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Replacing an icon, Collinsworth leans on preparation to find his voice

| Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

It was no fun replacing John Wooden. Succeeding Bear Bryant was more curse than blessing. Taking the reins from Vince Lombardi could only turn out badly.

By the same reasoning, Cris Collinsworth did not exactly leap into John Madden's seat next to Al Michaels on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" last year. In fact, he said he didn't want the job.

"You don't want to be the man who follows the man ," Collinsworth said.

Madden was larger than life, your basic colorful ex-coach at the start of his on-air career and an attraction unto himself — perhaps the most recognized broadcaster of his time — at the end of it. Beyond that, Madden was no mere celebrity. He was an institution and a corporate entity. He was a brand.

There were practical matters for Collinsworth, too. He enjoyed being a studio analyst and spending time at home, watching his son, Austin, now a freshman receiver at Notre Dame, play football. But the reluctance always hinged on the specter of Madden, who retired from the booth after the 2008 season.

"I really tried not to take this thing," Collinsworth said. "Nobody who follows John Madden is gonna survive."

But Collinsworth had no choice; he was Madden's designated successor. He inevitably took "this thing," which this week takes him to Baltimore for tonight's Steelers-Ravens game.

Survive• He and Michaels preside over the top-rated show in prime time. According to NBC, this is the first time a sports program has had that distinction, including the glory days of "Monday Night Football" on ABC.

"I understand why (Collinsworth) was anxious, but I didn't have that anxiety," producer Fred Gaudelli said. "I knew what a tremendous broadcaster he was."

Collinsworth, who twice filled in for Madden in 2008, said his fears quickly vanished.

"This is an established, great team," he said of Michaels, Gaudelli and director Drew Esocoff, who were together at ABC for "Monday Night Football." "They've been doing it for years and years and years. ... It was easy from the beginning — really easy."

Michaels, who left ABC in early 2006 after "Monday Night Football" moved to ESPN, said he had been listening to Collinsworth for a long time and knew what he was getting.

"The first time I heard him, it may have been a college game, I thought, 'This guy has got it,' " Michaels said. "I heard a lot of honesty. I heard a guy who sees what happens and explains it very well and has a little bit of an edge to him. Some guys can have an edge and be full of crap. They don't know what they're talking about. Their attitude is, 'I played the game, so the audience has to listen to me.' Cris has played the game, but he doesn't have to tell you.

"It was the same with John. You knew who he was."

Collinsworth, like Madden, "can see the seminal action on a particular play and explain why that play was a success or a failure," Gaudelli said.

Collinsworth focuses on the offensive and defensive lines, the coverage and/or the receivers.

"I don't watch the ball," he said. "I never watch the football. Everybody's watching the ball. My job is not to tell (the viewer) that it was a sweep to the right and the guy made a nice cut and ran for 20 yards. Al Michaels just told you that. I'm trying to find out what worked and what didn't work."

In last week's game, Collinsworth singled out struggling Indianapolis guard Jeff Linkenbach, who was making a shaky transition from tackle. On the next play, San Diego's Antonio Garay bulldozed Linkenbach into quarterback Peyton Manning, leading to a sack.

"The great thing about Cris — and it applied to John, too — is that not only does he have an expansive knowledge of football, he knows how to broadcast," Michaels said. "He knows what fans want to hear and don't want to hear. I could not have had an easier transition from John."

An All-America receiver at Florida, Collinsworth exceeded 1,000 yards four times and made three Pro Bowls in eight seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. He went to TV after retiring in 1988 and has won several Emmys while seeming to be everywhere. He has worked for Fox, HBO, Showtime and NFL Network. This is his second stint with NBC.

Michaels has been a familiar and respected presence for decades, among the last of the generation of big TV voices: 20 years calling "Monday Night Football" on ABC, plus Super Bowls, NBA Finals, hosting the Olympics and Stanley Cup Finals. There's also Major League Baseball, including the "Earthquake" World Series in 1989, and his signature moment — the "Miracle on Ice" in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

NBC said Michaels, 65, has logged more prime-time hours (2,200) than anyone in American TV history. So far, no one has argued.

"When Michaels does a game, it usually means it's a game of significance — no matter what the sport," Gaudelli said. "Other people can't put words together the way he can."

Despite their reputations, pairing Michaels and Collinsworth still was going to be interesting, especially in light of Madden's departure. Madden, whose winning percentage as a coach is one of the highest of all time, was an astute, detailed analyst who was dead serious about the game. But he was better known for his good nature, jovial humor and animated style, complete with moving body parts and sound effects.

Collinsworth's tone, coated by a slight Florida drawl, is deeper, more measured, less emotional. The description "acerbic" has followed him through the years. Unlike many of his peers, he is loath to sugarcoat or gloss over mistakes. His candor bothers some fans, and he has ticked off more than a few players.

"I've had guys who tried to intimidate me," he said, referencing a 340-pound lineman who he said intentionally bumped him in a hallway. "I told him, 'I'm related to more attorneys than you know.' "

But Collinsworth, who has a law degree from the University of Cincinnati, said he can receive as well as give — absent any physical contact.

"Look, it's part of the world we're in," he said. "I don't like being criticized. I don't like it when someone says something bad about our broadcast. But it's part of the world. This is one of the most high-profile things people talk about. They don't talk about deficit reduction as much as they do Dallas changing head coaches.

"It's right there in front of me. I can always come back to the ultimate thing: Let's go get the film. I've studied most of your games. If I'm wrong, I really try to be the first person to say that. I try hard to admit my mistakes, but you've got to show me."

Collinsworth prepares like a coach. Asked how many hours he spends getting ready for the next game, he sounded incredulous. No number would be sufficient.

"It's all I do," he said. "I don't do anything else. I was studying on the way home from Indianapolis (last week). We had a car, and I was doing Baltimore-Pittsburgh stuff in the car. There's nothing else I do."

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