jerry Perenchio selected actor Burt Lancaster, who had never provided color commentary for a fight, to work the bout with longtime announcer Don Dunphy and former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore. Cosell attended that fight as a spectator only. He would do a voiceover of that bout, when it was shown on ABC a few days before the second Ali-Frazier bout in January 1974.
Perhaps his most famous call took place in the fight between Joe Frazier and George Foreman for the World Heavyweight Championship in Kingston, Jamaica in 1973. When Foreman knocked Frazier to the mat the first of six times, roughly two minutes into the first round, Cosell yelled out:
His call of Frazier's first trip to the mat became one of the most quoted phrases in American sports broadcasting history. Foreman beat Frazier by a TKO in the second round to win the World Heavyweight Championship.
Cosell provided blow-by-blow commentary for ABC of some of boxing's biggest matches during the 1970s and the early 1980s including Ken Norton's upset win over Ali in 1973 and Ali's defeat of Leon Spinks in 1978 recapturing the Heavyweight title for the third time. His signature toupee was unceremoniously knocked off in front of live ABC cameras when a scuffle broke out after a broadcast match between Scott LeDoux and Johnny Boudreaux. Cosell quickly retrieved his hairpiece and replaced it. During interviews in studio with Ali, the champion would tease and threaten to remove the hairpiece with Cosell playing along but never allowing it to be touched. On one of these occasions, Ali quipped, "Cosell, you're a phony, and that thing on your head comes from the tail of a pony."
With typical headline generating drama, Cosell abruptly ended his broadcast association with the sport of boxing while providing coverage for ABC for the heavyweight championship bout between Larry Holmes and Randall "Tex" Cobb on November 26, 1982. Halfway through the bout and with Cobb absorbing a beating, Cosell stopped providing anything more than rudimentary comments about round number and the participants punctuated with occasional declarations of disgust during the 15 rounds. He declared shortly after the fight to a national television audience that he had broadcast his last professional boxing match.
Cosell also was an ABC commentator for the television broadcast of the second of the two famous 1973 "Battles of the Sexes" tennis matches, this one between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.
During Cosell's tenure as a sportscaster, he frequently clashed with longtime New York Daily News sports columnist Dick Young, who rarely missed an opportunity to denigrate the broadcaster in print as an "ass", a "shill", or most often, "Howie the Fraud". Young would sometimes stand near Cosell and shout profanities so that the audio he was taping for his radio show would be unusable. Writing about Cosell, sportswriter Jimmy Cannon sniped, "This is a guy who changed his name, put on a toupee and tried to convince the world that he tells it like it is." He further added, "If Howard Cosell were a sport, he'd be roller derby."
Cosell, according to longtime ABC racecaster Chris Economaki, "had an enormous and monumental ego, and may have been the most pompous man I've ever met." Cosell ripped Economaki for a miscue in an interview with Cale Yarborough for ABC "(and he) never let me forget that". At an ABC Christmas party Economaki's wife asked to be introduced to Cosell and Chris said, "'Howard, for some inexplicable reason my wife wants to meet you...' and it (ticked) him off to no end. He really took it personally."
In 1970, ABC executive producer for sports Roone Arledge hired Cosell to be a commentator for Monday Night Football, the first time in 15 years that American football was broadcast weekly in prime time. Cosell was accompanied most of the time by ex-football players Frank Gifford and "Dandy" Don Meredith.
Cosell was openly contemptuous of ex-athletes appointed to prominent sportscasting roles solely on account of their playing fame. He regularly clashed on-air with Meredith, whose laid-back style was in sharp contrast to Cosell's more critical approach to the games.
The Cosell-Meredith-Gifford dynamic helped make Monday Night Football a success; it frequently was the number one rated program in the Nielsen ratings. Cosell's inimitable style distinguished Monday Night Football from previous sports programming, and ushered in an era of more colorful broadcasters and 24/7 TV sports coverage.
It was during his MNF run that Cosell coined a phrase that came to be so identified with football that other announcers and spectators—notably Chris Berman—began to repeat it. An ordinary kickoff return began with Cosell giving commentary about a player's difficult life. It became extraordinary when he suddenly observed, "He could go all the way!" As evidenced by the thousands of websites that cite Cosell's quote, many sports commentators consider this to be one of the most famous sports quips of all time.
