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Tom Jones' Two Cents

Sports analysis, perspective and more.

Most influential sports analysts



When NFL analyst John Madden retired last week after 30 years in the booth, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol called him "absolutely the bestbroadcaster who ever lived.'' Ebersol was not exaggerating. No one has had a greater impact on modern sports analysts than Madden. Today I give you my picks for the eight most influential analysts -- influential being the key word -- in sports broadcasting history.

Madden 1. John Madden
The gold standard of sports analysts. Think about it. Madden coached a team (the Raiders) that was despised as a villain outside of Oakland. He isn't good-looking. He isn't polished. He's not even particularly well-spoken. Yet he has become a national icon as an announcer and a pitchman for being his big-lug self. All those goofy words -- doink, blam, pow — it wasn't shtick. That's who Madden is. And better than anyone before or since, Madden took a complicated sport and broke it down for all fans to understand in an entertaining way. He's the godfather of modern analysts and changed the way networks hire them. Instead of always taking good-looking, articulate people and turning them into analysts, the networks are willing to hire personalities and let them be themselves. Few have come close to being as personable as Madden.

Cosell 2. Howard Cosell
He called every sport in the 1960s and '70s but specialized in baseball, boxing and football, almost single-handedly turning Monday Night Football into one of the most successful shows in TV history. There was no in-between with Cosell. You loved him or hated him. And that's a sign of someone who is always saying something relevant. What set Cosell apart was his willingness to criticize anything -- athletes, coaches, leagues, even his network, ABC. Here's what makes him a legend: Decades after his heyday (he retired in 1992 and died in ’95), the networks are still trying to replicate his voice (think Dennis Miller, Tony Kornheiser and even Rush Limbaugh at ESPN) and haven't come close.

Dean 3. Dizzy Dean
This pitcher turned broadcaster might have been the original John Madden when he called national TV games in the 1950s and 1960s. He played himself, with a little exaggeration, as the country bumpkin -- he said things such as "(so-and-so) slud into second base'' --and that was his charm. Eventually the networks caught on that it wasn't important how someone said something, but the message behind it. For all his "ain'ts,'' "oughtas'' and other mangled English, Dean knew baseball, and listeners knew what he meant.  Perhaps for the first time, the broadcaster was as much a part of the broadcast as the game.

Miller 4. Johnny Miller
The networks often employ a formula to pick analysts: take an athlete who is/was really good and is good-looking and speaks somewhat intelligently, throw a jacket on his back and a microphone in his hand, and tell him, "Start talking.'' The results are almost always disappointing because a former athlete won't criticize other athletes for fear of being seen as a traitor to his kind. Miller was a very good golfer. He is good-looking and can speak intelligently. He put on a jacket and grabbed a microphone and then -- thankfully -- talked like he was sitting alone at home. If a player hits the wrong club, Miller says so. If he badly misses a putt, Miller will bark, "What was that?''Ask players on the PGA Tour and you'll find many don't like Miller. That seems like a huge compliment.

Vitale 5. Dick Vitale
Yes, some out there don't like this college basketball announcer because he sounds so over the top, like he spent the morning chasing diet pills with Red Bull. But here's what you need to know: Dickie V is the same when the camera is not on. He loves college basketball and has done more to promote the sport he covers than any analyst ever. He makes it seem like every game he is announcing is the most important sporting event of all time, and what’s wrong with that, especially when that's what he believes? It's no coincidence that the popularity of college basketball has exploded since ESPN launched in 1979. And no one has had more of impact on ESPN’s coverage of it than Vitale.

Barkley 6. Charles Barkley
Think of him as the modern Dizzy Dean. Something pops into his head, and he says it without bothering to put it in perfectly structured sentences. What comes out of his mouth, however, makes him not only the best NBA analyst on television, but the best studio analyst in sports. Barkley learned something early that many analysts never do: To be really good, you have to say what you truly believe. Barkley doesn't seem to have an edit button in his head. Two things happen when an analyst doesn't censor himself: He draws a strong reaction, and he becomes compelling. More than any analyst out there, Barkley commands you to hear what comes out of his mouth.

Mcenroe 7. John McEnroe
Bad boy Johnny Mac is to tennis what Johnny Miller is to golf. Even those who disliked McEnroe as a player because of his tantrums seem to respect him as an announcer because of his honesty.
McEnroe proves that an athlete doesn't have to be universally loved as a player to have fans as a broadcaster. When McEnroe went berserk as a player, you couldn't help but watch. Now when he speaks, you can't help but listen. Here's one for the casual tennis fan: name another men's analyst. It says something that McEnroe works on practically every network that carries the sport.

Burke 8. Doris Burke
Proof that it doesn't matter if you're a man or a woman, if you know what you're talking about, you're worth listening to. Burke broke through on television as a sideline reporter on college basketball games and NBA games. She was a WNBA analyst, then someone smart realized she knew the game so well, she could analyze men's as well as women’s games. So now she does color on NBA telecasts. It's only a matter of time before more women get the chance to call men's games, and they'll get that chance because Burke has been such a success.

[Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 2:42pm]


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