Mid-November is not usually a preferred time to play football under the lights in Cincinnati but the spectacle of ABC Monday Night Football invaded Riverfront Stadium with announcers Frank Gifford, Don Meredith, and Howard Cosell on Nov. 13, 1978.
The weather was a perfect 56 degrees with a light breeze as the 9:07 p.m. kickoff approached. This would have actually been a decent night for Reds baseball. The matchup between the Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders looked good when the schedule was announced but had become a real dud as the season progressed.
The home team entered at 1-9 including a head coaching change as Bill Johnson was replaced by Homer Rice. The usually powerful Raiders were 6-4 but would finish poorly and miss the playoffs. They would not play in a sixth consecutive AFC championship game. The “silver and black” had won the Super Bowl after the 1976 season.
The highlights for me on this night came via media access both before and after the game. As per usual in those days, I had two press credentials. As we entered the pressbox media dining area, there was bombastic and controversial Howard Cosell holding court at a table and smoking a cigar. After dinner it was down to the field for pregame warmup. Just outside the elevator at field level, Gifford was being interviewed.
Once on the field we stayed with the Raiders which proved fascinating. Legendary maverick owner Al Davis was visible and audible as he moved from group to group, actively offering encouragement and personal greeting to many of his players. Less dominant in pregame presence but still active was tenth year head coach John Madden with the usual signature sideline pass dangling from his waist.
We spent several minutes standing near the launch site of practice punts by the great Ray Guy. Each effort attained amazing height and distance with a full moon providing the appropriate backdrop on a clear night. What an awesome sight and a preview of coming attractions as he averaged 48.4 when it counted in the hours that followed.
The field was cleared about 8:30 and we went back to the pressbox. The Raiders dominated the game with a deceiving score of 34-21. Lefty Ken Stabler threw a trio of touchdown passes while his Cincinnati counterpart, Ken Anderson, threw a pair but was both sacked and intercepted four times each.
After the encounter the best media opportunities were in the visiting locker room. It was just after midnight and the Raiders were moving quickly toward a charter flight back to the west coast. We entered and immediately found Coach Madden seated and slumped on an equipment locker with his back against a wall and eyes closed. Appearing exhausted, his eyes opened and he sighed a deep breath.
A brief opening statement included his dislike of artificial turf and flying all night to get home. It was well documented that he never liked to fly. A few questions about the game followed and the media group departed. When we got outside I commented that Madden looked and sounded so “out of it” that I could see him retiring from coaching. “This guy is done,” I opined.
That’s exactly what happened at season’s end and Madden headed to the TV booth and the endorsement world, never to return to coaching. He was just 42 years old.
Next week: “Welcome to the AFL” Jets kicker Jim Turner, January 1969.
Sports Extra appears each Friday. A 44-year local media member, Dave Ross is a Past President of both the Ohio Sportscasters Association and Shelby County Historical Society.