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John Madden, the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Oakland Raiders who became an enjoyable NFL television analyst who informed millions of football fans with his excitable, everyman commentary, has died. He was 85.
A 16-time Emmy Award winner who for nearly three decades made his enthusiastic in-the-trenches observations from the booth at CBS, Fox, ABC and NBC, he died unexpectedly Tuesday morning at his home in Pleasanton, California.
Madden, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006, underwent major heart surgery in December 2015 and had hip replacement surgery six months later. He was working for the NFL in the areas of player safety and league competition.
“Nobody loved football more than Coach,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “He was football. He was an incredible sounding board to me and so many others. There will never be another John Madden, and we will forever be indebted to him for all he did to make football and the NFL what it is today.”
A born communicator, Madden called eight Super Bowl telecasts (five for CBS and three for Fox) working alongside play-by-play man Pat Summerall, then did three more title games with Al Michaels at ABC and NBC. After more than 500 NFL games, he retired from broadcasting in April 2009 when he had three years remaining on his contract and was reportedly making nearly $10 million a year.
“This is like Johnny Carson retiring,” Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, told the Los Angeles Times after Madden quit. “Carson was not the best comedian, but people loved him. I would not call John the most articulate or analytical mind, but he brought to a football broadcast knowledge and fun that worked even if you didn’t care about the game. He was a vaudevillian in the booth.”
With hair mussed, the self-deprecating Madden had the persona of your friendly neighborhood bartender. He focused on nuance and the guts of the game — he gave rare props to offensive linemen — had wild fun drawing with a telestrator, exclaimed “Boom!” “Whap!” and “Doink!” when describing the action and extolled the virtues of turducken on Thanksgiving Day.
The longtime Bay Area resident also was known as the face of EA Sports’ Madden NFL multibillion-dollar video game franchise. He and former Electronic Arts head Trip Hawkins developed the game (originally for the computer), with Madden thinking it would be used as a strategy tool for coaches.
But since the first version came out in 1988, EA reportedly has sold some 130 million copies, generating more than $7 billion, according to reports. “Each year we get better and better,” he said in 2009. “We started ahead of everyone and we’ve stayed ahead of everyone.”
(John Cusack fans will recall his character’s ruse in the 2003 John Grisham film Runaway Jury, telling the judge he couldn’t serve on a panel because he was too heavily involved playing Madden NFL.)
In the 1980s, Madden was one of the pantheon of over-the-hill types from the world of sports appearing in the “tastes great, less filling” commercials for Miller Lite beer. His specialty was sending his 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame bursting through fences, walls, etc., dust flying everywhere, in the quest for a cold one.
The son of an auto mechanic, John Earl Madden was born April 10, 1936, in Austin, Minnesota. The family moved to blue-collar Daly City, California, when he was young, and he was a lifelong friend of future USC and Los Angeles Rams coach John Robinson, whom he met in elementary school.
In 1954, Madden graduated from Jefferson High School, where he played baseball (he was a catcher, naturally), basketball and football.
He spent a season at the University of Oregon before winding up at the College of San Mateo and then Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He was a tackle on both sides of the ball, and the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the 21st round in 1958. However, a knee injury in training camp ended any chance for a pro career.
After spending the 1959 season watching tape with famed Eagles quarterback Norm Van Brocklin — “the greatest education I ever had,” Madden said — he turned to coaching and worked at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, California, and San Diego State before being hired by innovative Raiders owner Al Davis in 1967 as a linebackers coach.
Two years later, when John Rauch resigned to accept a job with the Buffalo Bills, Madden was named Oakland’s head coach. He was just 32, then the youngest man in NFL history in his position.
Famous for his arm-waving sideline antics, Madden compiled a coaching record of 103-32-7 in a decade with the Raiders, molding an aggregation of wayward personalities into fearsome champions. “The fewer rules a coach has, the fewer there are for players to break,” he always said.
Oakland never had a losing year under his watch and went 13-1 in the 1976 regular season before thumping the Minnesota Vikings in the Super Bowl. His players hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him off the field at the Rose Bowl.
Just months after retiring from the Raiders at just 42 — he had a bleeding ulcer, and “the constant worrying made the seasons run together, and I just burned out,” he said — CBS offered him a tryout as an analyst in 1979, and he worked his first game alongside Bob Costas at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Meanwhile, he also taught a class at UC Berkeley on how to watch football.
He took the CBS job and two years later was paired with Summerall, a former New York Giants placekicker, as the network’s No. 1 announcing team. (Madden replaced Summerall’s longtime pal and drinking buddy, ex-Eagles defensive back Tom Brookshier, after CBS decided against a Vin Scully-Madden combination.)
When CBS lost its rights to NFL games in 1994, Madden, Summerall, producer Bob Stenner and director Sandy Grossman exited for new rightsholder Fox, with Madden inking a contract for $32 million.
In 2002, he joined ABC’s Monday Night Football, working with Michaels; three years later, both left for NBC and its new Sunday Night Football franchise. After he retired, Madden was replaced by Cris Collinsworth.
Through all his years broadcasting games around the country, Madden had an extreme fear of flying and since 1980 traversed the USA by train or in a customized Greyhound bus he nicknamed the Maddencruiser. He became a trusted spokesman for products like anti-fungal ointment (“Boom! Tough Actin’ Tinactin!”) and hosted Saturday Night Live.
With columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times, he wrote three books in the 1980s: Hey, Wait a Minute (I Wrote a Book!); One Knee Equals Two Feet: And Everything Else You Need to Know About Football; and One Size Doesn’t Fit All.
Three days before his death, he was the subject of a Fox Sports documentary that premiered on Christmas Day.
Survivors include his wife Virginia, whom he married on Christmas Eve in 1959; sons Mike and Joe; and five grandchildren.
On the eve of entering the Hall of Fame, Madden reflected on how lucky he’d been. “I never really had a job,” he said. “I was a football player, then a football coach, then a football broadcaster. It’s been my life. Pro football has been my life since 1967. I’ve enjoyed every part of it. Never once did it ever feel like work.”
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