Tony Kornheiser? Why not?
He's a good writer. He knows sports. He's funny. He's a smart aleck.
That's presumably what John Naitove was thinking when Mrs. Smitten called
on him in English class one day at Woodmere Junior High South and suggested he
be sports editor of the school newspaper.
John turned and pointed to the kid seated behind him.
"He said, 'Why don't you let Tony do that? He likes sports more than I
do,'" Kornheiser recalled. "I was the wise guy in class. She didn't really want
it to happen, but she let it."
Naitove, an advertising representative living in Croton-on-Hudson, laughed
when told that story and said he remembered none of it. But he had no doubt it
"He was a fun kid," said Naitove, one of Kornheiser's closest friends then.
"He was into girls a lot, and very much into the music of the time. But always
very funny. We all tried to be wise guys."
No one was wiser than Kornheiser, and three weeks before his 58th birthday,
nothing really has changed since Naitove first fingered him as the man for the
It led to sports editor gigs in high school in Hewlett and college in
radio, ESPN and now this: "Monday Night Football," the most iconic
regular-season sports property on television.
He still can write. Still knows sports. Still is a funny wise guy. But will
that play in Peoria as well as it might in Patchogue?
That is the gamble ABC/ ESPN executives are taking in trying to make
lightning strike twice. Throwing an acerbic New York Jew at Football America
worked with Howard Cosell in the 1970s. Can Kornheiser make ratings magic in
the 21st century?
We will start to find out Aug. 14, when the new Monday night announcing
in Minneapolis. The regular-season opener is Sept. 11.
Since being tabbed in February amid the aftershocks of Al Michaels'
defection to NBC, Kornheiser has unleashed every angst-ridden,
lower-the-expectations morsel of shtick in his arsenal.
But those who hired him are unshaken, encouraged by a rehearsal with his
new partners last month.
Executive VP John Walsh said that in pursuing Kornheiser, ESPN in part
sought "new and different ways to present television. We're always in search of
the next new thing, whatever it is." But the network believes the risk factor
has been overstated.
Unlike with the Dennis Miller failure of 2000-01, in Kornheiser, ESPN will
get comic relief backed by a sports background and proven TV chops after five
years on "Pardon the Interruption."
"To me," Walsh said, "there is no question that in the history of sports
media, he is the most multitalented person ever."
"He can do a game story. He can do a column. He can do a magazine piece. He
can do a [feature]. He can do TV. He can do radio."
Walsh is in position to know. Kornheiser arrived at Newsday on his 22nd
birthday in 1970; Walsh joined him two weeks later, holding several positions,
including sports editor, before leaving in '73.
Like most people at the paper then, Walsh was dazzled by the cocky kid's
Kornheiser grew up the only child of the late Ira and Estelle Kornheiser in
Lynbrook, near enough to the Hewlett border to go to high school there in an
environment in which he was "without the financial advantages of about 90
percent of the student body."
Ira was a freelance dress cutter who left for the Garment District at 5
a.m., only to return without having found work half the time.
"I don't come from the silk- stocking district of Manhattan," his son said.
"I went to public school for a reason. But all I wanted to be was a
sportswriter. I got that early. So this is all gravy."
He played sandlot baseball. He rooted for the Mets. He played touch
football in the street. He played basketball in driveways, including that of
Brent Glass, whose father, Joe, has been busy lately in his job as Larry
Kornheiser still has a key he won from Newsday in a high school journalism
contest. He read the paper's star writers, including Stan Isaacs, Steve
Jacobson and the late Ed Comerford.
Then he tried to become one of them. He sent sports editor Dick Clemente a
letter in which he recalled writing: "I'm just sort of stopping by on my way to
superstardom. I'm going to be the next great writer of books in the universe
and I just need to learn the craft for a little bit."
Kornheiser thought it was a letter "nobody could take seriously." Instead,
the editors invited him in for a tryout. They asked him to rewrite a drab
roundup that began with the news of a kid from West Hempstead named Howie
Miller signing to play basketball at Columbia.
He turned it into an essay that referred to Students for a Democratic
Society and its leader, Mark Rudd, and the Columbia protests of the late '60s.
"I asked if it was OK if I sat at Stan Isaacs' desk [for the test],"
Kornheiser recalled. "Clemente said, 'Go ahead; knock yourself out.' I was a
little jerko kid. I had long hair. I wasn't bald then. They started calling me
'Way Out' right away. Next thing I knew, I had a job."
His first story appeared July 22, 1970. It led with lyrics from Simon and
Garfunkel's "The Boxer." He turned what might have been a dry preview of a
Monday fight in Freeport featuring up-and-comer Jimmy Elder into an essay on
never-was Charley Harris, his eyes "puffy like chocolate cocoons."
Jacobson became and remains one of Kornheiser's best friends and is the
godfather of his son, Michael, 20. (Kornheiser and his wife, Karril, also have
a daughter, Elizabeth, 23.)
"Very early on, Tony was established as off the wall," said Jacobson, who
worked at Newsday from 1960 to 2004. "Tony's approach was very appealing to a
lot of us. He was curious and a smart-ass and generally a kook that the
department could use very well."
