John Madden: “He made the NFL more interesting, more relevant and more fun for over 40 years”

From a New York Times obit by Ben Shpigel headlined “John Madden, Hall of Fame Coach and Broadcaster, Is Dead at 85”:

John Madden, the Hall of Fame coach who became one of America’s most recognizable ambassadors of professional football, reaching millions, and generations, from the broadcast booth and through the popular video game that bears his name, died on Tuesday….

In his irrepressible way, and with his distinctive voice, Madden left an imprint on the sport on par with titans like George Halas, Paul Brown and his coaching idol, Vince Lombardi. Madden’s influence, steeped in Everyman sensibilities and studded with wild gesticulations and paroxysms of onomatopoeia — wham! doink! whoosh! — made the N.F.L. more interesting, more relevant and more fun for over 40 years.

“John Madden is as important as anybody in the history of football,” Al Michaels, his broadcast partner from 2002 through 2008 with ABC and NBC, said. “Tell me somebody who did all of the things that John did, and did them over this long a period of time.”

Madden retired from coaching the Oakland Raiders in 1979, at age 42 and with a Super Bowl victory to his credit, but he turned the second act of his life into an encore, a Rabelaisian emissary sent from the corner bar to demystify the mysteries of football for the common fan and, in the process, revolutionize sports broadcasting.

Rising to prominence in an era of football commentating that hewed mostly toward a conservative, fairly straightforward approach, Madden’s accessible parsing of X’s and O’s added nuance and depth, and also a degree of sophistication that delighted an audience that in some cases tuned in just for him.

Fastidious in his preparation, Madden introduced what is now a standard exercise in the craft — observing practices, studying game film and interviewing coaches and players on Fridays and Saturdays. Come Sundays, he would distill that information into bursts of animated, cogent and often prescient analysis, diagraming plays with a Telestrator, an electronic stylus (whose scribbles and squiggles reflected its handler’s often rumpled appearance) that showed why which players went where.

Madden spent his first 15 years in broadcasting at CBS, starting in 1979….But the three other major networks all came to employ him because, at one point or another, they all needed him.

Fox snagged him in the mid-1990s to establish credibility for its fledgling sports division. ABC followed in 2002, to boost the sagging fortunes of “Monday Night Football.” NBC hired him when it regained football in 2006 — because, as Dick Ebersol, then the chairman of NBC Universal Sports, said: “He’s the best analyst in the history of sports. He’s able to cut through from people my age, who remembered him as a coach, all the way to 12-year-olds.”

Madden received 16 Sports Emmy Awards, including 15 for top analyst.

He parlayed his appeal into a series of career incarnations — commercial pitchman, successful author, video-game entrepreneur — and embraced them all with zest. He produced three best-sellers….His Electronic Arts video game evolved into a cultural phenomenon with annual midnight releases and widespread tournaments after its inception in 1988, selling tens of millions of copies with revenue in the billions.

At his core, though, Madden was a coach and by extension a teacher; as he proudly noted in interviews, he graduated with a master’s degree in physical education, a few credits short of a doctorate, from California Polytechnic State University. His unscripted manner translated as well in the Raiders’ locker room — where he guided a cast of self-styled outlaws and misfits to eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons as head coach — as it did in living rooms, man caves and bookstores.

“He was who you saw on TV,” said Ted Hendricks, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for Madden from 1975 through 1978. “He gave us freedom, but he always had complete control of his players.”

A Fear of Flying

As inclusive as he was beloved, Madden embodied a rare breed of sports personality. He could relate to the plumber in Pennsylvania or the custodian in Kentucky — or the cameramen on his broadcast crew — because he viewed himself, at bottom, as an ordinary guy who just happened to know a lot about football. Grounded by an incapacitating fear of flying, he met many of his fans while crisscrossing the country, first in Amtrak trains and then in his Madden Cruiser, a decked-out motor coach that was a rare luxurious concession for a man whose idea of a big night out, as detailed in his book “One Size Doesn’t Fit All,” was wearing “a sweatsuit and sneakers to a real Mexican restaurant for nachos and a chile Colorado.”

For more than 20 years, that bus shepherded Madden to and from his assignments, a fulfillment of sorts of a favorite book, “Travels with Charley,” by John Steinbeck, who had driven around America in a camper with his poodle. When Madden greeted family members and friends on the flight he had chartered for them to attend his induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in August 2006, it was his first time in an airplane in 27 years.

“When you pulled up somewhere in that bus, it was like Air Force One had arrived,” said Fred Gaudelli, who as Madden’s producer at ABC and NBC traveled with him for seven years. “It was amazing the way people would react to that thing.”

If contemporaries like Bud Grant and Tom Landry epitomized the archetype of coach as sideline stoic, Madden served as their counterweight. He imparted an iconoclastic, demonstrative presence, one that echoed the spirit of the 1970s and the countercultural nexus of Northern California and that also suited his team of so-called renegades. The enduring image of Madden was of his oversize frame bounding onto the field, flouting the tenets of sideline decorum with arms flailing, mouth racing and red hair flopping against a pink face.

Madden ditched the dress code and encouraged individual expression, tolerating his players’ penchant for wild nights and carousing because, he knew, they would always give him their full effort — especially on Sundays. Unlike the disciplinarians of his day, he imposed few rules, asking them only to listen, to be on time and to play hard when he demanded it. Madden said in 1969 that “there has to be an honesty that you be yourself”; for him, that meant treating his players as “intelligent human beings.”

