NEW YORK — John Madden, who forever changed the way professional football is analyzed on television, while becoming a one man conglomerate in the process, died Tuesday.
The cause of death was not immediately disclosed. Madden was 85.
Madden coached the Oakland Raiders for 10 seasons, pocketed one Super Bowl title and was eventually inducted into Pro Football’s Hall of Fame. All of that was really just his opening act.
“On behalf of the entire NFL family, we extend our condolences to Virginia, Mike, Joe and their families,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a statement. “Nobody loved football more than Coach. He was football. He was an incredible sounding board to me and so many others. There will never be another John Madden, and we will forever be indebted to him for all he did to make football and the NFL what it is today.”
For John Earl Madden would become more known to generations of fans — hardcore and casual — as a showman, the likable regular guy in the broadcast booth. The guy who preferred clip-on ties when he was forced to wear one. The big hulking, huggable galoot who would go on to create a hugely popular video game named after himself.
“I don’t think there’s anybody who has made the NFL more interesting, more relevant, and has educated more people about football than John Madden,” Al Michaels, who worked with Madden on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” once said.
Madden’s everyman quality broadened his appeal. In front of the camera his personality seemed larger than it really was. Madison Avenue processed this quickly, turning him into a highly successful pitchman for many products, including Miller Lite and Ace Hardware.
Madden’s road to TV success was not typical. The stress of coaching led him to retire in his early 40s, an age most coaches are still in their prime. Former coaches and players who had already taken the plunge into television had higher profiles than Madden, known as much for his sideline tantrums as his coaching success.
When CBS Sports hired him in 1979, Madden was relegated to smaller regional telecasts with low viewership. A combination of circumstances wound up elevating him to the top of the network’s roster two years later. CBS management wanted a radical change in its NFL coverage. Madden had provided enough ammunition, on the air and behind the scenes, to give them the confidence to make the move.
But when CBS suits teamed him to work with their No. 1 play-by-play man Pat Summerall, who had been paired with his buddy Tom Brookshire, there were questions whether the pair would ever click. It wasn’t about a clash of styles but one of cultures. Madden, despite his self-deprecating sense of humor, and jolly giant personae, had tunnel vision when it came to football. Summerall and Brookshire liked to party.
Despite his outgoing personality, and reputation of being a “player’s coach” guiding legendary Raiders “characters” like Otis Sistrunk, John Matuszak, Jack Tatum, Kenny Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff (who won Super Bowl XI in 1977, beating the Vikings, 32-14), Madden’s approach to his crafts, whether coaching or TV, was all business.
Madden, maintaining an intense focus, never saw football through the prism of entertainment. After his Raiders lost a game, 21-20, on ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” an ecstatic Howard Cosell, the legendary broadcaster known for his acerbic style, approached coach Madden.
“John,” Cosell yelled, “you gave us a great show!” “Show? A great show?” Madden shot back. “To you it’s a show but to me it’s a goddamned game we just lost.”
As far as Madden was concerned, a football game was never to be treated as a “show.” He wanted everyone around him to have a coach’s sensibility for the game.
Madden brought a serious attitude to the job of football analyst. He was a workaholic and wanted everyone around him to have a similar commitment. He insisted the production crew study game film as they prepared for a telecast. Madden wanted them to talk to coaches and players to gather information.
This was not optional, at least for his crew. The fact Summerall played the game, that he was in the fraternity, gave Madden a reason to refrain from trying to dictate terms to his play-by-play partner. Madden soon would realize Summerall’s minimalist approach gave him plenty of room to analyze. And man did he ever.
On television, Madden never delivered sermons nor was he a moralist. He rarely dealt with players off-field issues, or opine on tangential topics like excessive celebrations.
“When people watch football, they’re looking for fun things,” Madden once said.
While he was often criticized for a head-in-the-sand approach, the general public could not care less. Madden’s ability to satisfy the hardcore fan, as well as casual eyeballs, was a magic formula. He never displayed a serious side, but made the game humorous with his sound effects — like “bam” “whapp” or “doink” — when a flying football caromed off the upright. Or when he would use his telestrator to circle a player’s droopy socks. Or his traditional Thanksgiving turducken. Or two players sneaking up on a coach to douse him with a bucket of Gatorade.
