Twenty-eight years ago, in a dark, deserted parking lot outside Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday Night Football's past and future collided in spectacular fashion. In the wee hours of Sept. 17, 1974, shortly after his team had blown a lead and dropped a 21-20 thriller to the Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders coach John Madden trudged out into the night. It was the only time in Madden's 13 MNF appearances as the Raiders' coach that he would emerge a loser, and no sane person was especially eager to court his company at that moment. But from the darkness Madden heard a familiar voice—that of Howard Cosell, the controversial MNF analyst with the unmistakably nasal, New York inflection. "John, con-GRAT-u-LA-tions," Cosell said. "That was great. You gave us one HELL of a show?"
Madden froze. Though he considered Cosell a friend—and unlike many Americans 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?
While generations of young football fans know Madden only as a folksy television analyst, corporate pitchman and videogame godfather, anyone who had the pleasure of watching him flounce up and down the sideline, sweating and swearing up a storm, can picture the blowup. If he has mellowed over the years, Madden still brings an unequaled big-game buzz to the broadcast booth—and now comes the biggest test of his illustrious, 23-year second career. With Monday Night Football attempting to rebound from seven years of ratings declines, Madden, at 66, is the show. In February, when Madden left Fox to join Al Michaels in the MNF booth, ABC honchos viewed the move as a tonic for their ailing prime-time franchise. Sure, people reasoned, the Dennis Miller experiment might have fizzled, but he was a comedian and football dilettante. If Madden, the ultimate football guy, can't save MNF, perhaps nothing can.
As he prepares for his debut in a new booth—Madden and Michaels will work the Hall of Fame game between the Houston Texans and the New York Giants on Aug. 5—America's best-known bus rider sat down with SI at his production studios in Pleasanton, Calif., about 20 minutes from his old stomping grounds in Oakland.
SI: When you got the Monday Night gig in February, you described it as a dream job.
JM: I knew the feeling I had as a coach when we played on Monday night. It was always a festive thing, and I always thought that somewhere in my life I would like to be part of Monday Night Football again.
SI: For the most part you've been praised by critics throughout your broadcasting career. Now you get the prime-time critics. Is that something you've thought about much?
JM: Look, nobody likes criticism. I know that there's going to be more now, and working with Al Michaels will be different. They're going to take our temperature sooner and more often—the first quarter, how did they jell? I care, but I don't worry. You have to be yourself. Besides, I'm my own worst critic. I was that way as a coach, and I'm that way as a broadcaster.
SI: Did you like Cosell?
JM: Yeah, I knew him very well, and I liked him. If you go down the list of things and people that were good for football, Howard Cosell's name is on it. Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, the Giants-Baltimore game, the Jets' winning the Super Bowl.... Well, the advent of Monday Night Football and Howard Cosell was that big.