Dan Dierdorf is set for prime time one last time.
Dierdorf had a Pro Football Hall of Fame 13-year run in St. Louis as an offensive lineman with the old football Cardinals. Then he embarked on an even higher profile second career in network broadcasting that has run for 30 seasons, but he signs off for the final time Saturday night.
He’ll be on CBS’ telecast of the Indianapolis-New England playoff game, working in his customary analyst role with play-by-play partner Greg Gumbel as his run of either playing in or broadcasting the NFL ends after nearly 4½ decades.
And it’s been a difficult week for him as the finale nears.
“It’s been a little more traumatic than I thought it would be,” he said Wednesday. “I didn’t realize how many people wanted to talk to me and how much time it would take. I had this vision of quietly passing off into that night. It’s not happening that way. It’s hard. It’s not easy giving up something when it’s all you know.”
He’s still sharp on the air at 64, but it’s a case of matter over mind. Both his knees and hips are artificial, in part by-products of playing and practicing on artificial turf with the Cardinals, and travel now takes a heavy toll on his body.
“I just have to get away from going to an airport every Friday,” says Dierdorf, who still lives in the St. Louis area. “I don’t have any home games. Every game is a road game (because CBS rarely has had a Rams game to which he was assigned). I can’t physically do it anymore.”
He has been with CBS for the last 15 seasons, a strong bookend to his network broadcast career that began there in 1985.
Then two years later he was lured to what is one of the biggest stages in the history of American sports television — ABC’s “Monday Night Football.” And he thrived in the analyst role that previously had been held by legends Howard Cosell and Don Meredith.
How successful was his 12-year run there?
He had a longer stay on prime-time network television than Jerry Seinfeld had with his dysfunctional friends on “Seinfeld,” longer than Archie Bunker had spewing bigoted views to his “dingbat” wife and “meathead” son-in law in “All in the Family,” and longer than Lucille Ball had being zany with Desi Arnaz on “I Love Lucy.”
BRIGHT MONDAY LIGHTS
“MNF” forever will be the defining era of Dierdorf’s career.
“That’s a part of television history,” Dierdorf says. “I did ‘Monday Night Football’ when we dominated the television landscape. We were the highest-rated game every week; it was an automatic. You’re aware you’re on that huge package, and if I ever wanted to remind myself, all I had to do was turn to my left and 12 inches away was Frank Gifford. I was standing with television history. And with Al Michaels (on play-by-play), doing it for a dozen years, that changed my life forever.”
It changed Michaels’ life, too.
“What I’m really proud of — and Dan is one of my all-time favorite guys not only as a partner but as a friend, too — is that Frank and Dan and I danced that dance 11 years. That’s a long time,” Michaels said this week.
Add in a year Michaels and Dierdorf had with Boomer Esiason after Gifford retired, and they were together for a dozen seasons.
“Dan was a great partner, he really was,” Michaels says. “He was just a great teammate, a great close friend you can always count on.”
ABC hired Dierdorf entering the 1987 season, a year after a major shakeup had been orchestrated by new ABC Sports boss Dennis Swanson — who had taken over from the legendary Roone Arledge. In ‘86 Michaels had been brought aboard to take over the play-by-play job from Gifford, who was shifted to the analyst role that previously had been shared by O.J. Simpson and Joe Namath — who were ousted. “MNF” thus had its first two-man booth in its 17-season history. But Swanson decided to return to the show’s roots the next year. In came Dierdorf.
“Swanson decided that we really needed somebody more contemporary and somebody who really could deal the nuts and bolts of football,” Michaels recalled. “That’s when Dan got the job.”
Dierdorf was contemporary. He had retired from the Cardinals after the 1983 season and worked in St. Louis radio in ‘84 before being hired to do games at CBS-TV. He quickly worked his way up to the network’s No. 2 NFL game analyst slot, behind John Madden. He was on the fast track in his new career, which suddenly roared into the fastest lane possible — “Monday Night Football.”
“I was the right guy in the right place at the right time.” Dierdorf says. “They weren’t looking to replace a guy, they were looking to add a guy. That was my good fortune.”
But that fortune almost didn’t happen — ABC at first had other plans for Dierdorf.