Summerall was his perfect straight man. That Madden was the star, that he transcended the game, that he became part of pop culture with the video game, never bothered Summerall — at least outwardly. As a team, both voices were good for business — there’s and the networks.
When Fox shocked the entertainment industry by acquiring rights to the NFL’s NFC package in 1994, outbidding CBS, the league’s original broadcast partner, the Foxies were taking no chances. Instead of going against the grain an establishing its own identity by creating a new No. 1 NFL broadcast team, Fox boss Rupert Murdoch played the familiarity card. He paid for it too.
He first set his sights on Madden, signing him to a four-year deal worth $32 million, or $325,000 per game, unprecedented for a sports broadcaster.
“We not only wanted him,” Fox Sports boss David Hill said at the time, “we needed him.”
Then came Summerall, who Fox paid about $2 million per year.
When you signed Madden you signed on for more than his broadcast stylings. The man, more than most of his peers, had his quirks and phobias. He did not like to fly. At CBS he took trains from city to city before turning to what became “The Madden Cruiser (sponsored, of course).”
The bus was his mode of transportation throughout his broadcast career. Madden loved watching America pass by out the window of his bus. He loved asking questions of people he met during his travels. He also liked hanging out -- people watching.
But John Madden also didn’t like crowds.
Considering his star status, and the fact he spent much time in Manhattan (he had apartment at the iconic Dakota) this could be a challenge. Madden would sometimes stroll the Upper Westside wearing a ski mask but was usually recognized.
“I couldn’t hide my body,” he once said. “They figured out it was me.”
He was claustrophobic. Madden once invited a reporter to interview him at a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan late Friday afternoon of a Labor Day weekend when the city is empty. The restaurant was empty too. But Madden insisted he and the reporter sit at a circular table that easily could have seated eight.
The Friday before Fox was going to televise its first NFL game, an exhibition tilt at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, a gathering of notebooks and microphones waited outside the stadium for Madden to show up to check out the broadcast booth.
Madden, with Summerall, pulled up in the bus. They exited and headed toward an elevator, followed by the media throng. Madden got in the elevator, followed by Summerall. Then the media piled in. Madden threw up his hands: “I gotta get out of here,” he yelled before hustling off the elevator. He returned to the bus. A Fox executive gingerly approached the Madden Cruiser, entered, an after a long discussion, coaxed Madden out and back to the elevator — minus the media.
There was other stuff: Like his distaste for “hard shoes” — he always wore sneakers with the laces untied. And when he had to use a public rest room inside a stadium, a production assistant would first clear it and then stand guard outside the door as Madden relieved himself.
All this stuff was not considered “star” treatment. They were necessities for Madden, who had become a necessity to any network suit who aired the NFL’s product.
In 2002 Madden, knowing Summerall would not be returning the following season, jumped from Fox over to ABC’s “Monday Night Football” where he was paired with Michaels. Three years later, after NBC Sports acquired the NFL’s “Sunday Night Football” package, Madden and Michaels jumped to that booth for the Peacock’s inaugural season in 2006, making Madden the first mouth to work for the four major networks that aired NFL football.
Madden stayed with NBC until April 2009 when after 30 years yakking on the NFL’s biggest TV stages, he said he was calling it quits at the age of 73. The search began for hidden motives for his retirement. He said there were none.
“My grandchildren know when I’m gone and when I’m not,” Madden said at the time. “You go away in August and you come back in January. I just got to the point in my life where that’s not the deal anymore.”
Besides, John Madden had done it all. He had run out of networks that needed him. Run out of roads to travel on his bus.
“This is like Johnny Carson retiring,” Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor said at the time. “Carson was not the best comedian, but people loved him. I would not call John the most articulate or analytical mind, but he brought to a football broadcast knowledge and fun that worked even if you didn’t care about the game.”