Greatest ever on the air? Here’s one take.
David J. Halberstam is a broadcast sports historian who has watched the NFL since the 1960s and is now publisher of Sports Broadcast Journal. With such a wealth of insight, we asked him to rank who he thinks are the league’s best-ever voices. Here’s his ranking, which he based on visibility, popularity, endurance, influence and uniqueness of style. Click on each name for examples of their work.
(1971, 1973-75 and 1986-present, NBC, CBS, ABC)
The standard for excellence. A prime-time mainstay since 1986, the cynosure of NFL telecasts; “Monday Night Football,” “Sunday Night Football,” 36 seasons and 10 Super Bowls. Dennis Miller spoke in riddles and John Madden was plain-spoken, but Michaels had his cardinal rules: nothing gets in the way of the game, have fun and never sound contrived or rehearsed.
(1963-2002, CBS and Fox)
Good looks, strong voice, football smarts and 15 Super Bowls, 11 calling play by play, four as an analyst. Moved to play-by-play from the analyst’s chair in 1974, adopting ex-partner Ray Scott’s minimalist style. The quintessential setup man for Tom Brookshier and later John Madden. Epitaph: “Tonight on CBS, ‘60 Minutes,’ followed by ‘Murder She Wrote.’”
(1977-97 and 2000-09, NBC, CBS)
Verbal embroidery? “Oh My!” Composed melodic and anecdotal soundtracks of eight Super Bowls. Captioned par excellence: “Elway’s rifle arm is made for the shotgun formation” or “The lantern-jawed Don Shula patrols the Miami sideline.” Loved by the professorial and blue-collar fan alike.
(1962-80, ABC, NBC, CBS)
Manly voice, neighborly warmth and biggest play-by-player of his era. AFL, NFL, seven Super Bowls, “Heidi” game in 1968 and Jim O’Brien’s kick to win the 1971 Super Bowl. None bigger than the 1969 Super Bowl, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re sitting in on history. No one thought it would be close and the Jets almost shut out the mighty Colts.”
Fox prodigy, youngest to do a Super Bowl (35 in 2005); he will call his sixth in February. Redefined minimalism in one hardy breath, fashioning a deft cadenced and bullet-point call; what just happened and what’s next, giving partner Troy Aikman more runway than a jumbo jet.
(1988-93 and 2004-present, CBS)
Confident, unassuming and a pious disciple of teamwork. Blends legendary qualities of Curt Gowdy, Dick Enberg and Jack Whitaker. Shares anecdotes that warm the cockles of America’s heart, nimbly sets up Tony Romo in a friendly, conversational manner. Duo coming off a glittering 2018 season, which included the playoffs and Super Bowl.
(1967-2013, CBS, NBC)
A record-setting 47 seasons that spanned parts of six decades. Filled millions of living rooms with an assuring rich timbre. Bullhorn calls: Tom Dempsey’s barrier-breaking 63-yarder in 1970, Miracle at the Meadowlands in 1978 and The Epic in Miami in 1982.
His word count wouldn’t fill the top shelf of an NFL locker. The father of minimalism, put little flesh on thick bones, “Starr…Dowler…Touchdown!” It’s TV, he said. Four early Super Bowls, including the first, but never for more than $800 per. Taken down by his own brevity after the 1973 season.
(1970, 1974-present, CBS, NBC, Fox)
Five decades in, now the dean of NFL network voices. Comfortable on a piano chair, he also knows when to hit the big note on-air, employ the right word, underscore the drama or to just let the pictures do the talking.
(1960-97, ABC, NBC)
ABC, NBC, the AFL and NFL. His kettledrum voice chronicled 38 seasons with a natural flair, including, unfailingly, a 1993 wild card game when the Bills rallied from 32 behind in the second half to upend the Oilers.
Color and Analysts
Network sports’ first and boldest personality. Gave pioneering “Monday Night Football” its needed buzz entertaining many, annoying others. Extemporized weekend halftime highlights in inimitable staccato rhythm. In 1980, shared with millions the news of an “unspeakable tragedy … dead on arrival,” the murder of John Lennon.
(1979-2009, CBS, Fox, ABC, NBC)
Looked football and talked the part. Robust, street smart and unlike Cosell, no dictionary required. Imbued insight, personality and introduced millions to the game’s vernacular. Got the air space and built his TV capital. “Whap!” “Bang!” and “Doink!”
(1970-84, ABC, NBC)
Dandy Don’s down-home humor and friendly ribbing were the perfect fit for a prime-time soiree. When the losing score was bleak late, Meredith broke into song, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.” Most of America knew it was time to hit the sack.
Exploded onto the scene with passion, warmth and clairvoyance. A phenom, with proven seer-like qualities, a TV rock star from the get-go, a regular and viral subject of social media on NFL Sundays.
