Powerful and a little untidy, Madden gained a place in the heart of the United States with a sympathetic, unpretentious style that was refreshing in a sports world with rising salaries and prime donna stars. He drove from fight to fight in his own bus because he suffered from claustrophobia and had stopped flying. For a time, Madden gave a “turducken” – a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey – to the excellent player in the Thanksgiving game, as he called it.
“No one loved football more than ‘Coach.’ was football, “NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.” He was an incredible sounding board for me and so many others. There will never be a John Madden again and we will forever thank him for everything he did to make football and the NFL what it is today. “
When he finally withdrew from the broadcast booth and left NBC’s Sunday night football, colleagues universally praised Madden’s passion for the sport, his preparation and his ability to explain an often complicated game in down-to-earth terms.
“No one has made the sport more interesting, more relevant and more fun to watch and listen to than John,” play-by-play announcer Al Michaels said at the time.
Madden grew up in Daly City, California. He played on both the offensive and defensive line for Cal Poly in 1957-58 and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the school.
Madden was selected to the all-conference team and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but a knee injury ended his hopes of a professional playing career. Instead, Madden began training, first at Hancock Junior College and then as a defensive coordinator at San Diego State.
Al Davis brought him to the Raiders as linebacker coach in 1967, and Oakland went to the Super Bowl in his first year in the pros. He replaced John Rauch as head coach after the 1968 season at the age of 32, starting a remarkable 10-year run.
With his demonstrative demeanor on the sidelines and shabby appearance, Madden was the ideal coach for the collection of cast-offs and misfits that made up these Raiders teams.
“Sometimes guys were disciplinary in things that made no difference. I was disciplinary in jumping offside; I hated it,” Madden once said. “Being in a bad position and lacking tackles, those things. I was not, ‘your hair needs to be combed’.
The Raiders responded.
“I always thought his strong point was his coaching style,” quarterback Ken Stabler once said. “John just had a great ability to let us be what we wanted to be, on and off the field … How do you pay him to be like that? You win for him.”
And boy, did they ever. For many years, the only problem was the playoffs.
Madden went 12-1-1 in his first season and lost the AFL title fight 17-7 to Kansas City. That pattern was repeated during his tenure; The Raiders won the division title in seven of its first eight seasons, but went 1-6 in conference title fights during that time.
Still, Madden’s Raiders played in some of the sport’s most memorable games of the 1970s, games that helped change the rules of the NFL. There was “Holy Roller” in 1978, when Stabler deliberately groped before being fired in the final game. The ball rolled and was hit to the goal zone before Dave Casper regained it for the winning touchdown against San Diego.
The most famous of these fights went against the Raiders in the 1972 playoffs in Pittsburgh. With the Raiders leading 7-6 and with 22 seconds left, the Steelers had a fourth and 10 from their 40-yard line. Terry Bradshaw’s desperate pass deflected either Oakland’s Jack Tatum or Pittsburgh’s Frenchy Fuqua to Franco Harris, who caught it on his shoe and ran in for a touchdown.
In those days, a pass that bounced off an offensive player directly to a teammate was illegal, and the debate continues to this day about which player it hit. The catch was of course dubbed “Immaculate Reception”.
Oakland finally broke through with a full team in 1976, with Stabler as the quarterback; Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch at the Recipient; tight end Dave Casper; Hall of Fame offensive linemen Gene Upshaw and Art Shell; and a defense that included Willie Brown, Ted Hendricks, Tatum, John Matuszak, Otis Sistrunk, and George Atkinson.
The Raiders went 13-1, losing just one blowout in New England in Week Four. They paid the Patriots back with a 24-21 victory in their first playoff game and came over the AFC title game with a 24-7 victory over the Steelers, which was crippled by injuries.
Oakland won it all with a 32-14 Super Bowl game against Minnesota.
“The players loved playing for him,” Shell said. “He made fun of us at camp and fun of us in the regular season. The only thing he asked for is that we come on time and play like hell when it’s time to play.”
Madden battled a wound the following season when the Raiders lost again in the AFC title game. He retired from coaching at the age of 42 after a 9-7 season in 1978.