clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Genius of John Madden

Madden, who died Tuesday at the age of 85, made audiences smarter by teaching them the subtleties of the game

Getty Images/AP/Ringer illustration

One of the coolest things about John Madden is that he was an academic. It was a brief run, but still. In 1979, after Madden quit as head coach of the Oakland Raiders, he was hired by the University of California, Berkeley, to teach an extension course called “Man to Man Football.” Madden’s students had watched football on TV. Now, they wanted to understand how it worked.

Professor Madden stood in front of a board that was like the Telestrator he later used on TV. Madden drew X’s and O’s and carefully studied his students’ faces. “I wanted to see at what point I lost ’em,” he told me years later. Madden was trying to find the most simple way to explain a complex game. He was converting passive football fans into smart fans. For the next 30 years, Madden performed the same trick on TV every week.

When Madden died Tuesday morning at age 85, obits mentioned his three great careers: football coach, broadcaster, video game czar. In fact, these are all the same career. John Madden was the greatest teacher of football of the 20th century and probably of this one, too.

Madden’s genius was how he taught football. Those booms, that unbuttoned aura of regular guy-dom—all of that was an invitation. It made Madden’s classroom feel like a safe place, where you’d get a little smarter and the professor would never act like he was smarter than you.

Madden was a great Raiders coach—he won a Super Bowl and 103 games in 10 seasons. But the job nearly destroyed him. He retired for good at 42. “I guess there are only so many shots you can take in your emotional locker,” he said.

In 1981, Madden became CBS’s no. 1 NFL analyst. At the time, the reigning heavyweight of TV analysts was Howard Cosell of ABC’s Monday Night Football. Madden and Cosell were perfect foils. They talked differently: Cosell showed off his word power while Madden brought the discourse back to the level of the sports bar. Cosell and Madden had completely different ideas about how a football game ought to be announced.

Cosell believed Monday Night was best when it focused on big story lines and big personalities and glossed over the subtleties of the game. “It would have been impossible to create an institution on the level of Monday Night Football with a lot of insipid drivel about the 4-3 defense,” Cosell wrote.

Madden thought the 4-3 defense was great drama. TV just hadn’t found the right teacher to explain it.

Madden made himself that teacher. This was a monumental task in 1981. A public still grazing on newspaper sports pages knew little about how football worked. Madden was teaching America while teaching the staff of CBS, reprogramming network camera shots and replay angles so they’d work in concert with his mind.

The CBS Chalkboard (a precursor to the Telestrator) was developed so Madden could draw a play on the screen, just as he had at Berkeley. When a running back broke free for a long touchdown, Madden demanded viewers watch a replay of a key block so they could understand how the back got loose. He once told a director: “You ever show me a replay with just a guy running with the ball in his hand, you can expect silence.”

The pictures had to mean something. They had to teach the viewer about football. But the education was careful and subtle, as if Madden, clad in his CBS blazer, was gazing out of the television set and studying our faces in our dens. Was that bit about the zone defense too much for you? Don’t worry. I’ll explain it again. This time, with more jokes.

I list Madden’s teaching abilities first because time has created a hazy memory that Madden was merely the “funny” announcer. He was the funny announcer. He was the funniest announcer on TV—or at least in a photo finish with Bob Uecker—and one of the funniest people on TV, period. This is what was amazing. Madden was as good as, or better than, anyone at the two crucial skills of sports announcing. It was like Charles Barkley embracing analytics, or Cris Collinsworth establishing himself in stand-up comedy.

We remember Maddenisms like “one knee equals two feet.” But he uttered many, many more. “I don’t get it with dark chocolate,” Madden once said. “It’s like they got halfway to milk and quit.” As he traveled from city to city on his bus—a work-around for the claustrophobia that kept him off planes—Madden advised friends to never sleep on the side of a hotel bed that was near the phone. “Because that’s where every businessman sat his ass,” he said.

Something about the Madden–Pat Summerall partnership was inherently funny. Madden had been paired with Summerall because CBS found Vin Scully too talky. Summerall was slender; Madden stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 270 pounds. (“Like a 50-pound laundry bag carrying 60 pounds of clothes,” one writer observed.) Madden was effervescent; Summerall’s best skill, outside spare narration, was the wicked counterpunch.

Calling Madden a funny announcer seems like an insult. He had the instincts of an entertainer. He understood it was his job not just to call big games but to hold the audience’s attention if the football was crappy. It often was. After a decent first Super Bowl between the 49ers and Bengals in 1982, Madden’s next two big games had a combined margin of victory of 48 points. During the Giants-Broncos Super Bowl blowout in 1987, Madden did a bit where he imagined the buckets of Gatorade the Giants were about to pour on coach Bill Parcells as a mother, father, and baby.

