Thursday, April 16, 2009

John Madden: Style and Substance

John Madden is retiring after 30 stellar years as an NFL commentator for four networks. He started out at CBS in 1979, staying there until that network lost its NFL contract in 1994. He then moved to Fox. In 2002, Madden joined Al Michaels in ABC's Monday Night Football booth and since 2006 he and Michaels have done Sunday Night Football games for NBC.

Depending on your age/predilections, your most vivid image of Madden could be as a Super Bowl winning coach, as a highly animated TV commentator yelling "Boom!" and talking about "turduckens," as the name behind a hugely popular NFL video game--or even as a fixture in Miller Lite commercials:

As a kid, I got a big kick out of those Miller Lite ads. Isn't it something how back then writers knew how to be funny without being crass? Those Miller Lite spots are 100 times funnier than most of the "avant garde" ads from recent years.

I am not quite old enough to remember John Madden's coaching career, though as a student of the game I became quite familiar with it; my earliest recollections of Madden are of him teaming up with Pat Summerall on CBS: it always seemed like they broadcast the biggest games, first featuring the Dallas Cowboys and later featuring teams like the 49ers, Redskins, Bears and Giants. It was a treat listening to Madden talk about what made a young Bill Parcells a good coach or why Walter Payton was so special. Although Madden was always very energetic and enthusiastic during telecasts, if you paid attention to what he was saying you could learn something about the game: he had a keen, quick eye for what was happening on the field and his folksy way of expressing himself should not delude you into forgetting just how much he knows about the sport's strategies.

Madden also understood the human element of the game. Whenever he did Super Bowl telecasts, at the end of the game he would always say something to the effect that for the winning coach this was the greatest feeling in the world, something that no one could ever take away from him.

It was always hilarious to hear Madden carrying on during the annual Thanksgiving game about the "turducken." I first thought that he had just made the whole thing up but there actually is such a thing as a de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck stuffed with a de-boned chicken. Madden obviously had a lot of fun during the broadcasts but I respect the fact that he did his homework thoroughly before games, meeting with the coaches and key players so that he knew exactly what to expect from a strategic standpoint.

The All-Madden teams honored players who Madden felt played the game the right way and it was always interesting to hear his take about that.

It is very important to not let Madden's outsized persona make you forget that he was a great, Super Bowl-winning Hall of Famer who became the Oakland Raiders head coach at just 33 years of age in 1969. He posted a 103-32-7 regular season record and guided the Raiders to seven conference championship game appearances in 10 seasons, including 1976 when the Raiders went 13-1 in the regular season before drilling the Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. Madden's Raiders won seven division titles, never had a losing season and never finished lower than second in their division.

The Raiders have always been infamous for welcoming all kinds of characters onto their roster but Madden shaped and molded people who others might have considered misfits into winners. Madden often explained that he only required three things of his players:

1) Be on time.
2) Pay attention.
3) Play like hell on Sunday.

Gus Alfieri, the point guard on St. John's 1959 NIT Championship team, once told me that his Hall of Fame basketball Coach Joe Lapchick did not believe in having a lot of rules for his players; Lapchick thought that if he made too many rules then he would paint himself into a corner in terms of having to punish players and thus lose the flexibility to handle situations on a case by case basis. Alfieri noted that Bobby Knight has great respect for Lapchick and that Knight used a similar approach in that regard during his Hall of Fame coaching career (though the mild mannered Lapchick and the foul mouthed Knight had completely opposite demeanors in terms of how they interacted with people). Many coaches get so caught up in regulating minutiae that they lose sight of the fact that their job is not to control every waking moment of their players' lives but simply to lead and inspire their teams to maximize their potential.

John Madden was a winner on the football field and during his three decades as a TV commentator he added immensely to my enjoyment and understanding of pro football. I hope that he has a long and happy retirement.


madnice said...

madden and summerall....the best.

Nomad said...

Madden was extremely smart to get into the video game industry

Anonymous said...

John Madden, the long-time legendary coach and a play-by-play announcer will be missed. He'll always be remembered on the front cover of his video game, his unique voice behind the microphone and a brilliant passion for the game. And know exactly everything on football. Next season will absolutely have a different feel of Monday Night Football. Not only did the league lose a brilliant legand at art, but a presences that football fans grow aaccustomed.