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OPINIONATED COSELL LEFT A CURIOUS LEGACY

THE PASSING OF Howard Cosell last week left a lot of us realizing it's not 1970 anymore and, beyond that, that he wasn't above it all after all.

Amazingly, it's been more than two decades since the man with the hair piece and the dentures told it like it was. I for one, used to buy it.The reactions to Cosell's death were revealing. Whereas even Richard Nixon was finally cut some slack when the end came, such was not the general case for Howard. Commentators sprang to their keyboards and their microphones and the eulogies just . . . would . . . not . . . come.

Instead, out came backhanded compliments, at best, for the man who turned sportscasting into a love-hate profession, in that order.

Few could resist the chance to now say what they wanted without fear of being edited by words they didn't even know were in the dictionary.

As Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Downey observed after noting that Muhammad Ali said he hoped to meet Howard again in the hereafter, "Howard will be there waiting, telling Allah how he helped to create Ali."

Which only confirms what I've always believed. You can't hide a big ego. And who needs a sports announcer lecturing to them all the time? Sooner or later, usually later, you realize that. The guy behind the mike was talking down to you!

Who needed Howard to boycott boxing and tell us all what a despicable and barbaric sport it was? And at that only after he'd broadcast it long enough to pay off the mortgages on all his homes, yachts and islands and send his kids through Smith and Bryn Mawr? The shame of it was, that's what he was good at - describing the action as Ali went at it with Frazier.

Howard Cosell forgot what got him there, is all, and don't you think that's the announcing profession's biggest hazard? Losing sight of the fact that people tune in to hear you call the action, not just to hear you? Shouldn't a good announcer be heard and not seen? I'm not saying it's easy. I think it's the most natural thing in the world to think of yourself as an integral part of the earth's infrastructure when millions of people are constantly listening to what you have to say and giving you feedback and asking for your autograph. Rush Limbaugh is nothing more than Howard Cosell in embryo, with louder ties.

It's hard to stay humble when you wear makeup. But, still, the good announcers manage to pull it off. Starting out with smaller audiences can't hurt. That's why - incidentally - that I think Utah has had such a long and favorable history in the area of successful national sportscasting.

I may not be entirely objective because I'm naturally going to be partial to anyone who grew up in Logan, but I think Merlin Olsen is the second best college football color commentator there's ever been, even if he did get laid off.

Further, I think CBS's Jim Nantz - whose start was with KSL in Salt Lake City - is the all-time best lead sports announcer ever. And I think Johnny Miller's color commentary on golf is not only the best there's ever been but so good it almost makes you want to release the mental stranglehold you've got around Ben Wright's neck.

Miller, of course, learned how to talk at BYU, which shows the range of a place that also gave the world Sharlene Wells Hawkes.

The best all-time football color commentator, by the way, in my opinion is John Madden and I don't guess there would be much argument there even though his only ties to Utah, as far as I know, are with Amtrak.

I've had great respect for the art of sports announcing ever since I tried it myself at the KTVX studios in west Salt Lake on a tape Steve Brown promised to destroy in return for my promise I would never try again. Someone should have cut a similar deal with Dick Vitale.

But at least Vitale tells it like he sees it without a hair piece. And the day he turns his back on basketball and denounces it as barbaric and despicable is the day Jane Fonda votes for Newt Gingrich.

At the end of the day, Howard Cosell left a curious legacy, one he probably wouldn't recognize or feel he deserved. Opinionated begat opinionated, and sometimes that's not altogether good news. Howard would be shocked, but the late Red Smith wasn't kidding after all. Smith, the Pulitzer Prize winning sports writer from the New York Times, was once asked by Cosell how many truly great broadcasters there were.

"One fewer than you think, Howard," he answered.