He stood on the sideline at Three Rivers Stadium, smiling broadly while staring out at the tattered green AstroTurf, intermittently chatting up the steady stream of well-wishers paying their respects to the preeminent figure in football broadcasting.
It was September 1997, the day before the Steelers would host the Dallas Cowboys in both teams’ regular season opener, and John Madden spent the bulk of the home team’s walkthrough in a typically jovial, gregarious state of being. And then, abruptly and almost inconceivably, a transformation occurred that I will never, ever forget.
Standing a few yards from Madden, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, I was engaged in a conversation with Lesley Visser, the Hall of Fame reporter who was then with ABC, about the "Immaculate Reception," the iconic, stunning and controversial climax to a Steelers playoff victory over the Oakland Raiders nearly a quarter-century earlier. When I asked if she knew whether Franco Harris had completed the winning play in the north or south end zone, Visser, a close friend of Madden’s, smiled wickedly and said simply: “Watch this.”
And then it happened. “John,” Visser shouted out, “which end zone was it?” Madden’s smile vanished instantly. He glared at Visser as though he wanted to rip her hair out; when she nodded toward me, I got the same searing expression times three.
“I’ll tell you which (expletive) end zone,” Madden said, whirling and pointing to his left. “It was that one, right there — after (Terry) Bradshaw’s pass bounced off of (Frenchy) Fuqua, which was illegal, and Franco scooped it up off the (expletive) ground.”
Suddenly, like Bruce Banner transmuting into the Incredible Hulk, the Madden of my childhood had returned with a vengeance. Eyes ablaze, saliva streaming from his mouth, the Hall of Fame coach went on a relentless rant, railing against the injustice of it all, recounting how at game’s end he’d chased the officials into their locker room and banged violently on the door in a vain attempt to make his case. It was an extraordinary illustration of the man’s ultra-competitive nature and zealous belief in the cause; more important, it served as a stark and unforgettable reminder that, above all else, Madden was a fervent football fanatic who held back nothing in the heat of battle.
Long before he was a Turducken-devouring, custom-coach captaining broadcasting behemoth with an uncanny ability to appeal to the common fan — and before he was a successful corporate pitchman and video-game godfather — Madden, as I once wrote in a profile for GQ Magazine, was the mess you loved to watch on Sundays. Auburn hair flying, sweat dripping down his mutton-chop sideburns, arms flailing out of his short-sleeved leisure shirt, massive body constrained by polyester Sansabelt slacks, sideline credential spiraling underneath his flouncing stomach — the man was a sight to behold, especially on those frequent occasions on which he thought his team had been wronged.
He vented. He swore. He paced. He jumped, or at least tried to. He crossed the line, literally and figuratively, and acted like he wanted to fight you to drive home his point.
And somehow, through it all, he came off not as a petulant grandstander but as a sincere and somewhat endearing fanatic. And to Raiders fans — well, Madden was damn near heroic. He spoke for them, and he spoke to their semi-paranoid and insular sensibilities. As a fan, you want to know that your coach cares about your team’s fortunes at least as much as you do; with Madden, there was no ambiguity. He cared more, and he looked like he might collapse in the process.
That he guided a team of renegades and misfits, shepherding his rowdy collection of iconoclasts through a decade known for self-expression and self-indulgence and paradoxically thriving in a team-centric sport with militaristic overtones, only added to Madden’s charm. He was most certainly "The Man," and he treated his players like men, and he held his own with the most intimidating man in the NFL universe — owner Al Davis, whom he would later call one of his closest friends — while flashing enough humanity and charisma to reporters and other outsiders to become an immensely popular figure.
Oh, and he was very, very good at his job at a very young age, guiding the Raiders to 103-32-7 regular season record during his 10 years as head coach, at one point appearing in five AFC championship games in a seven-year span, winning a pair of conference titles and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after a Super Bowl XI thrashing of the Minnesota Vikings. Following the 1978 season Madden, then 42, stepped away from coaching, a move that given his sideline demeanor reeked of self-preservation. Shortly thereafter, he spoofed his image in a series of popular Miller Lite commercials in which he ranted so wildly in a crowded bar that he tore through a paper façade. Football fans everywhere nodded knowingly.
Because Madden was so successful in his future endeavors, and because his folksy musings in the broadcast booth essentially served as the soundtrack to America’s most popular sport for several decades, his coaching accomplishments sometimes seem overshadowed. Yet his 2006 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn’t a hybrid honor — he entered Canton as a coach, period, and it was a richly deserved enshrinement. Consider that among coaches with at least 50 victories, Madden’s .759 career winning percentage is exceeded only by Guy Chamberlin, who coached four NFL teams (the Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Bulldogs, Frankford Yellowjackets and Chicago Cardinals) from 1922-27, mostly while doubling as a player.
Having played tackle at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Madden believed that the trenches were the foundation of a football team’s success, and his Raiders reflected that philosophy, with sturdy and sometimes dominant offensive and defensive lines. He was a shrewd strategist and masterful motivator who wasn’t afraid of confrontation but resisted the compulsion to be gratuitously overbearing toward his charges. Rather than sweating the small stuff, Madden asked his players to show up on time and be tough and accountable on Sundays, and they responded by placing their trust in him and putting the team first.
And let’s be honest: The Raiders featured some great players between the 1969 and ’78 seasons, and Madden almost invariably got the most out of them. From quarterback Ken Stabler, to receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch, to tight end Dave Casper, to offensive linemen Art Shell, Gene Upshaw and Jim Otto, to defensive linemen John Matusak and Otis Sistrunk, to linebackers Ted Hendricks and Phil Villapiano, to defensive backs Willie Brown Lester Hayes, George Atkinson and Jack Tatum, to kicker George Blanda and punter Ray Guy … Madden’s Raiders were a collection of All-Pros heavy on long locks, facial hair and fierce on-field demeanors — and the unremittingly unkempt man roaming the sideline was the undeniable tone-setter.
He cared — so much — and his utter lack of guile and political posturing in matters ancillary to the immediate task at hand resonated with the masses. In other words: Madden might appear to be on the verge of going into cardiac arrest over a phantom holding call, but his heart seemed to be in the right place.
This wasn’t some manically ambitious man who had pushed his way up the ladder; Madden’s rise to the top of his profession had been swift and unforeseen. His big break came in 1966, when Madden was a defensive assistant coach at San Diego State, then a “small college,” Division II power, and was preparing for a big game against North Dakota State. He had struck up a friendship with former Aztecs coach Paul Governali, who was still a professor on campus. As Madden would recall for me in 2002, during a long interview at his television studio in Pleasanton, Calif., “when I would get free time I would go down and see Paul and we would have these long talks about football. So anyway, we were getting ready to play North Dakota State, and there was a bench outside the football offices where I used to go sit to do my game-planning, because in the office I had players coming in all the time and just hanging out. So I was out there going over this defense, and Al Davis walked up.
“This is after Al came back from being AFL commissioner, and he had taken over the Raiders as managing general partner. He wasn’t a coach anymore, but he was scouting our players at San Diego State. So he came and he sat down on the bench and introduced himself and asked what I was doing on defense. North Dakota State used a split-T, and I was going to hit the gaps and line my guys up in the gaps. He said, ‘Why don’t you do what you’re going to do and instead of lining them up there, jump to the gaps?’ So I put it in, and we ended up winning.
“Al and I sat there maybe an hour, but we were just talking Xs and Os; we weren’t talking about our players or what I wanted to do with my life or anything. Then, at the end of the season, I got a call from John Rauch, the head coach of the Raiders. He wanted to offer me a job as linebackers coach. I thought, 'Where in the hell did this come from?' I’d never met John Rauch. Later, maybe about a year later, I found out what had happened: Al was a friend of Paul Governali’s, and they were having lunch together and started talking about coaching, and Paul said, ‘You ought to talk to this John Madden.’ But Paul never told me about that conversation, and when Al walked out there to talk to me that day, he didn’t tell me it was like a job interview.”
Having unwittingly aced the interview, Madden proceeded to crush it on the job. After two years as the Raiders’ linebackers coach, he was hired by Davis to succeed Rauch, who had resigned to become the Bills’ head coach — and, at 32, he guided Oakland to a 12-1-1 regular season record and an AFC championship game appearance. There were so many victories to come, yet even after a wildly triumphant decade, and the post-coaching success that followed, Madden had trouble shedding the bitter taste of defeat. I learned lesson loudly and clearly on that 1997 day at Three Rivers, and the point was driven home five years later when, for a 2002 Sports Illustrated cover story on Madden’s move to the Monday Night Football booth, he related an anecdote from another stadium in the wake of another emotion-sapping setback.
It was September 1974, and the Raiders had blown a lead against the Buffalo Bills and suffered a 21-20 defeat on Monday Night Football. It was the only time in 13 MNF appearances that Madden’s Raiders would lose, and it was long past midnight when he trudged alone out of Rich Stadium and into the darkened parking lot. Shortly before boarding the team bus, Madden heard a familiar voice — it was Howard Cosell, the polarizing MNF analyst with the distinctively nasal, New York inflection.
“John, con-GRAT-u-LATIONS,” Cosell said, beaming. “That was great. You gave us one hell of a show.”
Madden froze. Though he considered Cosell a friend — and though, unlike many Americans, he was an unabashed fan of the announcer’s brash style — the coach’s celebrated temper flared. “Show, my ass!” he screamed at Cosell. “To you it’s a show; to me, it’s life.”
Madden’s coaching lifespan was comparatively short, but he left an indelible impression on the football world, and his decade at the helm of the Raiders informed all that followed. During that same interview in 2002, when Madden was at the height of his broadcasting and video-game celebrity, I asked him this question: “Now you’re on a primetime hit show. Do you consider yourself a journalist? An entertainer? A hybrid?”
His reply told me everything I needed to know, as conclusively as his rant against the Immaculate Reception had five years earlier.
“I’m a football coach,” he said. “And I’ll always be a football coach doing television.”
At his core, Madden never stopped being as a coach — and no soul who ever had the guilty pleasure of watching him completely lose it on the sideline will ever forget him.