EVEN NOW, all these years after his last game, there are still people who call him Coach. John Madden will always answer to that word, because he believes it will always describe him. "Coaching isn't something you do," he once said. "It's something you are." Call him an ex-coach, a retired coach, a coach turned broadcaster and now a Hall of Fame coach--it doesn't matter, as long as you realize that Madden was, is and will always be a coach.
It's getting increasingly difficult to remember that these days, now that Madden has filled up his r�sum� with other pursuits. The 10-year-old who plays one of the video games bearing his name might not have any idea that Madden once coached the Oakland Raiders to a Super Bowl championship. The 20-year-old who has grown up listening to Madden's voice providing colorful commentary on seemingly every important NFL game of the last two decades might not realize that Madden has a career winning percentage of .759, the highest among coaches who have won at least 100 games. It would be easy to say that Madden had an unforgettable coaching career, if he hadn't accomplished so much since then to make us almost forget it.
But Madden hasn't forgotten. He remembers everything, from his early coaching days as an assistant at Allan Hancock College to his tenure with the Raiders, striding the sideline with his long sideburns and Sans-A-Belt slacks, a bellowing, intense leader who put so much of himself into his work that he had to give it up at age 42 or risk serious health problems. He battled an ulcer during the 1977 season and finally retired after the following season, saying that his doctors had told him that the years of coaching stress had left him with the body of a 70-year-old man.
But by that time Madden had already achieved everything an NFL coach could hope for. He's too humble a man to give you the impressive facts and figures from his coaching career, so let us. He guided the Oakland Raiders to 103 wins, 39 losses and seven ties in his 10-year tenure, ending in 1978. That included a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI, as well as seven AFL or AFC West division titles and six seasons of 10 wins or more.
Along the way Madden showed some of the outgoing personality and quotability that would later serve him so well as a broadcaster. "Coaches have to listen for what they don't want to hear and watch for what they don't want to see," he once said. He also believed that "the fewer rules a coach has, the fewer there are for players to break." That was the perfect approach for running the renegade Raiders, whose roster featured more than a few players--such as linebacker Ted Hendricks, quarterback Kenny Stabler, defensive linemen Ben Davidson and Otis Sistrunk, and others--who could walk on the wild side during the week but who showed up and did their jobs on Sundays. Other coaches would have had a hard time dealing with the players' rebellious mentality, but Madden managed to loosen the reins yet keep them in line at the same time.
During training camp in 1976 Madden received word that Hendricks had not been in his room for bed check, which meant an automatic $500 fine. When Madden called him into his office the next morning, he asked Hendricks where he had been the night before. Hendricks said he had been out late with fullback Marv Hubbard. When Madden asked why, Hendricks explained that since Hubbard had been cut the day before, ending his seven-year career with the Raiders, he had decided to take him out for one last night on the town. Madden thought a moment. "I would have done the same thing," he said. "No fine."
"John didn't try to be a drill sergeant," says former tight end Dave Casper. "A drill sergeant-type wouldn't have worked with some of the guys we had. John had the right approach, which was that as long as guys worked hard at practice and in games, and didn't break any laws during the week, then things would be O.K."
It was a coaching philosophy developed on the fly, because Madden didn't grow up with dreams of becoming a coach. He had visions of being an NFL player until an injury sidetracked him. He was a rookie guard with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1959 when a ballcarrier fell across his leg during training camp, tearing ligaments and cartilage in his left knee. He was out for the year, but the Eagles allowed him to stay with the team all season to get treatment for the injury. It was after one of his early-morning treatment sessions that he ran into Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin, who often came in several hours before practice during the week to study game films of the Eagles' next opponent.
When Madden wandered into the film room one day, Van Brocklin invited him to have a seat. Before long, Van Brocklin was dissecting the film for the rookie, pointing out the vulnerabilities of the opposing defense. Madden soaked it up, then came back the next day and the day after that. He spent nearly every morning with Van Brocklin and received a football education in the process. By the time the season ended, Madden had begun to think like a coach.
That was fortunate, because he would never play another down of football. The Los Angeles Chargers of the first-year American Football League invited him to training camp the following season, but the knee still wasn't healthy, so he declined and returned to his alma mater, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, for his master's degree in physical education. As part of his studies, he helped coach the team at San Luis Obispo High, where he met a recruiter from Hancock, the junior college in Santa Maria, Calif. The J.C. team needed an assistant, and Madden filled the position. After two seasons as an assistant at Hancock, Madden was promoted to head coach, going 4-5 his first season and 8-1 his second, after which he was hired by Don Coryell as a defensive assistant at San Diego State.