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Normally, the NFL's regular season would begin Labor Day weekend. However, the league realized that skipping a nice, warm weather weekend in September for a cold week in January, when most of the nation is huddled inside around a nearby TV set, certainly could help the ratings. And with the billions the networks are paying, ratings rule.

The most interesting NFL action you're going to see on the tube this weekend may be the NFL/Comic Relief Golf Shootout at 4 p.m. today on Channel 29.

The charity event features such football heroes as ubiquitous Regis Philbin, who finally is around some millionaires. He is joined by Billy Crystal, Ray Romano, Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning and George Wendt, who undoubtedly had his share of 19th hole practice when he played Norm on "Cheers."

As the NFL season nears, it is a good time to clean out the notebook and offer opinions on a variety of subjects.

* Jim Rome will soon be moving up an hour on WWKB-AM. With the Fabulous Sports Babe departing the national radio scene on Sept. 10 (ABC Radio did not renew her contract), KB plans to put "The Tony Bruno Show" on from 10 a.m. to noon and pick up Rome's show live from the jungle at noon. It had been airing on an hour delay.

His negative attitude may be costing Chuck Dickerson some WGR-AM listeners, but apparently they aren't heading over to my favorite sports station to catch Rome and Peter Brown. According to the same Arbitron ratings that documented Dickerson's spring decline, KB had a 20-25 percent drop from a year ago in the age 12 and over audience during the 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. time slot and a 6 percent share slide in the age 25-54 male demographic that is key to sports stations. KB's rating and share for the entire broadcast day were equal to the numbers it had a year ago. However, these days, staying even is a good thing.

* In the next several weeks, South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz probably will be glorified by the networks that carry his new team's games. That's why HBO's hero deflating series, "Real Sports," is a winner in my book.

The current edition of the series hosted by Bryant Gumbel includes a piece by Sonja Steptoe that portrays the many sides of the former Notre Dame coach. It isn't a pretty picture, either, suggesting that Holtz is a driven egomaniac who distorts his career plans when hired and may put pressure on injured players to return to the field too early for their own good. It is a balanced piece, finding just as many people to say nice things about the coach as bad things.

The program also includes a piece on Jimmy Johnson by Frank Deford that suggests the Dolphins coach has become a changed man after the death of his mother. His adult children say so, anyway. Deford smartly injects some cynicism, but overall the piece may make Bills fans gag. This terrific program runs again at 10 a.m. Sunday.

* I almost forgot an anniversary -- ESPN's. At 7 p.m. Tuesday, the sports network celebrates its 20th anniversary with a three-hour prime time program in which Chris Berman, Bob Ley and Dan Patrick reflect on how far it has come in 20 years. How far? Almost as far as cable rates.

Chris LaPlaca, a 1979 graduate of St. Bonaventure who left his job at Brown University to join ESPN in 1980, is now ESPN's vice president of communications. One of his fondest memories is the time that former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn broke his media silence to give a news-making interview to ESPN's George Grande at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in Cooperstown. Desperate to get the fledgling network some attention, LaPlaca went to a five and dime store in Cooperstown and asked someone there if he could borrow a manual typewriter so he could transcribe Grande's interview and send it along to wire service reporters.

"It was one of the first times we made an impact on a news story," LaPlaca said. "That's how we built this company and we still have that attitude."

LaPlaca also remembers going to a 1980 football game with Paul Maguire and Sam Rosen at Indiana University in the days the network carried games on tape delay. Afterward, they took an old four-seat airplane to Chicago, an experience that unnerved LaPlaca.

"Paul didn't go anywhere back then without a case of Budweiser and we had a six-pack apiece," LaPlaca said.

That medicine eased LaPlaca's anxiety. But there was one problem. The plane didn't have any bathroom and they couldn't get to Chicago soon enough to find one.

"That was typical of what happened back then," LaPlaca said. "There was a lot of fun, we did things unconventionally. Right now, I don't think we would travel that way."

* Poor CBS and the USA Network. Not only does Steffi Graf retire before tennis' U.S. Open, but Pete Sampras and defending champ Patrick Rafter pull out with injuries. Their absences put a lot of pressure on analyst John McEnroe to make things interesting and for cameramen to find Paul Newman, Donald Trump, Dennis Miller and Jon Lovitz in the audience. USA and CBS surely are rooting for Andre Agassi to survive to the finals and keep viewers interested.

* WECK-AM morning personality Stan Roberts wants those attending tonight's preseason Bills game in Ralph Wilson Stadium to know that his days introducing pregame and halftime acts are over. Roberts, who relinquished his public address duties a few years back, was told a few weeks ago that he was no longer needed. "It was fun while it lasted," he said.

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