Even then, Kornheiser was afraid to fly, a condition that has haunted him
throughout his career and will be a logistical challenge in his new job. He
will take a bus as often as possible, but some plane travel will be unavoidable
because of his PTI commitments. Kornheiser's predecessor, John Madden, is able
to bus everywhere because he is free during the rest of the week.
Jacobson recalled Kornheiser's first out-of-town assignment, a Nets game in
Indianapolis. "At 7 in the morning, he called and said, 'I can't go. I can't
do this.' He was in a panic." Jacobson convinced him to go.
Kornheiser eventually wrote for Part II and the magazine section at
Newsday, then spent several years at The New York Times before moving to
Washington, D.C., in 1979. There he evolved into a local celebrity, writing
columns in the sports and style sections and eventually becoming a radio
His appearances on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters" demonstrated he could
translate to TV, and in 2000 he auditioned for "Monday Night Football" before
ABC gave the job to Miller.
Five years later, with Michaels wavering, Walsh and executive vice
president John Skipper presented the Monday night idea to Kornheiser. "I said,
'No, no, no, no.' Twenty minutes later, I said, 'Yes.'"
To prepare for the Monday night gig, Kornheiser has given up his radio show
- in part to train himself to sleep later in the morning - and for now his
regular appearances in the Washington Post.
"I've sort of written every word I have," he said. "I've been repeating
myself for a number of years now. I'm pretty much done with that."
ESPN is desperate for its version of "Monday Night Football" to be accepted
as the rightful successor to ABC's, but NBC is staking its claim with a Sunday
night package that features flexible late-season scheduling and the proven duo
of Michaels and Madden.
Can the eclectic Tirico- Theismann-Kornheiser booth match up? There seems
little doubt Kornheiser's wit will add to the telecast late in a 30-0 rout, but
what about in a tie game with two minutes left?
Some of Kornheiser's best friends, including Jacobson and PTI partner
Michael Wilbon, have concerns about how he will be received.
"I'm pulling for it, but I don't know how it's going to play," Wilbon said.
"I know he can do it. I just don't know what the reaction will be. I am a
purist. I watch for football. I don't watch for entertainment."
On one hand, Kornheiser seems bothered by the suggestion that he won't know
when to turn down the humor dial.
"When there are important plays, you shouldn't start babbling about your
dog; I get that," he said. "But to be fair, it's not like I don't know anything
about football. I've been a sportswriter 35 years ... So let's not say, 'My
God, they hired a Uruguayan physician,' because I don't think that's what they
On the other hand, he is a master of self-deprecation. He noted that
executives seemed pleasantly surprised after the recent rehearsal.
Said Kornheiser, "I guess I succeeded in setting the bar so low, even a
chimp could have walked over it."
Erik Rydholm, PTI's producer, said Kornheiser's chronic worrying "is a
great strategy, unless you're around it every day. It wears on you. Finally
you're like, 'Yeah, yeah, you're terrible. Nobody likes you. That's why you
have eight jobs.'"
The trick, Rydholm said, will be for Kornheiser to avoid the trap of being
"the funny guy" and instead be "a sports guy who has fun."
Miller recently called Kornheiser and advised him not to be as scripted and
forced as Miller was. "He said, 'Tony, I watch PTI all the time. Just be that
Kornheiser said if Tirico involves him and the show turns into a
conversation, it will work.
"If I am that person who's parachuted in from Mars and I say something and
there's no response other than, 'God, I wish you'd shut up so we can get on
with the game,'" Kornheiser said, "then I'll sink like a stone."
Producer Jay Rothman said he came out of the rehearsal "thrilled with the
sound and the vibe and the energy" and pondering the possibilities.
One key moment in the rehearsal came when Kornheiser asked Theismann why
Shaquille O'Neal could not simply step in as an NFL defensive lineman - a
question that might seem silly to a football expert but might intrigue a viewer.
That is the type of interplay everyone wants between Kornheiser and
Theismann, whom Kornheiser was in the position of having to criticize during
Theismann's playing days in Washington.
"The guy has ripped me up; I know he did it when I played and he's done it
other times," Theismann said. "But the more I think about it, the closer we get
to the season, the more excited I get. I think we're going to bring something
unique and different to the broadcast of professional football."
Kornheiser certainly wants it to work. But with a list of professional
achievements behind him, he does not believe this intriguing turn will define
"Even if I bomb, I've had a career, I've had my professional life," he said.
"What I'm thinking of saying [before a game] is, 'All I know is I filled
out the form, I entered the contest and I won. Now what am I supposed to do?'"
No shortage of voices through the years
"Monday Night Football" has had three play-by-play men - Keith Jackson (1970),
Frank Gifford (1971-85) and Al Michaels (1986-2005) - with Mike Tirico to join
them this year. The cast of analysts has been more complicated:
1970-73 Howard Cosell,
1974 Cosell, Meredith,
1975-76 Cosell, Alex Karras
1977-78 Cosell, Meredith
1979-82 Cosell, Meredith,
1983 Cosell, Meredith,
1984 Meredith, Simpson
1985 Simpson, Joe Namath
1987-97 Gifford, Dan Dierdorf
2000-01 Dan Fouts,
2002-05 John Madden
2006 Joe Theismann,