Before John Madden became an icon, he was a coach — and an Oakland Raider

Before John Madden became an icon, he was a coach — and an Oakland Raider

Long before John Madden became famous on an international scale for a video game, being a pitchman and a broadcast analyst, he was something else.

“People always ask, are you a coach or a broadcaster or a video game guy?” he said when was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “I’m a coach, always been a coach.”

The entirety of Madden’s professional coaching career took place with the Oakland Raiders, starting in 1967 as the linebackers coach and then in 1969 as a 32-year-old unknown hired by Al Davis to be the Raiders head coach.

Madden, who died Tuesday at age 85, coached the Raiders for 10 years through 1979. He walked away at age 42 after compiling a regular-season record of 103-32-7 and 112-39-7 record overall with one Super Bowl championship following the 1976 season. One of the things that stood out in “All Madden,” a documentary by Fox Sports which aired on Christmas Day, was the news conference during which Madden announced his retirement.

Madden was still a young man, but clearly worn out from the grind.

“I’ll never coach again,” Madden said.

He had given all he had as a coach until there was nothing left to give, and then it was over. Madden not only co-existed with Davis, but thrived for an exacting and demanding owner who didn’t believe in days off and was more singular of purpose than anyone else in the sport.

Tom Flores, who worked as a Madden assistant and succeeded him as the Raiders coach in 1980, was as cool and unflappable as Madden was excited and histrionic. Yet Flores, who joined Madden in the Hall of Fame in August, took his cue from Madden on working with Davis.

“It wasn’t easy for working for the Raiders and Al Davis,” Flores said Tuesday night in a phone interview. “That alone was a different type of journey. The one thing John did show me was how to deal with Al. I knew a little bit since I had played for him, but when you’re a player you get to go home. John was not a patient man sometimes, but he did show me patience in terms of working for Al. You learn bits and pieces about yourself when you coach for somebody.”

Madden always said having Davis as a boss was ideal because there was no middleman. If you needed anything, you went straight to the top. And while Davis was a dominant personality and had plenty of input, he and Madden were very much a collaboration.

“You look at the greatness of our Raider teams and you can’t forget Al Davis,” former Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano said. “When he died, you couldn’t say Al was great without talking about John too. And you can’t say John was great without talking about Al.”

Madden got the coaching bug early, and was hooked when he attended a seminar hosted by legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi. A young assistant at Allan Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, Madden thought he had a pretty good grasp on the game that would become his future. Then he watched as Lombardi painstakingly took an entire day teaching a single play — the famed Green Bay power sweep.

John Madden wasn’t shy about letting officials know what he was thinking as coach of the Raiders.

“I went in there cocky, thinking I knew everything there was to know about football, and he spent eight hours talking about this one play,” Madden told NFL Films in 2014. “He talked for four hours, took a break, came back and talked for four more. I realized then that I actually knew nothing about football.”

One of Madden’s biggest thrills was looking across the sidelines at Lombardi in Super Bowl II while a Raiders assistant on the staff of John Rauch, not realizing at the time he too would be a head coach earlier than anyone had imagined.

“Who the heck names a guy 32 years old as a head coach? Al Davis did,” Madden said in his Hall of Fame induction. “But he not only named me head coach, he stood behind me and he helped me and he provided me with players, with great players.”

Said Flores: “He was a pup, a linebackers coach and overnight he’s a 32-year-old head coach of the Raiders. There have been more young coaches hired in recent years in the NFL, but in those days that was unheard of.”

Davis also got out of the way and let Madden do his job more than people realized.

“Al would come to practices and just stand by the goal post,” former Raiders defensive tackle Art Thoms said. “Once in a while he’d call someone over, but mostly he just watched. I’m sure he and John had their conversations about different things, but I think John learned from that and accepted that dynamic.”

Madden had only two rules — be on time and play hard on Sunday, and meshed perfectly with a unique blend of personalities that made the Raiders famous in the 1970s. Thoms, who played eight seasons under Madden, said the only time he could remember practice starting late was when Ted Hendricks rode in on a horse.

“Two-a-days during training camp in Santa Rosa could be very taxing, but John kept us going in the right direction and was a very organized leader,” Thoms said.

Veterans found Madden to be a “players coach.” For rookies, it was something else entirely.

“I was scared to death as a rookie in 1971. The Raiders were very successful, nasty, had that reputation,” Villapiano said. “Back in those days, rookies were pieces of crap and you had to earn the right to be talked to by the coach. One game John had gotten into it with officials and got a 15-yard penalty. I get an interception and run the ball downfield. Afterward, I was on the bus on the way to that old airport in Denver and he came up to me and said, `Thanks for bailing me out.’ It’s the first thing I can remember him saying to me.”

Running back Mark vanEeghen said besides rookies, the thing Madden most despised were fumbles.

“It was the worst thing you could do,” vanEeghen said. “One time I fumbled, tried to get around him but he followed me to the bench and really let me have it. Then he followed me out to my car after practice, apologized and told me he realized how hard I was playing for him. That’s the kind of guy he was.”

Former players watched with interest as Madden evolved into something much bigger than coach of the Raiders.

“He was just a common guy with a good personality,” Thoms said. “On the sidelines he’d have on just a short-sleeved shirt and slacks, not like (Chiefs coach) Hank Stram and his suit. He just knew how to relate to people and get the best out of them and that carried over after he was done coaching.”

Villapiano said he and Madden became lifelong friends.

“He was the man as far as I was concerned,” Villapiano said. “As far as his legacy, I think he did more for the NFL and for football than any man on earth and that includes Al Davis.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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