Along with Monday Night Football, Cosell worked the Olympics for ABC. He played a key role on ABC's coverage of the Palestinian terror group Black September's mass murder of Israeli athletes in Munich at the 1972 Summer Olympics; providing reports directly from the Olympic Village (his image can be seen and voice heard in Steven Spielberg's film about the terror attack). In the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, and the 1984 games in Los Angeles, Cosell was the main voice for boxing.
Cosell was widely attributed with saying the famous phrase "the Bronx is burning". Cosell is credited with saying the quote during Game 2 of the 1977 World Series, which took place in Yankee Stadium on October 12, 1977. For a couple of years, fires had routinely erupted in the South Bronx, mostly due to low-value property owners setting their own properties ablaze for insurance money. During the bottom of the first inning, an ABC aerial camera panned a few blocks from Yankee Stadium to a building on fire, giving the world a real-life view of the infamous Bronx fires. The scene became a defining image of New York City in the 1970s. Cosell supposedly stated, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, The Bronx is burning." This was later picked up by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who then made a special trip to the Bronx, to illustrate the failures of politicians to address the issues in that part of New York City.
In 2005, author Jonathan Mahler published Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, a book about New York in 1977, and credited Cosell with the title quote during the aerial coverage of the fire. ESPN produced a 2007 mini-series based on the book The Bronx Is Burning. Cosell's comment seemed to have captured the widespread view that New York City was on the skids and in a state of decline.
The truth was discovered after Major League Baseball published a complete DVD set of all of the games of the 1977 World Series. Coverage of the fire began with Keith Jackson's comments regarding the enormity of the blaze, while Cosell added that President Jimmy Carter had visited that area just days before. At the top of the second inning, the fire was once again shown from a helicopter-mounted camera, and Cosell commented that the New York Fire Department had a hard job to do in the Bronx as there were always numerous fires. In the bottom of the second, Cosell informed the audience that it was an abandoned building that was burning and no lives were in danger. There was no further comment on the fire, and Cosell appears to have never said "The Bronx is Burning" (at least not on camera) during Game 2.
Mahler's confusion could have arisen from a 1974 documentary entitled The Bronx Is Burning: it is likely Mahler confused the documentary with his recollection of Cosell's comments when writing his book.
On the night of December 8, 1980, during a Monday Night Football game between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots, Cosell shocked the television audience by interrupting his regular commentary duties to deliver a news bulletin of the murder of John Lennon in the midst of a live broadcast. Word had been passed to Cosell and Frank Gifford by Roone Arledge, who was president of ABC's news and sports divisions at the time, near the end of the game.
Cosell was initially apprehensive about announcing Lennon's death. Off the air, Cosell conferred with Gifford and others saying "Fellas, I just don't know, I'd like your opinion. I can't see this game situation allowing for that news flash, can you?" Gifford replied, "Absolutely. I can see it." Gifford later told Cosell, "Don't hang on it. It's a tragic moment and this is going to shake up the whole world."
On air, Gifford prefaced the announcement saying, "And I don't care what's on the line, Howard, you have got to say what we know in the booth." Cosell then replied:
Lennon had been shot four times and had not been pronounced dead on arrival, but the facts of the shooting were not clear at the time of the announcement. Lennon once appeared on Monday Night Football, during the December 9, 1974 telecast of a 23–17 Washington Redskins win over the Los Angeles Rams, and was interviewed for a short breakaway segment by Cosell.
ABC had obtained this scoop as a result of the coincidence of an ABC employee, Alan Weiss, being at the same emergency room that Lennon was brought to that night. This unwittingly violated a request to the hospital by Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono, to delay reporting his death until she could tell their son, Sean, herself. Sean, age 5, was not watching the football game (or any television) that evening as it was near midnight, and Ono was able to break the news to him. NBC beat ABC to the punch, however, interrupting The Tonight Show just minutes before Cosell's announcement with a "breaking news" segment.
In the fall of 1981, Cosell debuted a serious investigative 30-minute magazine show, ABC SportsBeat on ABC's weekend schedule. He made news and covered topics that were not part of general sports coverage - including the first story about drugs in professional sports (the story of former Minnesota Viking Carl Eller's cocaine use), an in-depth look at how NFL owners negotiated tax breaks and incentives for building new stadiums, and together with Arthur Ashe, an investigation into apartheid and sports. Though ratings were low, Cosell and his staff earned 3 Emmy awards for excellence in reporting, and broke new ground in sports journalism. At the time, ABC SportsBeat was the first and only regularly scheduled network program devoted solely to sports journalism.