(1990-present, Fox, NBC)
Concise, this law school grad can also sound as giddy as a Philadelphia lawyer who just won a tough case. But after questioning two Eagles touchdowns in the 2018 Super Bowl, over 150,000 Philly fans signed a petition to bar him from future Birds telecasts.
No big smiles, a no-nonsense, meat and potatoes, hits and tackles analyst. Partner Joe Buck provides the apt testimony: “Troy can identify a defense’s coverage in an instant. Every week, I could see why he won three Super Bowls.”
(1965-1998, CBS, ABC)
In rapid succession, he exchanged his cleats for an analyst’s mic at CBS. Was then anointed to handle “Monday Night Football” play-by-play on ABC in 1971. A hybrid, he moved back to color in 1986 for 11 seasons. On-air, at the -13 degree Ice Bowl in 1967, “I just took a bite out of my coffee.”
Paired with Pat Summerall, arguably the most popular NFL announcing duo of the 1970s; did three Super Bowls together. The two sounded like they were talking football in a saloon. Good buddies, they collaborated symbiotically in perfect tandem.
(1985-2013, CBS, ABC)
Studious, this former hard-nosed lineman served as Al Michaels’ “Monday Night Football” partner for 12 years, including three Super Bowls. Moved back to CBS for the next 15 years, partnering with Dick Enberg, Verne Lundquist and Greg Gumbel.
(1977-91, NBC, CBS)
Actor, FTD pitchman, fierce Rams defender and laid-back. Was NBC’s lead analyst with partner Dick Enberg, worked five Super Bowls and the Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati in 1981. In a -59 degree wind chill, Olsen’s thick beard was growing icicles.
(1984-94 and 2002-17, NBC and HBO)
Inarguably, network’s best sports studio host ever. A commanding eloquence, impeccably prepared, encyclopedic and curious. No matter the NFL related subject, be it oversaturation of television coverage, protests during the national anthem or threatening injuries, his view has never been vulnerable to the company line.
Sired and shaped the modern-day NFL studio show. Gave “NFL Today” a pronounced edge and a lasting personality. Shared the studio with pioneering Miss America Phyllis George, then Jayne Kennedy, and vibrantly engaged handicapper Jimmy the Greek. Numbers? CBS was always the sure bet, consistently No. 1 in the ratings.
At the mothership since its birth and refreshingly novel at first. Ranted, postulated, impersonated, stamped nicknames and spewed highlights. A chameleon, he played Swami the prognosticator and sprinkled fact-filled reports with clownish humor. In time, he evolved into ESPN’s ingrained face.
(1994-present, Fox, CBS)
A Sunday studio fixture, first on Fox, then CBS. Keeps the show moving in a tight direction, does both the mental bookkeeping to evenly juggle the mic and gently moderates panelists through pockets of cacophony.
Ubiquitous, warm and modest. Notably unflappable in 2003 when tipsy interviewee Joe Namath ambushed her on camera for a kiss. Not to prolong the on-the-field uneasiness, she gracefully threw it upstairs to her on-air cohorts. In recent years, her role deservedly swelled to include hosting and reporting.
(1978-1985 and 1988-96, CBS Radio)
He and Hank Stram teamed for 16 Monday night seasons. His concise calls boomed off car hoods, coast to coast. Think: The Miss by Scott Norwood, The Catch by Dwight Clark and 17 radio Super Bowls. The résumé of Joe Buck’s dad also includes the 1970 Super Bowl on CBS TV.
(2000-18 Westwood One)
For 18 seasons, did color on network radio’s Monday night games and presided over a record 19 Super Bowls in all (18 on radio and in 2000 with Michaels on ABC). Years after dodging blitzers, he’s still indefatigable. Does morning drive on New York radio and Sundays on the CBS television set.
(1978-85 and 1988-96, CBS Radio)
A brassy voice with a coach’s intuition, he and Jack Buck made hours in the car feel like minutes. Hank: “Dallas will go right on this play.” Spot-on as usual. Moments later, Jack: “Right again, Henry! It’s first down Cowboys.”
(2011-present, Westwood One)
Best pipes? Ray Scott, Don Criqui, Charlie Jones and this stentorian voice. Paints an enthusiastic word picture second to none. In 2016 he broke into a graphic and enthralling call of an elusive drunk on the 49ers’ field. “Some goofball in a red hat and a red shirt ….” NFL fans loved it.
(1974-77 and 1981-83, Mutual and CBS Radio)
Monday night games on network radio were born in part as an alternative to the brusque Cosell on TV. Loud sport coats, a mellifluous twang and descriptions that brimmed with rhythmic vitality. A son of radio, he also did years of NFL on TV.
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