Memory is a funny thing.
I could have sworn that years ago, as a TV critic, circumstances led to me talking with Al Michaels, generally consider the greatest play-by-play announcer of all time, in a bar when he related a stunning story.
Michaels, who will call his 11th Super Bowl Sunday when NBC broadcasts the game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the LA Rams, has been on the mike for some of the best moments in sports. The biggest, of course, was the U.S. hockey team’s monumental upset of the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
But Michaels said, as I recalled, that the greatest sporting event he’d ever called was when the performance of the men’s mile relay team at Arizona State University years before.
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“Not the most exciting thing I called — I mean, nothing beats Lake Placid — I’ve called a lot of exciting stuff,” Michaels said between Super Bowl production meetings Tuesday. “I said one of the most amazing things that never gets enough publicity is when the Arizona State mile relay team set the world record at the Mt. San Antonio (College) Relays, 3:04.5, and they broke the world record which was held by the Olympic team by 1.1 seconds.”
If that sounds like a specific memory, well, Michaels is a stickler for details. Indeed, that was the time run by Mike Barrick, Henry Carr, Ron Freeman and Ulis Williams in 1963 that set the world record.
But Michaels still remembers the time? The exact time?
“Well yeah, it was an amazing thing,” he said. “It was an incredible achievement.”
What’s also amazing is that Michaels, who has called games while millions and millions of people watch and listen, called the meet for the campus radio station. That was a slightly different audience.
“This thing was going to like 20 people, whoever could pick this cockamamie signal up,” he said. “This was not big-time radio, trust me.”
It did not, however, plant the seed for Michaels’ career. Not because it wasn’t inspiring. But because he was already on that path.
“I was doing football and baseball and basketball at ASU on the campus station, sports out of the State Press,” he said. “As a huge sports fan and somebody who knew a heck of a lot about track and field — and I wound up covering all the track and field in the ’84 Olympics — I just thought, this is an amazing thing.”
Since Michaels was on the phone, it seemed like a good time to catch up with him on some other topics, like the future of the Arizona Cardinals. “I think pretty good, as long as they can play the way they played in the first half of the season,” he said. “A little meltdown by the end, but (receiver DeAndre) Hopkins got hurt. Obviously, that was gigantic. That hurt a lot.
“They’ve got some great players, good young players, the coach is really good. I like the way they’ve constructed the team. I would hope they’ll be on some prime-time action next year.”
Speaking of, where will Michaels be calling prime-time action next season? Not “Sunday Night Football,” probably. His contract with NBC ends after the Super Bowl; the scuttlebutt is that the network will let him walk, replacing him with Mike Tirico.
(Tirico has been considered part of the succession plan since he signed on with NBC in 2016. It’s a sign of the regard the network holds him in that on Super Bowl Sunday he’ll host both the pregame show and the Winter Olympics from SoFi Stadium in LA.)
The scenario most often talked about (though not by Michaels) has him landing at Amazon Prime Video, which will carry “Thursday Night Football” next season.
Michaels does like to talk, and — news flash — he’s good at it. But there was no way he was going to reveal his plans.
“I have options, I have opportunities,” he said. “I love what I do, I feel great, I want to continue and I’ve vowed this year just to enjoy this year to its fullest extent, which I have, not get distracted, which I haven’t, and when the Super Bowl is over and I can assess everything with a clearer head, I’ll see what’s out there. I’ll see what the best path is for me. But retirement is not in my plans.”
Certainly Michaels isn’t going to badmouth NBC. A mention that Olympics ratings were down over the 2018 games found Michaels, who says he’s watching, defending the numbers. (Primetime telecasts are averaging about 12.03 million viewers, according to the Hollywood Reporter, vs. 23.92 million in 2018.)
“The ratings are still pretty great,” Michaels said. “You take any scripted program on the networks, they’ll say, ‘Oh god, we’ll take those ratings.’ When I hear that the ratings are terrible, I go hold on a second. I hear about all these hit shows, hit sitcoms, whatever gobbledygook is out there. Hold on a second. They’ll trade ratings with the Olympics in a heartbeat.”
Reach Goodykoontz at firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. Twitter: @goodyk. Subscribe to the weekly movies newsletter.
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