If Tom Landry's fedora-capped visage epitomizes the strategic, brainy side of American football, John Madden's doughy, oversized figure has, for the past thirty years, embodied the game's rough and tumble soul. His gregarious manner and distinctive voice has filled tv studios, adorned advertisements and sold one of the most successful video game franchises of all time. On April 16, Madden announced his retirement from broadcasting, a trade to which his enthusiasm and folksy wisdom made him singularly well-suited. (See pictures from an NFL training camp.)
The son of an auto mechanic, Madden was born in Minnesota and grew up in Northern California. It was not a plush upbringing: A multi-sport athlete, Madden remembers taping together broken bats from a local semi-pro baseball team to use for batting practice; one of his first jobs was as a caddy. Recruited to play football at the University of Oregon, he transferred out after his first year and eventually ended up at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, Madden suffered a career-ending knee injury during training camp.
Got his first coaching job as an assistant at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., in 1960. His idiosyncratic coaching style there and later as head coach at San Diego State made him popular among his players and gained the attention of another individualist: Al Davis, the cantankerous owner of the Oakland Raiders. Madden served as Raiders head coach from 1969-1978, during which the Raiders never had a losing season, won their division seven times and the Super Bowl in 1977. Famous for his wild sideline gestures and unruly shock of hair, Madden was a gifted team builder, taking risks with players other coaches dismissed for discipline problems. "To me, discipline in football occurs on the field not off it. [It's not] a coat and tie and a clean shave", he once wrote. He was inducted into the hall of fame in 2006.
Madden retired from coaching after the 1978 season, citing a stomach ulcer and fatigue. In his 1984 best-selling book Hey, Wait a Minute (I wrote a book!), Madden noted that he had been so focused on football that he'd become estranged from his family, at one point thinking his 16-year-old son was twelve. But he didn't stay out of the limelight for long: in the early 1980s he became an iconic pitchman for Miller Lite, appearing in the beer's famous "tastes great, less filling" ad campaign. Madden's barely restrained enthusiasm made him a natural salesman and he showed a knack for making anything even foot fungus treatment seem exciting: ("Boom! Tough-Actin' Tinactin!")
In 1979, Madden took a position as a color commentator for CBS, immediately finding success with his blend of sharp technical insight and muddled diction. Among the classic phrases attributed to him: "He was standing in the hole waiting for something to develop...and WHAP!, he got developed." "Don't worry about the horse being blind, just load the wagon." He also coined the phrase "doink."
Over the course of his career, Madden covered football for CBS, Fox and ABC, winning 16 Emmy Awards. Due to a fear of flying he developed in middle age, Madden drove between games in a specially designed Greyhound bus, The Madden Cruiser.
In 1988, Madden lent his name to to the Electronic Arts video game John Madden Football; the franchise, later renamed Madden NFL, has sold over 70 million copies. Madden was involved in the programming of the game to enhance its versimilitude and lent his voice to later editions. The game became such a pop culture phenomenon it spawned its own mythology: The Madden Curse, in which players featured on the game's cover that year are doomed to suffer an injury or drop in form.
"The thing that made it hard is not because I'm second guessing. But I enjoyed it so damn much."
on his retirement from broadcasting, as reported in USA Today, April 16, 2009
The fewer rules a coach has, the fewer there are for players to break.
on his approach to coaching, in The Book of Football Wisdom, 1996
I'm lucky. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I never really had a job.
on his various careers, reported in the Sacramento Bee, 2008
"[He is] the big-footed American hero of the interstate, the blue-colar pope of professional football."
Journalist Sean Mitchell, Los Angeles Times Magazine, 1994
"We need him because we are otherwise in danger of confusing fun and games with serious news."
Critic John Leonard in New York magazine, 1984
"You could always tell he was mad when his face got red."
Former Oakland Raiders Linebacker Ted Hendricks, explaing how Madden got his nickname as a coach: Pinky
See 10 Questions with John Madden