John Madden, the booming and boisterous football coach who led the Raiders to a Super Bowl victory and followed up with one of most prolific second acts in sports, has died. He was 85.
Known for his comic-book lexicon — Boom! Whap! Doink! — Madden parlayed his success as Raiders coach into a distinguished broadcasting career and became the face of the biggest-selling sports video game of all time.
Madden, who lived in Pleasanton, had health problems and virtually vanished from the public eye, a rarity for the gregarious longtime ambassador of the sport.
“Football is what I am,” he once said. “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.”
Before his 16 Emmy Awards for broadcasting and before his “Madden NFL Football” became a pop culture phenomenon, John Earl Madden rose to prominence during a spectacular run as the head coach of the Raiders.
Between 1969, when owner Al Davis hired him as a 32-year-old head coach, and 1978, when Madden abruptly retired, the Raiders went 103-32-7.
As fun to watch as some of his players, Madden prowled the sideline while making wild exhortations. Players sometimes called him Pinky. Why? “You could always tell he was mad when his face got red,” linebacker Ted Hendricks once said.
With his ill-fitting tie and frantic gesticulations, Madden was a counterculture image in the era of Tom Landry and Bud Grant.
Hardly a disciplinarian, Madden’s list of edicts would barely fill a Post-It note. The way Madden saw it the fewer rules he laid down, the fewer players could break.
“To me, discipline in football occurs on the field not off it. (It’s not) a coat and tie and a clean shave,” he wrote in one of his several books.
Madden’s approach was an ideal fit for the famously free-spirited Raiders of the 1970s, when eccentric players such as quarterback Ken Stabler and Ted Matuszak flourished. Oakland also became a melting pot of sorts for players of different ethnicities, backgrounds and reputations.
“At a time when our country needed it, John Madden saw no color,” Davis said on the day in 2006 when he introduced Madden at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “The Raiders, more than any organization …. led the fight for diversity. John Madden was in the middle of that fight.”
Above all, Madden won. The Raiders captured seven division titles during his era, including five in a row from 1972-76. Oakland never had a losing season during his tenure and made the playoffs 8 times in 10 seasons.
The blemish, such as it was, is that his Raiders lose six of seven conference title games. But they broke through for a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI after the 1976 season.
It was Madden’s only title. After that game, players carried him triumphantly off the field.
“I was told it took like five or six guys to lift me up, then they dropped me,” Madden recalled. “But that’s OK, because that was me and that was them. You carry him off for a while, boom, you dump him on the ground. It was the happiest moment of my life.”
Madden was born in Austin, Minnesota, on April 10, 1936. His parents, Earl and Mary, moved the family to the Bay Area when he was young, and John quickly emerged as a multi-sport athlete on the playing fields of Daly City.
A hallmark of Madden’s early life was his fortuitous run-ins with other sharp football minds, a trend that started as early as elementary school. Madden’s childhood chum was John Robinson, who would grow up to coach USC to three Rose Bowl victories. They met when they were 9.
“We were degenerately absorbed in sports, only sports,” Robinson told Sports Illustrated in 1987. “Madden and I had it figured: We’d play for the Yankees in the summer, the 49ers in the fall. Later, we began to see what the chances of doing any of that really were. So the coaching fantasy came fairly early to us both.”
Madden was a football star at Jefferson High, as well as a distinguished catcher on the diamond. By the time he was a sophomore, he was playing for so many summer league baseball teams that he told his dad he wanted to quit a few to go make some money.
Instead, Earl Madden, who made a modest living as a mechanic, slipped John a few extra dollars and encouraged him to keep playing. Dad permitted John to work as a golf caddie but urged him not to quit baseball.
“He said, ‘Don’t work. Once you start work, you’re going to have to work the rest of your life,”’ Madden recalled.
Madden shared that memory during his Hall of Fame induction speech, where he was sure that his father, who died in 1960, was looking down and laughing.
“I listened to him and I continued to play, and I have never worked a day in my life,” Madden said. “I went from player to coach to a broadcaster, and I am the luckiest guy in the world.”
After graduating from high school in 1954, Madden briefly attended Oregon but didn’t fit in: He has said it was the first time he was ever aware of how little money he had.
Madden transferred to the College of San Mateo, and then to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he played on both the offensive and defensive lines. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him as an offensive tackle in the 21st round in 1958, but a training camp knee injury ended his NFL career before it started.
Still, the knee injury had its perks: Madden passed the time while rehabilitating by watching game film with his veteran roommate. That happened to be Norm Van Brocklin, a Hall of Fame quarterback and nine-time Pro Bowl selection. “He had a great influence on me,” the coach said during his Hall of Fame induction.
Madden, who ended up with a teaching degree, wound up combining his two loves — football and teaching — and embarked on a coaching career. He started as an assistant coach at Allan Hancock College (Santa Maria) in 1960 and was promoted to head coach by ’62.
From 1963-66, he served on the staff at San Diego State, where he crossed paths with another brilliant strategist, Don Coryell. The two would later square off in the NFL when Coryell brought his famed “Air Coryell” offense to the San Diego Chargers. But Madden said the lasting impact from those early years on Coryell’s assistant went beyond Xs and Os.
“It was the way he treated players,” Madden told the Los Angeles Times, years later. “I think he had more respect for his players and coaches than anyone I’ve ever known.”
Raiders roll the dice
Madden entered pro football as the Raiders linebackers coach in 1967, a season in which Oakland finished 13-1 and reached the Super Bowl behind the likes of quarterback Daryle Lamonica, receiver Fred Biletnikoff and cornerback Willie Brown.
By 1969, owner Al Davis turn the reins over to Madden, who was all of 32 years old. Only six NFL coaches in the history of the league have been younger.