Madden found bits everywhere. The cockpit of the Goodyear Blimp was a bit. Steam wafting off Nate Newton’s head was a bit. (“When you got steam coming out of your head and your mouth, now you’re talking football.”) His bus was a bit. The Turducken on Thanksgiving was a bit.

“People watched Madden because they loved him,” a former CBS executive told me. “You could argue people watched Cosell because they hated him.” You could also put it like this: Nobody watched John Madden because they hated him. How many people on sports TV can you say that about?

Did Madden enhance his on-air huggability? Sure. It’s television. But the force field Madden created around himself was the product of a staggering comic imagination. “I’ve always been a great people watcher,” he once told Sports Illustrated. “If I can’t talk to them, I make up stories in my mind about them. You know, you’re on a train looking out the window at big empty spaces in Nebraska or Wyoming, and you think, what do those people do at night or on weekends when they have time off? … I imagine what their lives must be like.” It’s a short leap from that to the domestic life of a Gatorade bucket.

Madden said he got into broadcasting because he was bored after quitting the Raiders. “Spending time with the family is one of the most overrated things in the world,” he declared.

Madden’s TV crew became his surrogate family. On Saturday nights before a game, they had dinner at their hotel on the road. (Madden disliked sliding into tight booths in crowded restaurants almost as much as he hated planes.) The crew played cards. At a certain hour, Madden would announce it was time to take a walk. The crew followed their leader. “It was like Father Goose and the little ducklings,” Verne Lundquist, Madden’s CBS colleague, told me.

These young producers studied the master’s teachings, his replay angles. They now run TV: Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks, lead Fox NFL producer Richie Zyontz, lead Fox baseball producer Pete Macheska, and many more. They will tell you they didn’t just learn about football from Madden. He taught them about television.

“At this moment Madden is about as recognized as anyone in America,” Sports Illustrated declared in 1983. You could hardly miss Madden. He was one of the most available salesmen of the ’80s. He repurposed his catchphrases to pitch hardware, low-calorie beer, and antifungal cream for athlete’s foot. He peddled a videotape called John Madden: The American Dream Comes to Life. No less than Ronald Reagan approached Madden about making a commercial for NASA.

But while Madden was rich as hell (he owned an apartment at the Dakota in New York), he was a different kind of ’80s celebrity. Madden channeled the decade’s optimism while explicitly rejecting its yuppiedom, its phoniness. “You know how people say, ‘Your body is your temple; be careful what you put in it?’” Madden once said. “We say, ‘Your body’s a garage; put anything you want in it.’”

Nineties Madden was like ’80s Madden with an extra zero in his bank account. When CBS lost the rights to the NFL in 1993, his expertise was put up for auction. My favorite fact about Madden is that, in 1994, Fox paid him more to call football games than any NFL team paid a quarterback to play them. And Madden turned down NBC’s offer of a train car that would have replaced the bus (itself soon to become a mobile ad for a steakhouse chain).

By that point, Madden had already lent his name to a video game that would match his Sunday broadcasts as the single most widely-used football teaching tool in America. It was Madden who insisted the game have the right number of players and contain actual plays. In 2009, Denver Broncos wide receiver Brandon Stokley ran horizontally along the goal line during a game to kill the clock. It was a move Stokley practiced “probably hundreds of times” in video games, he told Wired’s Chris Suellentrop. It was an amazing tribute to Professor Madden: NFL players were using his video game to learn how to play football.

Late-period Madden got the usual scuffing up we give to announcers in their final decade on the air. We complained Madden was swooning over one too many linemen’s guts. He was trying to gerrymander Brett “He’s Just Having Fun Out There” Favre onto the roster of the ’70s Raiders. Madden retired in 2009. As his old CBS teammate Jim Gray told me, Madden and Johnny Carson are two of the only people to walk away from TV on top, at their own discretion, and never return in a regular capacity, also at their own discretion.

During the early days of the pandemic, when sports networks turned into the Criterion Collection, I found myself watching old Madden games. The 2006 Manning Bowl, played two and a half years before Madden retired, was a terrific display of his powers.

Madden started out big and broad, with story lines that could have worked on the Today show. “You just can’t lose to your little brother,” he said. As the game unfolded, Madden let those story lines trail away and started talking about where tight end Dallas Clark was lining up. It was a sly trick, smuggling in those X’s and O’s. It was slyer still because the audience barely knew it was being taught the fine points of football, or that the gray-haired man in the striped cranberry tie was its professor.

“John is probably the brightest guy in the room,” his friend Matt Millen once told me. “He just doesn’t want you to know it. He wants you to think he’s this big, lovable dog you can pet.”