Madden, at age 32, inherited a team in 1969 that had gone a combined 25-3 the previous two seasons, and he maintained the Raiders’ standard of excellence. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was working as long as 12 years for Al Davis, the Raiders’ irascible and Machiavellian owner — and staying close friends with him until Davis’s death in 2011.

But when Madden retired, having been pummeled by ulcers and panic attacks and what is now regarded as burnout, he could boast of a résumé that included a Super Bowl XI demolition of the Minnesota Vikings in 1977; a .759 regular-season winning percentage (103-32-7), best among coaches who have worked at least 100 games; and an on-field view of some of the most controversial and memorable moments in football history: the notorious “Heidi” game (1968), the Immaculate Reception (1972) and the infamous Holy Roller play in 1978, his final season.

The thought of overseeing another minicamp, another round of draft preparation, bedeviled him. Lombardi coached for 10 years, and so would Madden.

“You traveled around but you never saw anything,” Madden said in 1984. “Everything was an airplane, a bus, a hotel, a stadium, a bus, an airplane and back home. One day I said, ‘There has to be more to life than this.’”


And there was.

Working-Class Beginnings

John Earl Madden was born in Austin, Minn., on April 10, 1936, the oldest of three children….When John was 6, his family moved to Daly City, Calif., a working-class suburb of San Francisco whose proximity to the city offered adventurous escapes for sports-crazed boys. With his close friend John Robinson, who would become the head coach at Southern California and of the Los Angeles Rams, Madden hitched trolley rides into town and then sneaked into Kezar Stadium and Seals Stadium to watch football and baseball games.

His family was of modest means, but Madden was resourceful. He scrounged for gear in rummage bins and fashioned his baseball bats by taping together pieces found at semipro games. Opportunities for minor-league baseball beckoned — the Red Sox and the Yankees expressed interest — but Madden, from his time caddying for the well-heeled at the San Francisco Golf Club, had come to equate success with a college education.

He book-ended an unfulfilling year at the University of Oregon with stays at two community colleges, the College of San Mateo in California and Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Wash., before transferring to Cal Poly, where he would meet his future wife, Virginia Fields. There his prowess on the offensive line attracted the Philadelphia Eagles, who selected him in the 21st round of the 1958 draft.

Madden never played for the Eagles; a serious knee injury quashed his pro prospects. But while rehabilitating in Philadelphia he began transitioning to the next phase of his life. Reviewing game film with the Hall of Fame quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, Madden was encouraged to start thinking like a coach. He pursued that calling back in California, where he worked for four years at Allan Hancock College, two as head coach, and for three years at San Diego State, as an assistant.

It was at San Diego, in November 1966, that Madden first encountered Davis, a meeting that would change the course of football history. For an hour they talked strategy and schemes. Only much later — long after Davis had hired him in 1967 to oversee the Raiders’ linebackers and then promoted him to head coach two years later — did Madden realize that he had in effect sat for an interview.

Their relationship was complicated. At times it was fraught with tension and pressure, with Madden navigating the whims of his demanding boss while combating the perception that Davis, not he, deserved credit for the team’s success. But Davis valued Madden’s ability to manage his players’ diverse personalities and mold them into a cohesive — and winning — team. In 2006, Davis introduced Madden at the Hall of Fame.

Partners in the Booth

It seems difficult to imagine, but when Madden first experimented with broadcasting to satisfy his football cravings, he was stiff and uncertain, far from the polished professional who would set the standard for future analysts; reacting to his popularity, networks searched for the next Madden. He expected members of his production team to know their football, and if they did not, he was known to glance at the heavens and apologize to Lombardi and Halas for the indiscretion.

At CBS and Fox, his frenetic style meshed smoothly with the minimalism of Pat Summerall, his broadcast partner of 21 years. Al Michaels later complemented him in a different way, with an opinionated style, though not overbearingly so, and a knack for leading Madden into stimulating discussions. Working with Madden, Michaels said, was like “singing a song, and we had the musical notes in front of us. Away we went.”

Their last game together was Super Bowl XLIII, in February 2009. Two months later, Madden left the broadcast booth, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

Madden and his wife had two sons, Joseph and Michael, and a number of grandchildren. Complete information on his survivors was not immediately available.

Even in retirement, Madden remained active in football, serving as a consultant to the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, and on committees for player safety and competition.

For all of his celebrity, Madden was perhaps most closely identified with his video game franchise, which connected him to younger generations. He was fond of saying that when many younger people met him, it became apparent to him that they knew him from the video game, not as a Hall of Fame coach or perhaps even as an innovative broadcaster. Not that he was complaining, necessarily: He had fulfilled his father’s wishes.

“Once you start work, you’re going to have to work the rest of your life,” Madden said, recounting his father Earl’s advice, in his 2006 induction speech at the Hall of Fame. Then he added: “I have never worked a day in my life. I went from player to coach to a broadcaster, and I am the luckiest guy in the world.”

Ben Shpigel is a sports reporter, covering the N.F.L. since 2016. Previously, he had covered the New York Jets since 2011; the New York Yankees since 2010 and, before that, the Mets since 2005.


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