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'Hey, Wait A Minute! I Want To Talk'
Sarah Pileggi
September 01, 1983
John Madden has burst upon the American scene as few others in sport, but contrary to his bull-in-a-beer-ad image, he loves nothing more than good quiet conversation, and his skill as a communicator is the key to his success both as a football coach and as a broadcaster
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September 01, 1983

'hey, Wait A Minute! I Want To Talk'

John Madden has burst upon the American scene as few others in sport, but contrary to his bull-in-a-beer-ad image, he loves nothing more than good quiet conversation, and his skill as a communicator is the key to his success both as a football coach and as a broadcaster

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It always comes as a surprise to neophyte Madden watchers to learn that he drinks very little. He looks like a drinker and he hangs around with drinkers in drinking surroundings, but he hardly drinks at all. "I don't advertise it," he says, "but I'm about as close to a nondrinker as you can get. Somebody could tell me tomorrow that I can never have another drink and it wouldn't bother me at all." When he does drink, however, he is loyal to Lite, as a well-paid member of the brewery's promotional team should be. On occasions when Lite isn't available, he drinks diet cola, but not until he has made it clear to the bartender, and everyone else within hearing, that he is disappointed to find himself in a place that doesn't stock Lite.

The image makers from Backer & Spielvogel, the New York advertising firm employed by the Miller Brewing Company to keep the public buying Lite by the barrelful, were hot on Madden's trail as soon as he announced his retirement. His image, acquired during his years on the Oakland sideline, as the choleric coach-ranting at officials while waving his tree-trunk arms, with his reddish-blond curls stuck to his sweating brow and his shirt-tails flapping—was a natural for Miller's over-the-hill gang of beer hucksters. His bulk was menacing, but his grin was impish and, Lord, how the man cared. It was written all over him. Not the neurotic kind of caring you see in a coach afraid for his job, but the unbridled, uncalculated caring of a shepherd for his flock.

"They told me when I started, 'The exposure you'll get will be frightening,' " he says. "But I said, 'Me? I've been in the Super Bowl!' Well, they were right and I was wrong. I coached for 20 years, and I break through one piece of paper for one 30-second commercial and everybody knows me as the guy who breaks through the paper." His blue eyes disappear into folds of mirth. "Hey, Myrtle, you know him don't you?" he says, mimicking a member of the public. "He's the guy who breaks through the paper."

A Detroit newspaperman assigned to cover the filming of the latest Miller alumni ad, a softball game between the Taste Greats and the Less Fillings, watched Madden the actor come crashing through a balsa wood panel in the centerfield fence of a southern California Little League park holding what had appeared to be a home-run ball—"Hey, wait a minute! this game isn't over yet. I caught that ball"—and mused on Madden the television analyst: "There's always the possibility of his crashing through your TV set. He makes it an adventure."

The same day, however, the gregarious Madden sat on a bench in a dugout talking quietly to Maria Shriver, who was interviewing him for the syndicated TV show, PM Magazine. Out on the field, Rodney Dangerfield was pitching, Koichiro Numazawa was catching, Jim Honochick was the plate umpire, and Bubba Smith was hitting soft-balls that exploded in a cloud of talcum powder. Matt Snell, Deacon Jones and Ray Nitschke were needling Smith, just to pass the time.

"Get that back leg up, Bubba," shouted Snell. "That's the way, yeah, the back one. You get more power that way."

"Run it out, big fella," yelled Nitschke, as Smith smashed another ball into powder and lumbered toward first base.

Madden was in the dugout, out of sight because he smokes and there were photographers around. He doesn't like to be known as a smoker, but he hasn't stopped, either. For a while he answered Shriver's questions about television and coaching and riding trains. Before long, though, he was asking questions. How did she get started in the business? How did she like it? What kinds of stories does she do? It was a typical Madden interview: It had become a conversation. The same thing had happened earlier that day with Al McGuire. McGuire had finished his videotaped questions for Entertainment Tonight, and then, while the cameraman and his assistant packed away their gear and stood around waiting to leave and the director, a young go-getter with places to get to, tried to look calm, Madden and McGuire continued to talk...and talk, as comfortable as two old shoes. One thing they talked about was burnout. "There's a certain sort of personality," Madden said, "that worries about things he can't control. He's going to burn out. I don't give a damn how long it takes. It's going to get him. With that kind of personality you can coach for 10 years in the pros. That was my limit. Dick Vermeil was a little less than 10. Sid Gillman's the other type. Sid just thrives on it. He's in his 70s. His age tells him he can't live with it, but his mind says he can't live without it. George Allen's the same type. They can't live without it."

When Madden decided the time had come for him to quit coaching, he walked away from football with no plans to do anything for at least a year. For one thing, there was the ulcer. For another, he realized that his sons, Mike, now 19, and Joe, 17, had grown up while his back was turned. He illustrates the point with a story he tells over and over: "One day my wife reminded me that I had promised to buy Mike a truck when he could drive and that I'd better be thinking about it. I said, 'O.K., but there's no hurry. He won't be 16 for four years.' She said, 'He'll be 16 in six months.' "

So Madden disappeared from the sidelines. He went home to Pleasanton, a suburb beyond the hills southeast of Oakland, to see what had been going on all those years. To his surprise he found nobody was there. The boys were at school and deeply involved in sports, and his wife, Virginia, was in business for herself, running a local saloon she had bought two years earlier. With hindsight Madden says, "Spending time with the family is one of the most overrated things in the world." He found himself watching daytime reruns. Even so, he rejected CBS's initial offers of an audition. "I really didn't want to do anything," he says. "But they thought I was negotiating. It went back and forth, and finally my agent, Barry Frank, said, 'You ought to do it. We'll get a four-or five-game guarantee. If you like it you can continue. If you don't, you don't have to.' "

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