“Who the heck names a guy 32 years old as a head coach?” Madden once said. “Al Davis did. But he not only named me head coach, he stood behind me and he helped me and he provided me with players — with great players.”
By the time he retired from coaching 10 seasons later, Madden’s .759 winning percentage ranked the highest ever among coaches with 100 career victories.
The most famous games in Raiders history have names nicknames: The Sea of Hands. The Immaculate Reception. The Heidi Game. Ghost to the Post. The Holy Roller. Madden was the coach for all of them.
Perhaps most impressive was his record against the 10 other Hall of Fame coaches of his era. In those head-to-head match-ups, Madden went 36-16-2 (.685).
But the job took a toll on his health and on his happiness. Madden battled an ulcer for most of the 1977 season, a condition that only worsened when the Raiders lost to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship game.
After the Raiders went 9-7 in 1978 and missed the playoffs, Madden retired from coaching at age 42 and vowed to never come back. (He didn’t, despite repeated offers.)
Family life came back onto his radar, too. He’d married Virginia on Dec. 26, 1959, but in his 1984 book, “Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!)” Madden admitted that he was so out of touch with his home life that he thought his son was 12. He was 16.
“They talk about how hard coaches work. They work 18, 20 hours a day. They sleep on a couch. You know, that’s not the hard job,” Madden said years later. “The hard job is a coach’s wife, believe me.”
Boom! He’s into broadcasting!
Madden’s unrestrained enthusiasm and inventive phrasing found an ideal home in the broadcast booth. He debuted as a color commentator with CBS in 1979, blossoming quickly because of his insight and energy.
But his first game, a preseason match-up between the 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, when he was paired in the booth with Bob Costas, was a mess. Luckily, it was only for practice.
“We did the game into the tape. I got the tape, I watched it and it was terrible, Madden recalled for the New York Daily News. “I thought, ‘Shoot, this isn’t for me.’”
But Madden soon learned to lean on his coaching insight to draw up what was happening in the trenches, popularizing the telestrator device that has become a staple of football broadcasts.
Over his career, Madden worked for all four major networks: CBS (1979-93), Fox (1994-2001) ABC (2002-05) and NBC (2006-08).
He was so popular at his peak that when he signed a four-year broadcast contract in 1994 for $32 million, TV Guide noted that he was making more than any NFL player was making at the time.
Hardly a polished orator, Madden spoke from his heart and fans learned to come along with him. Among the wackier phrases attributed to him:
— “Hey, the offensive linemen are the biggest guys on the field. They’re bigger than everybody else, and that’s what makes them the biggest guys on the field.”
— “He was standing in the hole waiting for something to develop …. and WHAP! He got developed.”
— “Don’t worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon.”
While working the NFL’s annual Thanksgiving Day games, he would award turkey legs to the game’s top players and along the way introduced fans to the “turducken,” a dish that combined a turkey, duck in chicken in ways unintended by nature.
When there were multiple players worthy of rewarding, Madden would bring out a bird with eight drumsticks. he called it his “nuclear turkey.”
As New York Magazine critic John Leonard wrote of the broadcaster in 1984: “We need him because we are otherwise in danger of confusing fun and games with serious news.”
Traveling by bus
Broadcasting games from around the country presented an extra hurdle for Madden, who swore off airplanes in 1979. Madden insisted it wasn’t fear of flying (aviophobia) but rather claustrophobia. As soon as the plane’s doors closed, he would feel compelled to get out. In the midst of his third serious panic attack, he told himself: ‘This is it. If I get down from this one, I’m never going to get on another airplane the rest of my life.”
And he didn’t. Instead, he zigzagged across the country in his Madden Cruiser, a custom-made 45-foot, luxury bus complete with a queen-sized mattress, a sauna/shower and up to three plasma TVs.
Peter King, a writer for Sports Illustrated, hopped aboard for an epic 1990 journey and reported that Madden would awaken, pick up the intercom phone, and ask the driver, “Where are we?”
Video game king
Harvard graduate Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts and a man who played Strat-O-Matic football as a kid, approached Madden in 1984 to ask for his expertise in a new video game venture.
Hawkins wanted a sophisticated new game that allowed users to advanced game-calling. Madden saw a chance to build a coaching tool. The resulting collaboration — “Madden Football” — was released for Apple II in 1988 — and evolved into a sensation that has yet to abet.
One industry analyst estimated in 2015 that the “Madden NFL” franchise has generated $4.2 billion in venue over its lifetime. It annually ranks among the top video-selling video game franchises.
Madden, though, missed a chance to parlay his involvement into a grand fortune. Patrick Hruby, who documented the birth of Madden game dynasty, for an ESPN “Outside the Lines” piece, wrote that Hawkins offered Madden a chance to buy as much stock as he wanted at the IPO price.
Instead, Madden pointed sternly at Hawkins and said: “I gave you my time. I’m not giving you my money.”
From 1989 to 1999, EA’s share price went from $7.50 to $70.
“That was the dumbest thing I ever did in my life,” Madden told Hruby with a laugh.
A Hall of Famer
Madden was selected into the Hall of Fame with the Class of 2006. He went on the basis of his coaching mark, but voters have since said that Madden was worthy of enshrinement based on his post-career impact alone.
As a broadcaster, Madden help direct attention to what was happening between the linemen in the trenches. His annual All-Madden Team was a celebration of the overlooked and underappreciated. “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 said.
As the front man of a video game that turned future generations onto football, Madden left an immeasurable impact on the game.
Davis acknowledged as much in introducing Madden at the Hall of Fame.
“Time never really stops for the great ones,” Davis said. “We wrap them in a cloak of immortality and remember what great people they were.”
Survivors include his wife, Virginia, and two sons, Joseph and Michael. John and Virginia Madden’s 62nd wedding anniversary was two days before his death.