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John Madden’s Legacy Goes Beyond The Press Box

Football coach drawing on chalkboard
Image CreditPrimetimer/YouTube

John Madden was more than just a football coach or broadcaster. He changed the way Americans think about the game.

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One sign of success in a sport: When you have the highest winning percentage of any long-tenured coach — but your coaching career becomes almost an afterthought in your biography.

That description applies to John Madden, the former Oakland Raiders coach who transformed himself into one of the best-known, and most-loved, broadcasters in sports — and the namesake of a multi-billion dollar video game franchise. Madden died suddenly on Tuesday at age 85, according to a statement released by the NFL, in which Commissioner Roger Goodell said that “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.”

Ironically enough, three days before his death, a Fox Sports documentary that premiered on Christmas Day explored his life and legacy. While more than two score years passed since Madden coached his final game, he had an impact well beyond the sidelines, influencing the way millions of Americans think about football.

Storied But Brief Coaching Career

For most of the 1970s, football fans knew John Madden as the coach who “couldn’t win the big one.” Hired as coach by Raiders owner Al Davis at age 32, Madden fielded successful teams throughout his tenure; after all, he won more than three-quarters of the games he coached. But circumstances always seemed to conspire against Madden and his teams, as when the Pittsburgh Steelers used the last-second “Immaculate Reception” to beat his Raiders in 1972.

Two years after Madden’s Raiders won Super Bowl XI over the Minnesota Vikings — finally removing the proverbial monkey off his back — he shocked the football world by retiring at the young age of 42. His wife Virginia noted in an interview for the film that the years of coaching took a toll, physically and mentally.

‘BOOM!’ — A New Career Beckons

While the Fox special glossed over Madden’s coaching career, it detailed his decision to become a broadcaster as one that came with a surprising amount of reluctance. Thinking sportscasters like Howard Cosell were pompous and uninformed, Madden hesitated about joining the broadcast booth. Only fear of missing out, and the possibility that he would regret turning down the opportunity, led him to join the CBS football team.

Once he broadcast a few games, however, Madden said he knew he had found his calling, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. Upon retiring, he taught a course on football at the University of California, and he brought the same teaching skills to the broadcast booth that he did to the university classroom, and before that, to the practice field as a coach.

Eventually, Madden would spend nearly three decades as a broadcaster, working for all of the major networks: Fourteen years at CBS, followed by eight seasons at Fox, four seasons for ABC, and his last three seasons at NBC. Over those years, he offered a master class in how to understand football, so that fans could understand the game’s strategy, tactics, and successful techniques for all positions and players, not just the ones with the ball.

Madden pioneered innovations that now seem commonplace today. He took the telestrator, an electronic pen that writes on-screen, to illustrate plays the way coaches would use a chalkboard—and occasionally for more light-heartedanalysis” as well. And when Fox took over broadcasting NFL games from CBS in 1994, Madden helped suggest creation of the “Fox box,” which featured the score of the game in the corner of the screen. Fans of all sports who upon turning on the television don’t have to wait five minutes to know the score have John Madden to thank for this pathbreaking change.

‘Regular Joe’ — On and Off Camera

If the word “teacher” defined Madden’s career, so did his everyman personality. As fellow broadcaster Jim Gray shared in the documentary, Madden belonged to an exclusive club, but lived in the most inclusive manner possible.

An offensive lineman as a player, Madden developed a deep appreciation for those who worked in football’s trenches. At the suggestion of lifelong friend and NFL coach John Robinson, he developed an annual All-Madden Team, which featured players not afraid to get down and dirty—players like Dallas Cowboys offensive lineman Nate Newton, a Madden favorite.

And as someone who traveled around the country on his own bus, claustrophobia meant he gave up airplanes soon after he gave up coaching. Madden spent much of his time hanging out with regular, working-class people in America’s heartland. He learned of things like the Turducken, the Cajun creation of turkey, duck, and chicken, and helped popularize it for a national audience. And as he told Peter King in a 1990 Sports Illustrated profile story, he developed a greater understanding of the country and its people:

What I’ve learned traveling around is this: People are nice. You go to a big city, and you hear the world is going to hell, but it’s not true. Small parts of it are; the whole isn’t. Hey, all we have to do is spread out a little bit, because we have a lot of space. You get out there, and it makes you feel better about America. The thing works.

With an appreciation for all Americans, a vast knowledge of football, and his willingness to incorporate funny tangents into his commentary, little wonder then that the broadcasting team of Madden and Pat Summerall, who worked together for two decades at CBS and then Fox, became thought of as the best in football, if not the best in sports.

Canton Calling

Given his record, it seems surprising that it took until 2006 for Madden to win enshrinement to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a coach. After all, more than four decades after his 1979 retirement, Madden still boasts the highest winning percentage of any coach with more than 100 wins — a group that includes legends like Don Shula, Tom Landry, and Bill Belichick.

Madden’s contributions to the game go far beyond his coaching career. After all, many NFL fans (including this one) are too young to remember his coaching days; many youth now know him more for the “Madden NFL” video game franchise than coaching or broadcasting.

But to him, they are all variations on the same theme: Teaching people — first his players, then viewers and the American people — about football. Madden even views his eponymous video game, which first debuted in 1988, as a way to instruct people about the game.

While he retired from the broadcast booth after the 2008 season, Madden remained active in the game, serving on the NFL’s Competition Committee up until his death. And as the Fox documentary illustrated, by influencing the way Americans see and think about football, John Madden had an impact that will last far beyond his years.

Fox Sports 1 will re-air “All Madden” tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Eastern.