How you remember John Madden today is largely about how old you are, because Madden, who died Tuesday morning at age 85, had three acts in his NFL life, each arguably more impactful than the previous one.
His coaching career was successful — he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach, after all — but relatively brief. After it ended, Madden did nothing less than contribute to the transformation of two industries, broadcasting and video gaming. That made Madden one of the most influential people for more than a half century of NFL history and certainly one of the very few who can be individually credited with the game’s staggering popularity and cultural impact, putting him in a pantheon with shapers of the game like George Halas and Pete Rozelle. But even those two colossal football figures did not cross and conquer genres the way Madden did. The best way to put Madden’s career in perspective is this:
John Madden won a Super Bowl as the coach of the Oakland Raiders, and at the end, that is his least memorable accomplishment.
That is surely not how Madden would have preferred it. He was, first and foremost, a football coach — an immensely successful one, absorbed by and in love with line play and the tough men who were its practitioners. Late in his life, as a group of coaches, executives, former players and media members selected the All-Time Team for the NFL’s first century, he was the authoritative voice to whom they all turned when it was time to compare the legacies of the linemen. At the height of his popularity as a color commentator for the biggest games — when “BOOM!” entered the permanent football lexicon and he introduced the masses to the wonders of the Turducken — Madden would insist to anybody who would listen that he was not a personality or entertainer. He was a football coach who later did television, emphasis on football coach. The quote used to introduce his biography on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website explains practically everything there is to know about Madden.
“Coaching isn’t work,” Madden said. “It’s more than a job. It’s a way of life. … No one should go into coaching unless he couldn’t live without it. … Football is what I am. I didn’t go into it to make a living or because I enjoyed it. There is much more to it than just enjoying it. I am totally consumed by football, totally involved. I’m not into gardening … or any other hobbies. I don’t fish or hunt. I’m in football.”
Madden, who grew up in Northern California, was an outstanding athlete himself, playing baseball and football (he was a lineman, of course) at Cal Poly, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but a knee injury in training camp ended his playing career. While he was rehabbing, Norm Van Brocklin, then the Eagles quarterback, would explain to Madden what was happening on the film he was studying.
“I ended up with a degree in teaching and my love for football meshed with teaching,” Madden told Electronic Gaming Monthly many years later.
How Madden came to be a source or fascination for Electronic Gaming Monthly is the story of perhaps the most incredible career arc in football. It began not long after his tutorial with Van Brocklin, when Madden became a college football assistant, the start of a meteoric rise through the profession. For three seasons in the mid-1960s, he was a defensive assistant on Don Coryell’s staff at San Diego State, during a time when it was one of the top small-college programs in the country.
One day, the young and convention-defying part owner and general manager of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis, was on campus to scout San Diego State players. Davis had already been tipped off about Madden by a friend, a professor at the school who was also friendly with Madden and who had shared long talks about football with the young coach. Davis sat down on a bench next to the unwitting Madden and asked what he was planning for the defense in an upcoming game against North Dakota State. The two talked X’s and O’s, Madden not realizing that this was essentially a job interview until more than a year later, after he had already been the Raiders’ linebackers coach, a position he was offered not long after that casual talk with Davis. Two years later, Davis made Madden his head coach. He was just 32 years old, the youngest head coach in the American Football League.
There may never have been a better marriage of coach, team and fan base. As colorful as Madden was — a floppy haired, double-chinned, polyester swathed, wildly gesticulating sweaty jumble of fanaticism — he ran a team that fashioned itself as the NFL’s outlaws, well outside the lines of a sport that, to this day, venerates discipline and rule-following above all else. The Raiders embraced an identity as rebellious and ragtag — with the free-flowing locks to match — and, above all, hard-hitting. It was an extraordinary collection of talent and strong personalities: Ken Stabler, Fred Biletnikoff, Cliff Branch, Dave Casper, Gene Upshaw, Art Shell, John Matuszak, Willie Brown, Lester Hayes, Jack Tatum and on and on. In 10 years as the head coach, Madden’s Raiders were in seven AFC or AFL title games and they won Super Bowl XI, beating up on the Minnesota Vikings. The Raiders never had a losing season with Madden and he was the youngest coach in history to reach 100 victories.
He cared deeply — perhaps too deeply — about his team. His Raiders were victims of one of the greatest plays in NFL history, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Immaculate Reception,” and he remained as incredulous years later as he was when he walked into the locker room to greet his players that day.
“He just said, ‘We got f—–.’ ” former Raider Phil Villapiano once told me. “And something like, ‘We’ll never get to the bottom of it.’ “
They never did. And Madden continued to lament the play decades later. His obvious passion and excitement for the game — there were moments when he was so agitated on the sideline you wondered if he would pass out — made him a folk hero to Oakland fans and an endearing and popular star to everybody else.
