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When the Oakland Raiders won Super Bowl XI on Jan. 9, 1977, Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, said, "I am especially happy for John Madden today. This will establish him as one of the truly great coaches in the game from an organization standpoint. And it's just a matter of time before he is recognized as the greatest coach."
Two years later Madden had retired, the victim of a bleeding ulcer and a textbook case of coach's burnout, an occupational malady that had not yet acquired a name. During his decade of guiding the Raiders, Oakland had reached the playoffs eight times, and his record of 103-32-7 made him the first coach in the NFL ever to win 100 games in his first 10 years with one team. Nevertheless, acknowledgment of Madden's proficiency as a coach remained muted to the end.
Davis proved dead right about one thing, however: It was only a matter of time before Madden was recognized. At this moment Madden is about as recognized as anybody in America. His big, doughy, unmade bed of a face and his hulking figure are known and loved by total strangers from Meridian, Miss. to Missoula, Mont. He is both the good-natured but slightly dangerous—to himself as well as others—goof who breaks through the paper walls in all those Miller Lite commercials and the CBS football pundit with the common touch who leads us all through television's swamps of verbal hogwash onto the high ground of enlightenment. Four years after he first entered the broadcast booth Madden still approaches each assignment with the enthusiasm of a rookie. His voice and his manner say to every fan, "It's a game, it's fun, and if you don't know a nickel defense when you see one, stick with me, that's what I'm here for."
But for all his exposure to the public eye, present and past, Madden the man, as opposed to Madden the media creature, is surprisingly little known. The real Madden doesn't fit readily into a 30-second spot, a five-minute interview or a single newspaper column. What we see is merely a fraction of what we might get if we could actually stick with him. He is a thinker whose thoughts do not compress easily. He views life as a complicated, difficult and always interesting human endeavor, and it's not in his nature to belittle that endeavor by reducing it to an epigram for the sake of a laugh. Sometimes a Madden phrase, lifted out of context, makes a memorable one-liner, but you can bet your paycheck that the thought originally encasing the bon mot was worth hearing too.
Talking is what Madden does best. He is a born communicator. His talent for putting thoughts into words that engage the attention of a particular audience and his special knack for infusing these words with his own personality have been the keys to his success not only as a broadcaster but also as a coach. Moreover, Madden listens to others as attentively as they to him. Two-way talk—good old-fashioned conversation—is his hobby. Conversation, as Madden sees it, is living and learning at the same time, and, thus, a doubly efficient way to spend one's hours. That's important to Madden, because although he never seems to hurry, he rarely wastes time.
Clearly, Madden is more than just a marketable face, although that face, plus a midlife crisis of sorts, have combined to make him a fortune. He is paid around a quarter of a million dollars a year as CBS-TV's premier football analyst and color man. In addition he is well remunerated for doing a daily two-minute sports spot for RKO Radio and commercials for Miller Lite, CBS video games and MIC insurance. He also co-authors magazine columns for Pro and last year did some newspaper columns during the football season for USA Today. As a result, he has the wherewithal to own a 47-foot trawler docked at a marina in the Oakland Estuary, an apartment at the Dakota, Manhattan's most famous address, and enough California real estate to keep him and his family comfortably afloat were he never to work another day in his life. In other words, Madden, whose first real job was as a junior high school phys ed teacher, is a rich man, and, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, that makes him different from you and me.
He is. For one thing, he never ties his shoes. He flops around the country in worn leather tennis sneakers with the laces dragging or no laces at all. He never wears a tie if he can help it, or a jacket, either, unless it's a lightweight windbreaker so big it billows like a spinnaker. His buttoned-down-and-blazered costume for CBS telecasts is just that, a costume. He gets out of it as quickly as possible. Madden, like all very big men, is constantly searching for physical comfort in a world seemingly designed for pygmies. Otherwise he is a 6'4", 270-pound mass of unlikely preferences. He loves people but he can't bear crowds. He travels 100,000 miles a year, but confinement to an airplane seat makes him sick, so he takes the train. He loves to eat, but he dislikes most fancy restaurants. He reads books constantly during his slow-motion journeys, but he never passes the time with fiction.
From Madden's point of view, life is too short for fiction but not long enough for all the talking he would like to do. His idea of an evening's entertainment on the road is sitting around and talking for hours with three or four people who also like to sit around and talk for hours. Other people go out at night. Madden stays in. Going out to him means crowds, noise, small seats—or, worse, no seats—and people who say, "Hi, I'm Robert. I'll be your waiter tonight."
"I hate that," says Madden. "I mean, you didn't go in there for a meaningful relationship. Then they say, 'May we take your cocktail order?' and you sit and wait. If I go someplace, I like to sit down and eat."
Most people faced with a meal alone in a hotel restaurant would rather starve. Madden sees such an occasion as an opportunity for observing and, if all goes well, conversing with fellow diners. To Madden, room service, the customary recourse of the lone traveler, is, like fiction, life-wasting.