To produce this pioneering program, Cosell recruited a number of employees from outside the ranks of those that produced games, who he felt might be too invested in the success of the athletes and leagues to look at the hard news. He brought in Michael Marley, then a sportswriter for The Washington Post, Lawrie Mifflin, a writer for The New York Times, and a 20-year old researcher who quickly rose to an associate producer, Alexis Denny. As a sophomore at Yale University, Ms. Denny had been a student in a seminar that Cosell taught on the "Business of Big-Time Sports in America", and was selected by the Director of Monday Night Football to join their production crew. She took her junior year off to join Cosell's staff at ABC Headquarters in New York City, and produced many segments, including in 1983 a half-hour special report previewing the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Despite the games being one of ABC's biggest investments, with a record-breaking 225 million dollar rights fee at the time, the 30-minute documentary-style program produced by Denny showed many sides of the questions about the viability of the Games themselves - from concerns about traffic, pollution and terrorism, to a look at how the sponsorship deals were structured.
Non-sports related appearances
Cosell's colorful personality and distinctive voice were featured to fine comedic effect in several sports-themed episodes of the ABC TV series The Odd Couple. His feuds with New York City sportswriter Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman) mirrored the real life feuds he had with some of New York's leading sportswriters. He also appeared in the Woody Allen films Bananas, Sleeper and (in a brief cameo) Broadway Danny Rose. Such was his celebrity that while he never appeared on the show, Cosell's name was frequently used as an all-purpose answer on the popular 1970s game show Match Game. Cosell also had a cameo in the 1988 movie Johnny Be Good featuring Robert Downey Jr., Anthony Michael Hall and Uma Thurman. His particular speech pattern was also imitated by one of the characters in the film Better Off Dead.
Cosell's national fame was further boosted in Fall 1975 when Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell aired on Saturday evenings on ABC. This was an hour-long variety show, broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York City and hosted by Cosell, which is not to be confused with the NBC series Saturday Night Live (which coincidentally also premiered in 1975 under its original title of NBC's Saturday Night, to avoid confusion with Cosell's show). Despite bringing a young comedian, Billy Crystal, to national prominence and for showcasing the American TV debut of the Bay City Rollers (who later had a hit song by the name of "Saturday Night"), Cosell's show was canceled after three months. Cosell later hosted the 1984-1985 season finale of Saturday Night Live.
Cosell was the announcer of Frank Sinatra's 1975 ABC television special Sinatra – The Main Event.
Cosell appeared alongside Muhammad Ali, Frank Sinatra, Richie Havens, and others on a 1976 spoken word novelty record, The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay.
Beginning in 1976, Cosell hosted a series of specials known as Battle of the Network Stars. The two-hour specials pitted stars from each of the three broadcast networks against each other in various physical and mental competitions. Cosell hosted all but one of the nineteen specials, including the final one airing in 1988.
Cosell denounced professional boxing in a November 26, 1982, bout between Larry Holmes and a clearly outmatched Randall "Tex" Cobb at the Astrodome. The fight was held two weeks after the fatal fight between Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim, and Cosell famously asked the rhetorical question, "I wonder if that referee [Steve Crosson] understands that he is constructing an advertisement for the abolition of the very sport that he's a part of?" Cosell, horrified over the brutality of the one-sided fight, said that if the referee did not stop the fight he would never broadcast a professional fight again. Cosell's outrage and his abandonment of boxing coincided with the end of Muhammad Ali's era in the sport, an era in which Cosell was an insider and confidant of the three-time heavyweight champion. His flamboyant abandonment of the sport that made him a household name was seen by many scribes as opportunistic as his influence and access within the sport had sharply declined with Ali's retirement in 1981.
