‘Larger than Life’: US football coach John Madden dies at 85

Madden’s career encompasses coaching, broadcasting and becoming the name behind one of the NFL’s popular video games.

John Madden on the sideline during an NFL football game in 1978
Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, who died on Tuesday, stands on the sideline during an NFL football game in October 1978 [File: AP Photo]

Hall of Fame American football coach turned broadcaster John Madden, whose exuberant calls combined with simple explanations provided a soundtrack to NFL games for three decades has died.

Madden’s death on Tuesday was unexpected and there was no immediate word of a cause. He was 85.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Madden’s passing in a statement, conveying condolences to his family and all who knew him. “Nobody loved football more than Coach. He was football,” Goodell said. “We will be forever indebted to him.”

Madden gained fame as the coach of the renegade Oakland Raiders, leading the team to seven American Football Conference titles and winning the Super Bowl – the NFL’s championship – following the 1976 season. He compiled a 103-32-7 regular-season record, and his .759 winning ratio is the best among NFL coaches with more than 100 games.

“Players loved playing for him,” said Art Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive linemen on Madden’s Super Bowl-winning Oakland Raiders team. “He made it fun for us in camp and fun for us in the regular season. All he asked is that we be on time and play like hell when it was time to play.”

Coach John Madden of the Oakland Raiders is carried triumphantly from the field by his players after his team defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI
Coach John Madden of the Oakland Raiders is carried triumphantly from the field by his players after his team defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI [File: AP Photo]

Madden retired as coach at age 42 and became a household name in the United States as a pre-eminent broadcaster and television sports analyst for the next 30 years. He educated millions with his use of the telestrator on broadcasts and entertained audiences with his interjections of “Boom!” and “Doink!” throughout games.

“He was honest about what he saw, as a coach would be, and he was smart, and he was funny, so he was really a great salesman for the game as a commentator,” US sports broadcaster Michael Carlson, told Al Jazeera.

Madden was an omnipresent pitchman, selling for restaurants, hardware stores and beer makers, and became the face of “Madden NFL Football,” one of the most successful sports video games of all-time. He was also a best-selling author.

“I am not aware of anyone who has made a more meaningful impact on the National Football League than John Madden, and I know of no one who loved the game more,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in a statement.

Fox broadcasters Pat Summerall and John Madden stand in the broadcast booth at the Superdome before Super Bowl 36 in 2002, in New Orleans.
Fox broadcasters Pat Summerall, left, and John Madden in the broadcast booth at the Superdome in New Orleans before the Super Bowl in 2002 [File: Ric Feld/AP Photo]

Burly and a little unkempt, Madden earned a place in the US’s heart with a likeable, unpretentious style.

Across the sprawling geography of the US, he rode from game to game in his own bus because he suffered from claustrophobia and had stopped flying. For a time, Madden gave out a “turducken” — a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey — to the outstanding player in the Thanksgiving game that he called.

When he finally retired from the broadcast booth, leaving NBC’s “Sunday Night Football”, colleagues universally praised Madden’s passion for the sport, his preparation, and his ability to explain an often-complicated game in down-to-earth terms.

Al Michaels, Madden’s broadcast partner for seven years on ABC and NBC, said working with him “was like hitting the lottery”.

“He was so much more than just football — a keen observer of everything around him and a man who could carry on a smart conversation about hundreds and hundreds of topics. The term ‘Renaissance Man’ is tossed around a little too loosely these days, but John was as close as you can come,” Michaels said.

Madden was raised in Daly City, California. He played on both the offensive and defensive lines for Cal Poly in 1957-58 and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the school.

Madden was chosen to the all-conference team and was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, but a knee injury ended his hopes of a pro career. Instead, Madden got into coaching, first at Hancock Junior College and then as defensive coordinator at San Diego State.

Raiders owner Al Davis brought him in as a linebackers coach in 1967, and Oakland went to the Super Bowl in his first year in the pros. He replaced John Rauch as head coach after the 1968 season at age 32, beginning a remarkable 10-year run.

Madden was a longtime resident of Pleasanton, California, a suburb of the San Francisco Bay area.

A 90-minute documentary on his coaching and broadcasting career, “All Madden”, debuted on Fox on Christmas Day. The film featured extensive interviews that Madden sat for this year. His wife, Virginia, and sons Joseph and Michael were also interviewed for the documentary.

John and Virginia Madden’s 62nd wedding anniversary was two days before his death.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies