The departure of Tony Kornheiser from the Monday Night Football booth after three seasons, in part because of his fear of flying, makes one appreciate John Madden all the more.
Not just for Madden's formidable combination of analytical and entertainment skills, but for the fact that, despite suffering from the same paralyzing dread as Kornheiser, he weathered 30 years crisscrossing the country by bus to share his football passion with us.
Kornheiser is a very funny man, and I regret that the preeminence of television in the sports world has already deprived us of his best newspaper writing. I hadn't quite made up my mind about his performance in the MNF booth. He seemed slightly miscast and never appeared quite as comfortable on Monday Night Football as he does on ESPN's popular Pardon the Interruption. Clearly he lacked the rapport with Mike Tirico and Ron Jaworski that came so naturally with his longtime Washington Post colleague and PTI partner Michael Wilbon.
Still, I appreciated his efforts to leaven what too often appears to be an overly somber reverence for the game. And if Kornheiser wasn't a perfect fit for Monday Night Football, he was at least a potentially amusing diversion and cut from a different mold than the usual NFL color commentators.
Jon Gruden, the former Tampa Bay and Oakland coach who will replace him, is a more typical choice for the broadcast team, though he doesn't come out of a cookie-cutter mold either. Gruden, who is still just 45 years old despite 11 seasons as an NFL head coach, has a reputation for being brash, opinionated, witty and irreverent, all of which could prove to be a boon to fans.
That is, of course, if he chooses to make serving fans his primary mission. Because we can be confident of one Gruden opinion at every game: that he could be doing a better job with that team than whoever is coaching it that day. And though he hasn't set any timetable publicly, he makes no secret of the fact that coaching remains his foremost love. That he covets a return to the sidelines is palpable. And young coaches with a career winning percentage of .540 and a Super Bowl ring usually earn another shot very quickly.
That likely makes him a highly paid temp in the MNF booth and, as such, a dubious choice. The success of any sports broadcasting team depends on chemistry and comfort levels that usually take time to develop. Gruden and Jaworski have some overlapping skills, and they will need to sort out roles and responsibilities. Why waste a season on somebody whose commitment to the booth is unlikely to extend beyond that?
In the end, viewers may always be wondering if Gruden is performing for them or auditioning for a new job. There is plenty of potential for conflict between the two aspirations. If the latter prevails, then candor goes out the broadcast window. And the fans wind up getting shortchanged.