Major boxing reforms were later implemented, the most important of which allows referees to stop clearly one-sided fights early in order to protect the health of the fighters. In amateur boxing, one-sided fights would be automatically stopped if one fighter had a score considerably higher than his opponent. Hitherto, only the ring physician had the authority to halt a bout. Another change was the reduction of championship bouts from 15 rounds to 12 rounds by the WBC. (The fatal blows to Kim were in Rounds 13 and 14.) The WBA quickly followed suit, and the IBF did so in 1988. Cosell did not cut off ties with the United States Amateur Boxing Federation. His 1984 broadcasts of the Olympic Trials, box-offs, and the 1984 Summer Olympics boxing tournament were his last professional calls of the sport.
On September 5, 1983, Cosell announced a Monday night game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys. During the broadcast, Cosell stated in reference to Redskins wide receiver Alvin Garrett after his sixth reception of the evening, that Washington Coach Joe Gibbs, "wanted that kid, and that little monkey gets loose doesn't he". The comment brought immediate criticism for being racist, specifically by then-president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Rev. Joseph Lowery, who demanded Cosell apologize. Cosell declined, stating first that did not recall making the statement and then that it was an appellation he had previously used for athletes of all races and a term of endearment he employed with his grandchildren. Furthermore, Cosell proclaimed that his civil rights stands for the rights of black athletes spoke for themselves.
After Cosell's memoir I Never Played the Game, which among other things chronicled his disenchantment with fellow ABC commentators, was published in September 1985, Cosell was taken off scheduled announcing duties for that year's World Series and was dismissed by ABC television shortly thereafter. Cosell's book was seen by many as a bitter "hate rant" against those who had offended him. TV Guide published excerpts of his memoirs and reported that they had never had as many viewers' responses and they were overwhelmingly negative towards Cosell. The magazine reported some of the "printable" ones saying things such as "Will Rogers never met Howard Cosell".
In I Never Played the Game, Cosell popularized the word "jockocracy" originally coined by author Robert Lipsyte, describing how athletes were given announcing jobs that they had not earned. Coincidentally, he was replaced for the 1985 World Series broadcast by Tim McCarver, himself a former baseball player, to join Al Michaels and Jim Palmer. (The title of the book is a double entendre, meaning that Cosell never actually played the game of football or any other professional sport he broadcast as well as implying that he never played the "game" of corporate politics.) Cosell is notably absent from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In his later years, Cosell briefly hosted his own television talk show, Speaking of Everything, authored his last book (What's Wrong With Sports), and continued to appear on radio and television, becoming more outspoken about his criticisms of sports in general.
In 1993, Cosell was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. A year later, in 1994, he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. He was also the 1995 recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. After his wife of 46 years, Mary Edith Abrams Cosell (known as "Emmy") died from a massive heart attack in 1990, Cosell largely withdrew from the public eye and his health began failing. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1991 and had surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his chest. He also had several minor strokes, and was diagnosed with heart and kidney disease and Parkinson's.
Cosell died at Hospital for Joint Diseases in Manhattan on April 23, 1995, aged 77, of a cardiac embolism.
He was placed as number one on David J. Halberstam's list of Top 50 All Time Network Television Sports Announcers on Yahoo! Sports. The sports complex at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem is named for Howard and Emmy Cosell. In 2010, Cosell was posthumously inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
The Muppets had a recurring character, Louis Kazagger, a plaid-clothed sportscaster with punctuated nasal inflection, that parodied Cosell.
The band Ben Folds Five have a song titled "Boxing," which was written as a fictional monologue from Muhammad Ali to Howard Cosell during the decline of his boxing career.
In Michael Mann's 2001 film Ali, Cosell is played by Jon Voight, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance.
In the 2002 television film Monday Night Mayhem, Cosell was played by John Turturro.
Jimmy Spicer's 1980 rap single "The Adventures of Super Rhyme" describes a meeting with the "KBC" broadcaster "Coward Hosell".
In the 1985 film Better Off Dead, one of the two Asian-American teenage brothers who regularly challenged John Cusack's character to a street race is said to have learned English from listening to Cosell.
On April 4, 1981, during the beginning of the episode "Drugs" (Season 3 episode 11) of the teen sketch comedy show on Nickelodeon You Can't Do That on Television," the characters made several references to Howard Cosell. One of the quotes was from Christine McGlade who said, "You know, I bet when Howard Cosell was a kid, he spent all the time, when he should have been doing his homework, doing his homework. Instead of reading sports magazines like every other normal kid."
Match Game - used as a common joke among the celebrities