We came very close to a remarkable anniversary déjà vu. Had the San Francisco 49ers been able to hold on in the 2021 NFC Championship Game and beat the Los Angeles Rams, we would have had a rematch on the 40th anniversary of Super Bowl 16, when the 49ers and Cincinnati Bengals met in Pontiac, MI.
That Super Bowl would become famous for launching two dynasties: The 49ers under Joe Montana and Bill Walsh, and the broadcasting dynasty that was the NFL pairing of Pat Summerall and John Madden in the booth.
As it turned out, the Super Bowl pairing of Madden and Summerall began with a game featuring the Bengals and ended 20 years later with a game featuring the Rams.
The story of how those two found themselves as the lead NFL team at CBS – and later Fox – had repercussions that affected all manners of sports television viewing for the next two decades. It all began with a simple vote.
Madden and Summerall didn’t become permanent partners until just before Super Bowl 16
According to a fascinating piece of reporting in January by Greg Keraghosian of sfgate.com, the road to Pontiac for Madden and Summerall was far more controversial and turbulent than anyone outside of CBS ever knew.
After Madden had worked for two seasons with Gary Bender as his play-by-play announcer leading into the 1981 NFL season, CBS realized they had a star in the making with Madden and wanted him paired with one of their two top talents: Summerall or Vin Scully.
That first meant breaking up the longtime pairing of Summerall and Tom Brookshier, who had called several Super Bowls for CBS, including their most recent, Super Bowl 14, in 1980. But by 1981, Summerall’s drinking problem was becoming more acute, and separating him from fellow partier Brookshier likely saved both Summerall’s career and life.
CBS’ next step in the decision-making process was to let Madden work a series of four games with Scully and Summerall early in 1981 season, then CBS executives would vote on with play-by-play voice would be Madden’s permanent partner.
The almost unanimous vote was for Summerall.
Vin Scully’s snub led to his legendary MLB broadcasting career with NBC
The last NFL game Scully ever called for CBS was the 1981 NFC Championship Game between the 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. Paired with Hall of Fame head coach Hank Stram, it was Scully who drew the assignment to call the Conference Championship. Scully, therefore, had the call on Dwight Clark’s “Catch” that helped send the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
CBS viewed the assignment for Scully as a consolation prize for not being selected to pair with Madden on the Super Bowl, and it would mark the last time in television history that the broadcast team calling the Conference Championship game was separate from the Super Bowl pairing of the same network. Summerall also called that 49ers-Cowboys game, but for radio with Jack Buck.
The decision also changed the history of baseball on television. Angered by the Madden snub and insulted by the NFC Championship Game assignment, Scully bolted CBS for NBC in 1982 and would become the primary play-by-play voice for NBC’s Major League Baseball coverage, which is how the world was blessed to have Scully’s iconic calls of Bill Buckner’s error in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and an injured Kirk Gibson’s walk-off homer in Game 1 of the 1988 Series.
Madden and Summerall would call their final Super Bowl together in 2002
Hard feelings from Summerall and Scully aside, the pairing of Summerall and Madden would change the way football was broadcast on television forever. Madden introduced the world to the Telestrator – called “CBS Chalkboard” by the network – and his use of the diagramming tool super-imposed on the screen revolutionized the way replays were explained to television audiences in all sports.
Madden’s personality was just as animated, and terms like “Boom!” soon entered the lexicon of sports viewing. Madden and Summerall would go on to call eight Super Bowls together, the final coming in February 2002 for Fox, with Tom Brady leading the Patriots to a victory over the St. Louis Rams on a game-winning drive in the final minute.
Summerall retired after that game, and Madden would go on to call three more Super Bowls with Al Michaels on play-by-play for ABC and NBC, the last coming in 2009. But it was the first pairing that changed sports broadcasting over three networks and two sports.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference