What, Him Worry? Fiery John Madden Will Watch This Super Bowl Upstairs
updated 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/25/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST
Three years ago Madden was indeed rampaging the field as one of the most successful coaches in pro football, with 103 victories, a Super Bowl championship—and an ulcer. Then he suddenly quit. The decision began at home. "This is a true story I'm not proud of," he explains quietly. "I'd always said I'd buy my son Mike a truck when he turned 16. So one morning my wife, Virginia, reminded me about the truck and I said, 'Oh, we've got three or four more years yet,' and she said, 'No, Mike is 16.' I sure started to think." Then he grins. "I left football to spend more time with my family and I found out that's one of the most overrated things in the world. I went home and no one was there. My kids were at school and my wife had become very independent. I found myself alone watching soap operas and I Love Lucy."
Today Madden is on the TV, not in front of it. Thanks to his boisterous Miller Lite commercials, he has been invited to host Saturday Night Live later this month—one of the new benchmarks of celebrity in the U.S. Fans besiege him for his autograph. Such recognition clearly pleases the red-haired, 6'4" 270-pounder once known by his players as Bimbo the Elephant. "I coached for 20 years and loved every minute of it, but I don't ever want to do it again," he says. "I love explaining football. Before I was a coach and a commentator I was a teacher, and I probably have more of that in me than anything else."
Unlike some motor-mouth announcers, Madden, 45, brings a refreshingly informed and straightforward approach to his TV commentaries. "John is the most knowledgeable analyst I've worked with," says the veteran Summerall. During this month's playoff series Madden introduced an innovative freeze-frame gimmick that allowed him to diagram plays on the screen before running a replay. He will use it again on Sunday.
Madden also likes his out-of-the-stadium life better now. He had been struck by John Steinbeck's remark in Travels With Charley that the author had been all over the world but did not know the sounds, the smells and the look of his own country. "When I read that," Madden observes, "I said, 'That's the same thing with me.' I'd fly into a city, go to the hotel, the stadium, back to the airport and home. Now I travel more, talk to more people and understand more." All this is just fine with his wife of 22 years, Virginia. "Since John's been an announcer he's more even-keeled," she says. "Now I can talk to him seven days a week."
Madden has also learned to accept his claustrophobia, which became acute after he left coaching. "I've never been accused of being normal," he laughs. "Confined spaces bother me if I know I can't get out. I don't fly anymore because I know I can't leave at 32,000 feet. On charter flights with the team I could sit here and there and go to the lounge, so I never felt restrained. But on a commercial flight all you can do is go to the bathroom, and after four hours of that people start looking strangely at you." He has never sought therapy. "I just said, 'The hell with it. I'll take trains.' It hasn't been inconvenient." Well, not usually. Last October, when Madden had trouble making train connections from Atlanta to Las Vegas to cover a pool players' shoot-out, CBS hired the bus Dolly Parton used for touring to get John to the poolroom on time.
Madden doesn't own an overcoat—too confining—and wears his 52-long CBS blazer only when on camera. He also has an idiosyncratic attitude toward shoelaces: He never ties them. "I went to a college where they didn't have many girls, and you could dress any way you wanted," he explains. "When I got in the real world I said to myself, 'Someday I want to be in a position again where I don't have to tie my shoes,' When I retired from coaching, I said, This is it!' and I haven't tied them since."
Madden was born in Austin, Minn., the son of an auto mechanic and a housewife, and at 5 moved to the San Francisco suburb of Daly City. He was drafted out of California Polytechnic by the Philadelphia Eagles but wrecked his knee in training. "I had to come in early for treatments and there was always one other guy there, Norm Van Brocklin, watching game films. I'd sit in the back waiting for him to tell me to get the hell out." Instead, the great quarterback talked strategy with the banged-up rookie, and Madden decided to be a coach. He went back to Cal Poly for his master's in education, got married ("He met me in a bar," Virginia laughs, "but he tells people we met at college"), taught junior high and coached at a junior college and then San Diego State. "I loved teaching junior high kids," he says, "and one of the greatest thrills in my life was teaching wrestling to the retarded." The Raiders' flamboyant owner, Al Davis, hired Madden as linebacker coach in 1967, and two years later, at 33, he became head coach.
"The most fun in coaching," John recalls, "was the pressure of winning and losing—and the bigger the game the more fun it was. I get very emotionally involved and I lived and died on every play. I was talking to coach Dick Vermeil of the Eagles about it and he said, 'You can't take it for a long time.' A lot of it has to do with personality. Tom Landry of the Cowboys and Chuck Noll of the Steelers don't have that type of personality, but Vermeil and I do."
Madden's compassion has become legendary in the sport. When the Patriots' Darryl Stingley was paralyzed by a hard hit in an Oakland game, Madden was one of his most frequent hospital visitors, starting in the operating room shortly after the game. He doesn't like to talk about it. "There are some things that are just between you and someone else," he says.
A demanding coach, Madden is not a strict father. "A lot of parents," he scoffs, "think kids ought to learn responsibility and work, and I've always said, 'Baloney.' Kids learn leadership and organization from games and having fun." So, obviously, has he.