by Rich Podolsky
When John Madden quit coaching the Raiders after 10 seasons, he was just 43 years old with no plan in mind. He had no idea of what he would do next.
All he knew was that he didn’t want to fly or coach any more. It turns out Madden was claustrophobic. He wouldn’t even get in an elevator if he could avoid it.
I first met John Madden while covering the Miami Dolphins in 1974. A few years later after the Raiders won the Super Bowl, our paths crossed again. I was working for the TV production company that produced The Superstars and The Superteams for ABC, and Madden was part of the Raider contingent flying to Hawaii for The Superteams shows.
In Hawaii, he and I wound up talking football until 2 a.m. each night in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. It really opened my eyes to what a well-rounded, interesting guy Madden was. A year later I took job writing for CBS Sports and was one of the first to welcome Madden to his new profession. But along the way Madden nearly missed having one of the greatest broadcasting careers in history.
“After I retired I didn’t know what to do with myself,” he told me. “I went to the stadium the first week of the season, but didn’t feel comfortable anywhere, so by the opening kickoff I turned around and drove home. When I got there, no one was there. My family had figured out how to fill their Sundays without me.”
So Madden puttered around and thought about what he’d like to do. Like other ex-coaches he thought he’d try TV. Back in the ‘70s NBC was doing AFC games and seemed a natural fit for Madden. But the NBC execs didn’t “get” him and eventually said no thanks. “It was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made,” NBC honcho Don Ohlmeyer later said.
It looked like Madden was back to square one when a character named Frank Ross entered the picture. Ross, a former personnel guy for the Chiefs, was freelancing on Sundays as an “information guy” for CBS’ The NFL Today. But everyone seemed to know Frank from his outrageous antics at Runyon’s, a New York sports media hangout.
Ross decided Madden was too good not to be on the air. Even though Ross had no standing at CBS he had endeared himself to CBS Sports past president, Barry Frank, who was at that moment the top TV agent for powerful IMG. Somehow Ross convinced Frank to meet Madden and represent him. Once he did, he got his old friends at CBS to hire him.
By midseason that first year at CBS, Madden and partner Gary Bender, had worked their way up to the number three broadcast team for the network. Everyone kind of knew that there was something special about the way Madden talked to the audience, but they were all afraid to say so. Then one Sunday in October he started ranting about the officiating-- not like a former coach who was afraid to hurt anyone’s feelings, but like a fan at home screaming at their TV. The reaction from both the press and the viewers was amazing.
A month later Madden was paired with Pat Summerall for game in Tampa, three days after Thanksgiving. Summerall and his partner Tom Brookshier had worked on Thanksgiving Day and Brookie asked for that Sunday off. Since Summerall lived in Florida, he didn’t mind working the Tampa game. With a pro like Summerall giving Madden the space he needed, the entertainment quotient of the broadcast went sky high.
It was the beginning of a partnership that lasted more than 20 years.
Now, at the age of 73, Madden has decided to call it a day and spend more time with his family. That is, if he can find them.