It would also be the undoing of his time on the sideline. Following the 1978 season, after just 10 years as a head coach and with a sparkling 103-32-7 career record, Madden resigned. He cited the toll the job took on him — he had a deteriorating ulcer condition and was generally burned out — and, with tears in his eyes, said he was going to do whatever his wife and kids wanted and that he would never coach again. He didn’t, and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. To this day, Madden’s .759 winning percentage remains the best in NFL history (min. 10 seasons coached), just ahead of Vince Lombardi (.738) and George Allen (.712).
“I gave it everything I have and just don’t have anything left,” he said on the day of his resignation.
Maybe not for coaching, but Madden had plenty left for other football pursuits. He took what was already the traditional next step for retired NFLers and slid into the broadcast booth.
And then he blew it up.
After a few years doing lower-profile games, he teamed with Pat Summerall in 1981 to form CBS’s — and football’s — top broadcasting duo. Madden was already wildly popular. An advertising executive working for Miller Lite told Madden that after he filmed a new beer ad, more people would know him from that appearance than ever would know him as a coach. Madden insisted to the executive that he would be wrong. He was not wrong.
“I’m not the same crazy coach who used to storm around the sidelines yelling at the officials,” Madden said in the commercial, while hunched over a bar. “I’ve learned to relax.”
Then, while extolling the virtues of the beer, Madden takes off — pacing, waving his arms, yelling. And finally, bursting through a paper façade, his rant still going. It was familiar and hilarious, and it made Madden into what he became for another generation of fans: the guy calling the game who talked like your friends at the bar. It was television magic, and he and Summerall became the soundtrack of the NFL, at a time when the game was exploding in popularity. Madden was, again, a lovable mess, his hair untamed, his words sometimes jumbled in excitement. He was the yang to the yin of the well-coiffed, impeccably dressed television broadcasters who dominated the airwaves then.
But Madden was masterful at simplifying the complexities of football, assisted by a new broadcast feature: a telestrator, which turned Madden’s teachings into zany scribbles. That he delivered the information in a folksy and sometimes hilarious manner welcomed in even the most casual fans and cleared the way for everyone from Charles Barkley to Tony Romo to enter broadcasting. Madden’s calls of big games became so essential that all four major television networks eventually employed him, and he won 16 Emmy Awards along the way. When Fox gained the rights to NFC games in 1994 — taking them from CBS — the network wooed Madden and Summerall. Madden’s contract paid him more annually than any NFL player at the time and he was certainly a bigger star than all but a handful of them, making his appearances an essential element of some games.
Would anyone but the most devoted gourmands know of the Turducken without Madden’s routinely rhapsodizing about it during the Thanksgiving games? At the end of each of those, Madden would give members of the winning team a turkey — he called the ones that were rolled out with eight drumsticks “nuclear turkeys” — or Turducken.
It all made Madden a crossover phenomenon, his popularity far overshadowing his football successes. He hosted Saturday Night Live. He appeared in a music video with U2. Later, everybody knew about the Madden Cruiser, the custom bus Madden used to get around the country because he was afraid to fly.
In 1984, at the suggestion of his childhood friend John Robinson — a college and NFL coach himself — Madden created the All-Madden Team, which allowed him to recognize players he thought played football the way it should be played. That the team was heavy on grit was no surprise. The coach who loved trench play above all else finally got a chance to reward those with similar mindsets.
“It’s about a guy who’s got a dirty uniform, mud on his face and grass in the ear hole of his helmet,” he wrote in one of his books, this one called “All Madden.”
It was also that year, with Madden still in the early stages of his legendary broadcasting career, that he was approached with an idea that would eventually make him a one-word household name with the grandchildren of the people who had watched him coach. Trip Hawkins wanted to create a computerized football simulation game and he asked Madden for his endorsement and expertise. Madden saw it as a way to educate fans. He insisted the game be realistic, demanding that it include 11 players per team, not the six or seven originally planned because of technical limitations. He advised on rules changes and play design; in fact, he gave the game designers the 1980 Raiders playbook. He voiced commentary. The first version of John Madden Football — now simply known by one word: Madden — finally appeared in 1988. In the decades since, the series’ imprint on video games and football has been stunning.
It sells millions of copies each year and has generated billions of dollars in sales. Madden bemoaned his decision to decline to buy an unlimited number of stock options during Electronic Arts’ initial public offering. In the meantime, players and coaches have admitted that the video game has influenced their own performance. Teddy Bridgewater, for instance, has used the game to practice plays since he was in college. In 2010, Wired magazine wrote that the increasing popularity of the spread offense in the NFL was being influenced by Madden and how popular it was with young people. Players have complained to Madden and EA about their ratings and their appearance in the game. Broadcasters began to use Madden-like graphics. Madden the man, who was paid millions annually for his contributions to the game, said he was never a good player of the game himself, but preferred to watch others play it.
Millions did. And today, there are teenagers who know nothing of his great Raiders teams, who never saw Madden scribble magic on his telestrator, who know his voice only as the one that comes out of a video game console. Their parents — and their grandparents — know better. But the kids got one thing very right:
Madden — only one name necessary — was delightfully dominant in every facet of his immense football life.
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