“They initially offered me a college football job,” he says. “I said, ‘That’s not going to work for anybody. I’m the No. 2 (NFL analyst) at CBS, I’m not leaving that for college football.”‘
He had another thought for the ABC brass.
He says he also told them that “two or three weeks after (college football) starts, you’re going to say to yourself, ‘What were we thinking? We should have hired him for Monday nights.’ Yeah, I was a little brash.”
But that brashness paid off — for both sides. And when reality hit, that he really was going to be a key cog in an iconic program, Dierdorf says it was a blur.
“I was shocked,” he says. “You say to yourself, ‘Is this really happening?’”
Michaels is glad it happened.
“I didn’t know Dan at the time, but I knew a lot about him and I knew that he had a good deal of experience at CBS with football,” Michaels recalls. “I knew enough about him to know that he had paid a lot of attention to the business of broadcasting. I really have to say it meshed right from the beginning.”
Sure, Dierdorf had his critics — as does any high-profile broadcaster. The loudest ones said he talked too much, over-analyzed. But he was at the top of his profession, was nominated for an Emmy Award three times. And he and his broadcast teammates had a memorable cameo as themselves in the popular 1996 film “Jerry Maguire.”
Ultimately Dierdorf’s “MNF” run ended the same way it began — a new boss was in charge. This time it was Steve Bornstein of then-relatively new ABC and ESPN owner The Walt Disney Company.
“It’s the same old story, I don’t care what your occupation is — when you no longer work for the guy who hired you, you’re in play,” Dierdorf says. “(Bornstein) wanted to put his thumb prints on things, that’s the way the business works.”
But two seasons after Dierdorf was ousted, comedian Dennis Miller joined the show along with former football players Dan Fouts and Eric Dickerson. So Dierdorf wasn’t exactly heartbroken to not be riding a carousel that crashed after two seasons.
“I knew it wasn’t going to work out,” Dierdorf says. “And let’s be realistic — their answer was to do things like Dennis Miller. How long did that work out? I feel somewhat vindicated.”
Dierdorf returned to CBS, where he has been ever since. But he was apprehensive at first about returning, because his self-pride was bruised as the offer was to work on its No. 2 NFL team, with Verne Lundquist.
“Initially I thought there was no way I could be on the ‘B’ team,” Dierdorf said at the time. “... Part of it is ego. Once you do ‘Monday Night Football’ (you think) ‘What am I going to do to top this?’ ... (You think) ‘Hey, you’re Dan Dierdorf.’”
But reality set in as he considered the situation.
“Did I expect Fox to fire (its top NFL analyst) John Madden? Did I expect (lead CBS analyst) Phil Simms to go away with his son to college?”
He took the CBS offer.
As Dierdorf’s playing days dwindled, he was determined not to have his life’s work peak while he was in his 30s.
While still playing, he and Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart did a show on the team’s flagship radio station, KMOX (1120 AM).
After football, Dierdorf’s life sprouted. He went into business with Hart on a restaurant that carried their names at Westport Plaza — “I’m thinking of a steak” was its well-known slogan — then added a downtown location (both of which now are closed). He was a pitchman for a car dealer, hosted more shows on KMOX (including the high-profile “Sports Open Line”) and served as sports director at KMOV (Channel 4). He later became an investor in KTRS (550 AM) and has been on its airwaves.
But the key turn in his broadcasting career came after the 1983 season, his final as a player.
“NBC wanted to sign me to a six- or eight-game TV contract,” Dierdorf recalls. “If I had taken that, that’s all I would have done that fall — six or eight games.”
He turned that down in order to work on radio alongside some high-profile play-by-play announcers. He did University of Missouri games with John Rooney, football Cardinals contests with Jack Buck and called 10 NFL games on CBS, working with the likes of Lindsey Nelson, Frank Glieber, Ray Scott and Dick Stockton.
“The counsel and advice I got that year, I grew a great deal as not an ex-football player but as a broadcaster,” Dierdorf says. “We’d go to a commercial break and Jack would lean over and say, ‘Now Dan, since the last break you’ve used the work ‘incredible’ three times. You’ve got to learn to keep track of your adjectives, and when you use one you recycle it and put it at the back of the line.’That kind of tutoring is priceless. I’m getting it from Jack Buck, are you kidding me? Who could possibly be more fortunate in that regard?”
