Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 30, 2021

John Madden Never Stopped Coaching

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life will be traveling over the next several days, so there will be no post on Sunday.  The regular schedule will resume next Thursday, January 6th.  Thanks as always for reading and may everyone have a happy and safe New Year’s celebration.

As tributes to the late John Madden poured in to both traditional sports forums and various social media outlets in the wake of his passing on Tuesday, it quickly became clear that the because of the length of his career and diversity of his accomplishments, how Madden is thought of depends very much on the age and interests of NFL fans. 

To the millions who have purchased one or more copies of the video game first introduced in 1988 as John Madden Football and known since 1994 as Madden NFL, his was the name associated with one of the most popular electronic game series of all time, one that has generated more than $7 billion in revenue.  When the 2022 version was introduced last August, it not only topped that month’s sales charts – the 22nd consecutive year Madden NFL immediately rocketed to number one – it sold enough units in that single month to become the fourth bestselling game of the entire year.  Sales figures that are three years old, and thus already very outdated, show 130 million units sold to 75 million players since the game was introduced.  The series remains a bedrock of Electronic Arts’ offerings, second only to the worldwide appeal of the same company’s FIFA soccer simulation among all sports video games.   It is entirely possible that a few young gamers may have been surprised to learn – assuming of course they could tear themselves away from their consoles long enough to read Madden’s obituary – that he was not in fact a video game developer.

But while he may not have been proficient at writing code, Madden did not simply lend his name to EA’s product and wait around for the royalty checks to be deposited into his bank account.  In 1984, EA founder Trip Hawkins approached Madden about the video game, which was then still in development.  Their initial meeting took place on a train traveling west from Denver, the odd venue a product of Madden’s well-documented aversion to flying.  Hawkins and his staff explained to Madden that the game would feature 7-on-7 play, since the display technology of the time would not allow for two 11-player teams on the video “field.”  Madden was dismissive, saying “that’s not real football.”  When Hawkins protested that the requisite technical developments would take years, Madden responded, “then it will take years.”  The game that Hawkins thought was nearly ready to bring to market debuted four years later and featured 11-on-11 play.

For an even greater number of fans, many of a slightly older generation than is typical for avid gamers, Madden will be remembered primarily as the preeminent NFL television analyst.  For three decades, from his first broadcast with CBS in 1979 until his final time in the NBC booth at Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, with stints at Fox and ABC along the way, Madden displayed a natural ability to translate his deep knowledge of the sport and intense pregame preparation into cogent analysis of what was happening on the field, in language that fans could relate to.  The telestrator had been around since the late 1950s, but it was Madden who made the device that allows a user to overlay a video image with a freehand sketch an integral part of football coverage when he began diagramming plays with it.  That he would also use it for random doodling during breaks in the action made Madden even more relatable, as did his penchant for occasionally substituting sound effects for commentary.

Yet Madden was not a clown who happened to find his way to the broadcast booth.  When told, at the very start of his television career, that broadcast crews didn’t watch teams practice or view game films but instead just met with publicity flacks from the franchises involved in every weekend’s game, Madden made it clear that approach was unacceptable.  Instead, he met with coaches and players, watched each squad prepare in person, and wrangled access to the same films that each side’s coaching staff was using.  In short order, his approach became standard practice across the industry, to the benefit of viewers.  He was also not averse to using his media platform to make the NFL uncomfortable.  Long before the issue became central to any discussion about the sport he loved, he argued during a 1993 broadcast that any player suspected of being concussed during a game should be barred from returning to that contest, and perhaps the next few as well.

The popularity of the Electronic Arts’ video game franchise and Madden’s long tenure enlightening fans sitting in their living rooms, together with the passage of time, all combine to obscure the work that made both his time in the broadcast booth and Madden NFL possible.  A football fan with a New Year’s Day birthday, one about to turn 43, along with the millions of his or her compatriots that age or younger, was not yet born when Madden patrolled the sidelines as head coach of the Oakland Raiders.  But his decade as an NFL head coach, along with the equal period preceding it during which he gained experience at the collegiate level and as a NFL assistant, was always the part of his career most important to Madden. 

The decision by Raiders owner Al Davis to promote him from linebackers coach to the top job in 1969 was controversial simply because it made Madden the youngest head coach in NFL history at the time.  But the 32-year-old had already been identified by both colleagues and members of the Bay area sports media as an eventual candidate for such a role, not just because of his deep knowledge of the game but also because of his ability to convey that understanding to his players.  Those who knew Madden best may have been surprised the opportunity came so early, but not that he had been given it, nor that he rewarded Davis’s faith.

In his first season, the last for the old AFL prior to the 1970 merger that formed the modern NFL, Madden guided the Raiders to a 12-1-1 mark and first place in the league’s Western Conference.  Then in nine seasons as a member of the NFL’s American Football Conference, Madden’s teams won the AFC West Division seven times.  After compiling a 13-1 regular season record in 1976, Oakland swept through the playoffs, capping the campaign with a 32-14 drubbing of the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI.  Madden never had a losing season, with the Raiders averaging more than ten wins a year under his stewardship.  In addition to that Super Bowl, Oakland went to one AFL Championship and six AFC Conference Championship games.  When he retired after the 1979 season, his career regular season .750 winning percentage, on a record of 103-32-7, was the best in NFL history among coaches of at least 100 games.  Four decades later, it still is.

The number of fans who remember the Madden-led Raiders is far, far smaller than the count of those who listened to him dissect a game or who have lost themselves for an hour or two in his namesake video game.  But Madden never forgot it was the essential precursor to all that followed.  He coached fans with his telestrator, and his initial interest in the video game was largely based on it being a way for players to better understand football. That’s why he dismissed any talk of being inducted into the league’s Hall of Fame based on his broadcasting fame, wanting only to be recognized for his coaching.  On Super Bowl weekend in 2006, the Hall finally came calling.  The television voice is silent now, and eventually even the video game franchise will end.  But coach Madden will always be in the NFL Hall of Fame, right where he belongs. 

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