For more than a generation the avuncular John Madden was the principal voice of America’s most popular game, professional football.
In his more than 30 years as a broadcaster, the former coach turned announcer appeared on all four networks and was familiar to those old enough to remember his 1977 Super Bowl victory with the Oakland Raiders as to those young enough to tackle his bestselling video game.
So when Madden, 73, announced Thursday that he was leaving NBC’s broadcast booth, it sent ripples of surprise through the sporting and television world.
“This is like Johnny Carson retiring,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Carson was not the best comedian, but people loved him. I would not call John the most articulate or analytical mind, but he brought to a football broadcast knowledge and fun that worked even if you didn’t care about the game. He was a vaudevillian in the booth.”
The gregarious Hall of Fame coach was known not only for his gridiron insights -- spiced with colorful stories, loopy play diagrams and occasional songs, as well as the shouted “boom!” -- but also for his stamp on pop culture, which included his EA sports video game and his pitches for Outback Steakhouse, Sirius Satellite Radio, Verizon Wireless and Ace Hardware.
To colleagues and sports fans, Madden, the only person to work as a lead analyst at all four networks, was the jolly guy who cruised from game to game in a well-equipped bus he called the “Madden cruiser” because he hated to fly.
He was the amateur cook who on Thanksgiving Day games would always show a mouthwatering version of the turducken -- chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey.
“He brought such a big-as-life personality with the combination of insight and fun, of everyman enjoyment,” said NBC’s Bob Costas, host of the network’s “Football Night in America” studio show. “And with the Madden video game, that connected him to the younger generation and players. A lot of players play Madden, he was able to do that into his 70s. He stayed contemporary.”
The decision to retire ultimately came down to family, particularly his grandchildren, Madden said Thursday morning on the Bay Area’s KCBS (740 AM and 106.9 FM) radio station, where he appears in regular segments called “The Daily Madden.”
In the 12-minute interview, he also lamented missing much of the childhood of his two sons because he was on the road.
“My grandkids know when I’m gone and when I’m not,” he told the radio audience. “You go away in August and you come back in January. I just got to the point in my life where that’s not the deal anymore.”
He recognized that his rationale may be treated skeptically, but insisted that it be taken at face value. There’s no contract dispute or darker, undisclosed motive involving his departure, he said.
“There’s nothing wrong. Everyone is going to say ‘Madden retires, what’s wrong.’ There is nothing. There is nothing wrong with me,” said Madden, who was reportedly making just under $10 million a year at NBC. “At some point you know you have to do this.”
When Madden told NBC of his retirement plans, NBC executives flew to California to talk him out of it. Dick Ebersol, the head of NBC Sports, tried during an all-day meeting to persuade the announcer to postpone his departure until next season or to at least take a part-time gig this season.
“I knew right away there was no way of talking him out of it,” said Ebersol during a conference call with reporters. “I knew in his voice he really thought about this.”
This fall will be the first time since Madden’s freshman year of high school in Daly City, Calif., that he won’t be involved in football as a player, coach or analyst.
“John could have stayed there as long as he wanted to,” said Al Michaels, Madden’s broadcast partner in the NBC booth. “He’s got a very organized mind; he doesn’t make rash decisions. It’s not going to come September and John will change his mind. This is what he wants.”
Later Thursday, NBC announced that former NFL wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, who had been anchoring the network’s football show, would replace Madden in the Sunday night game booth.
“John Madden broadcast football with a unique passion and style,” said Collinsworth in a statement. “Without question, he is the greatest sports analyst of all time.”
Madden’s career in television began in 1979 after he retired as the coach of the Oakland Raiders and joined CBS, where he teamed with Pat Summerall, the former New York Giants placekicker. In 1994, when CBS lost its rights to the NFL, Madden moved to Fox. Then, in 2002, he left for ABC’s “Monday Night Football,” before finally moving in 2006 to NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
NBC has become increasingly reliant on pro football. This season, “Sunday Night Football” averaged 16.3 million total viewers, up 5% compared with the previous year, according to data from Nielsen Media Research.
The irony is that executives had earlier this decade sworn off the sport. Irked by the high cost of sports telecast fees, NBC shunned football and other “big ball” sports.
But with its overall lineup in trouble, NBC in 2005 made a six-year deal to carry NFL games.
Madden’s departure, distressing as it may be to some fans, probably will have minimal effect on ratings.
Analysts have long noted that viewership for football games depends heavily on the quality of the match-ups and the closeness of the games, rather than the announcing team.
Madden was successful as a coach -- he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006 -- but he rose to prominence as an announcer.
“He came of age in the era of 24/7 sports,” said Michael Oriard, a professor of English at Oregon State University who has written extensively about sports marketing and the NFL. “He really explained football. He was one of the first that enabled passionate fans who didn’t know zone defense from a man-to-man to enjoy the game, and he explained it in a way that made experts of everybody. His love of the game was infectious.”
He had other loves too. Food, obviously.
And he was also a fan of comedy. Robert Wuhl, the star and creator of HBO’s sports comedy “Arliss,” said he first met Madden in 1977.
The comedian was just starting out, working at a New York comedy club.
“One night at 2 a.m., John Madden walks into the place all by himself,” Wuhl said. “I love sports, so I knew who he was. We started talking, and we’ve stayed friends.
“John always took his work seriously, but not himself,” said Wuhl, who had Madden as a guest star on his show.
“He humanized the game. He wasn’t the image of the jock who becomes a sports figure, he wasn’t a matinee idol. He was inclusive. He broke the mold. He’s going to be missed.”
Times staff writers Scott Collins and Meg James contributed to this report.
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Personal: Born April 10, 1936, in Austin, Minn. Raised in Daly City, Calif. Now resides in Pleasanton, Calif. with his wife, Virginia. Couple have two sons and five grandchildren.
Playing career: Started on both offensive and defensive lines for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1957 and 1958, voted to All-Conference team. Drafted by Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 draft, but knee injury in his first season ended his career.
College coaching career: Defensive coordinator at San Diego State from 1964 to 1966, where Aztecs were ranked first among small colleges with a 26-4 record. Coach at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, Calif., from 1960 to 1964.
Professional coaching career: Joined the Oakland Raiders as a linebacker coach in 1967. Became head coach in 1969 at the age of 33, the youngest head coach in the American Football League. He guided the team to an overall record of 103-32-7, including seven AFC Western Division titles and a Super Bowl victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI. He retired after the 1978 season. His .750 winning percentage is the best of any coach in NFL history.
Source: Greg Braxton