He calls the decision to turn down NBC for his on-the-job training “the best thing I ever did.”
His glibness, humor and ability to provide easy-to-understand analysis of complex situations led CBS to come calling the next season, and he did play-by-play on some games.
“Dan is the No. 1 broadcasting prospect in the country,” Terry O’Neil, who was CBS’s executive producer for NFL telecasts, said at the time. “... When we look at potential talent, almost every candidate must go through several auditions. It wasn’t necessary with Dan.”
He soon moved up to the No. 2 team, as an analyst with Stockton, and that set the stage for his leap to “MNF.”
And when Dierdorf entered the big stage, Michaels was impressed with Dierdorf’s dedication to the broadcasting craft.
“I have always felt that the best analysts are the guys who come off the field and don’t think of themselves as ex-jocks, (they think) they’re going into the business of broadcasting,” Michaels says. “They learn what broadcasting is about. ... Dan Dierdorf knew that he wanted to get into broadcasting — obviously he had in St. Louis locally, but he immersed himself in the business. He wasn’t Dan Dierdorf ex-jock, he was Dan Dierdorf broadcaster. That was his mentality, and that to me always has made the difference.
“You can get any number of people to come into that booth and explain to you — some better than others — what’s going on. But it takes somebody who understands what the business is, who the audience is, what you’re trying to say to them and how to say it concisely and intelligently and relevantly. Dan, being a really smart guy, he got it. He got it. That’s what elevated him. That’s why you’ve got the really good analysts and a lot of other guys who think of themselves as ex-jocks.”
“I always thought I was a leg up on other guys in my position because I wasn’t just an ex-football player, I looked at myself as a broadcaster,” he says. “I learned how to be a broadcaster at KMOX.”
And one of his old KMOX colleagues there, current NBC and MLB Network sportscaster Bob Costas, endorses that.
“I think he’s a great person, and I really have a lot of respect for the way he conducted himself professionally,” Costas has said. “Just on a network basis, he had a tremendous career.”
To that end, Dierdorf won the Pete Rozelle radio-television award in 2008, becoming just the thirdformer player to win the prestigious honor. And he also covered boxing and the Olympics for ABC.
Michaels says Dierforf’s success has helped other players from non-glamour positions to be considered for key football broadcasting roles.
“Here comes a guy, an offensive lineman playing for the St. Louis Cardinals on teams that didn’t do particularly well,” Michaels says. “Dan was not a household name coming off the football field although he was a great player. And he really elevated it, he elevated the stature of offensive linemen in the business as far as I’m concerned. An offensive lineman has fantastic perspective and not only can describe offensive line play but describe anything. The more I’ve been around football for years, offensive linemen are very brainy, they really are. But I’m not sure a lot of people really understood that (until) Dan elevated that in a way.”
And Michaels, who moved to NBC as the voice of “Sunday Night Football” when “MNF” switched from ABC to ESPN in 2006, counts Dierdorf among the best of his boothmates.
“I’ve had some pretty terrific partners — John Madden for seven years, Cris Collinsworth we just ended five seasons and it’s been great with getting along with somebody,” Michaels says. “But to think you had 12 with Dan ... you count preseason and postseason, we did almost 250 games together. That’s really something, and we had whole a lot of fun.”
How much fun?
“I can think of a few (things) we certainly can’t talk about,” Michaels says, laughing. “It was a lot of fun. Every anecdote that comes to mind we can’t publish in a family newspaper.”
Now, 15 seasons after returning to his CBS roots, the finish line arrives Saturday. His longtime boss, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus, is to be on hand. So is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“One of the great privileges of my career has been being able to work with Dan,” McManus said on a conference call this week, adding that he had just discussed Dierdorf’s departure with Goodell.
“As I said to Roger, he is the exact same person every single time you see him,” McManus says. “He can be talking to an assistant or he can be talking to a chairman, he is the exact same guy and he has never changed in those 43 years. If you want to talk about somebody who has been an ambassador and been a symbol of what the NFL represents at its best, that person is Dan Dierdorf. So it’s with a great deal of pride and also some sadness that we’ll be up at Foxborough listening to Dan (in a CBS booth) for the last time.
“I’m so proud to be able to say I worked with Dan Dierdorf for as long as I did. Everyone who ever worked with the man I think would say the exact same thing. He’s a national treasure and we’re going to miss him. That comes from the heart and not just from the brain.”
McManus hopes a deal can be reached for Dierdorf to contribute to do CBS Sports Radio, which airs locally on WGNU (920 AM) late on weeknights.
“They have a lot of interest in doing something with Dan,” he says.
Something Dierdorf has no interest in, though, is a farewell tribute after the game Saturday.
“I can’t keep them from doing something, but this is a playoff game,” he says. “The last playoff game I did was a double overtime game in Denver last year (won by Baltimore), one of the most memorable games in NFL history. There’s no time to do anything (personal) at the end of that game. Either way, you’re there to do the game and I’m not going to lose sight of that. Now if we end up with a lopsided affair and we’re just filling time — which I certainly hope doesn’t happen — then maybe I’ll say something at the end. But this is playoff football.”
Still, expect coverage of Dierdorf’s departure in the pregame show (6:30 p.m., KMOV, Channel 4 locally). Also, partner Gumbel is hopeful of getting something fitting in after the game.
“He’s the type of person who would rather let it slide, but he probably won’t be able to get away with that,” Gumbel said, chuckling. “I don’t know the kind of time restraints we’re going to be under, and he would never want to detract from the game — nor would I. But I am hoping that toward the end of the game or in the postgame shortly thereafter I would get a chance to thank him and to pay proper tribute to him. But of course there’s never going to be enough time allowed to do that the right way.”
Dierdorf, however, has a simple thought about any pomp and circumstances surrounding his exit:
“The NFL’s going to go on without me being in a booth every Sunday,” he says.
And Dierdorf insists he won’t fade away — “I’m retiring, I’m not expiring,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do. I’ll probably do some kind of radio, I’ll do something. I still know a lot about the game, I have a lot of contacts in the league.”
Michaels has another thought, one he also had when Dierdorf lost his Monday night job.
“He basically thought then he was done with broadcasting then,” Michaels recalls. “I’m thinking, ‘Dan, you’re too young to say something like that.’ He wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do. I even mentioned this to Dan at one point, he would have been a great general manager. He had great business skills, he has great people skills and he can evaluate talent. He understands the game inside and out. He can work with a coaching staff. When I brought it up, he was kind of quiet. It was a phone conversation, but I think he actually thought about it. Dan would have given a good name to announcers who have become GMs had he decided to do that.
“He still would be if he wanted to do it.”
But Dierdorf — who served as chairman of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission from 2006-08 and not long ago was mentioned as a logical candidate for a key front-office with the Rams, said he isn’t ready for a step that big.
“Maybe from a consulting standpoint, but let’s be realistic — (doing it full time), it’s a 14-hour a day, all-consuming endeavour,” he says. “I’d be selling the job short saying I’m able to do something like that. I think that’s a younger man’s game.”
But he still has a lot of game for broadcasting.
“I’m willing to do anything, I’m not going to go sit on a beach,” he says. “I’m too young to do that.”
Would a job on St. Louis radio, or even a role on Rams home-game broadcasts, be of interest?
“I haven’t given that one second of thought,” he says. “I still have a big job to do Saturday. When that’s over, I’ll think about the future.”
DIERDORF ON NETWORK TV
Dan Dierdorf’s broadcast partners through the years on network television:
SEASONS ... NETWORK ... PARTNER
1985 ... CBS ... Jean Fugett
1986-87 ... CBS ... Dick Stockton
1987-97 ... ABC ... Al Michaels, Frank Gifford
1998 ... ABC ... Al Michaels, Boomer Esiason
1999 ... CBS ... Verne Lundquist
2000-05 ... CBS ...Dick Enberg
2006-13 ... CBS ...Greg Gumbel
Note • Dierdorf did play-by-play in 1985, analysis all other years.