The Reason for John Madden's Success
That’s probably not what most people think. They’d rate his personality as his best attribute, but behind that folksy, regular guy manner is a keen intelligence.
I became aware of this very early. Madden came to the Raiders as a linebackers coach in 1967, the same year I started covering the Raiders as a beat reporter for The Chronicle. In those days, the Raiders would take a two-week swing through the east, playing three teams, and stay in a location near one of the cities, rather than flying home after each game.
That year, the Raiders played the Jets, Bills and Patriots, and the team and media stayed at a Niagara Falls hotel in between games. Bob Valli, then the Oakland Tribune beat writer and later sports editor for the paper, and I were the only writers traveling with the team. Madden would stop by our table in the dining room and ask us questions about our jobs, what we needed from coaches. He wasn’t concerned about our reaction to what he was doing at the time; I don’t remember writing one word about Madden as an assistant. He was obviously preparing to be a head coach, and he realized the importance of the media to a head coach, an understanding that had bypassed John Rauch, then the team’s head coach.
When Rauch quit after the ’68 season to take the job in Buffalo, Al Davis conducted a building-wide search for a new coach. Looking at the Raiders assistants, I concluded that Madden, despite his inexperience, was the obvious choice for the head coaching job, and I wrote that. Not long after that, Davis made it official.
Leaving aside the questions of strategy and game-day decisions for the moment, there was one aspect of Madden’s early coaching style that clearly showed his intelligence: His use of his fabled “temper.”
When Madden seemed to lose his temper, it was a very calculated maneuver to achieve a purpose. On the sidelines during the game, he would rage at officials, sometimes to try to influence them, sometimes to keep his players from questioning calls and possibly being ejected, sometimes to fire up his team when he got a penalty for overzealously protesting a call.
Meanwhile, the seemingly out of control Madden was doing a superb job of managing the clock, an ability few coaches have today.
On the practice field, Madden would “lose” his temper at strategic points, when he felt the players weren’t giving 100 per cent. After one of his outbursts, the pace of practice would pick up.
There was a particularly telling outburst during a Raiders “Photo Day” one year when a Tribune photographer tried to get a picture of the Raiders defensive backfield, which was being called the “Soul Patrol” because it was all black. The number of black players was a sensitive issue at the time, and Madden did not want a newspaper photo of the four. He raged at the photographer until the cowed man walked away and took other pictures.
Moments later, Madden strolled into the press room and had a quiet conversation with writers.
DAVIS HIRED Madden because he thought he could control him. Indeed, Madden said he would be following Davis’s lead because he, Madden, had only two years of pro coaching experience. One writer referred to him as “Pinocchio” in reporting about his elevation to head coach.
Madden knew exactly what he was doing. He realized it would be impossible for him to put in a new system before he got his bearings. For his first two years, nothing really changed for the Raiders. They were still using the deep passing game Davis loved, with Daryle Lamonica at quarterback. They went 13-1 in Madden’s first year and should have been in the Super Bowl, but they lost in a playoff to the Kansas City Chiefs, whom they had beaten twice in the regular season.
The Raiders were changing, though. The team seemed to grow old from one year to the next. They got to the AFC Championship game in 1970 only because of the late-game heroics of George Blanda. Four of Davis's first five draft picks the next spring were Jack Tatum, Phil Villapiano, Clarence Davis and Bob Moore, who would play important roles in the revival of the team.
Madden was changing, too, more and more challenging Davis on player decisions, most notably, not playing two of Davis’s favorites, Jeff Queen and Bubba Smith, both of whom Davis had acquired in trades. Smith had been a great defensive end, but he had torn up his knee when he collided with a sideline down mrker and he was never again the same player.
And, after a period when he was in and out of the starting lineup, Ken Stabler became the starting quarterback, and that meant a profound change in the team’s offensive style. Stabler was a very accurate passer but he did not have the arm to throw deep, as Lamonica had. He shortened the sideline routes from 20 yards to 17, and when he threw deep, he told receivers like Cliff Branch to be prepared to come back for underthrown passes.
Davis was not pleased. He would stand behind Stabler at practice and say, “Look deep.” Stabler just ignored him.
The Raiders had a great offensive line in that period, anchored by Hall-of-Famers Jim Otto, Art Shell and Gene Upshaw. Two other Hall-of-Famers, Bob Brown and Ron Mix, also played in that time.
Looking at that line, Madden changed to smash-mouth football. There were no fancy running plays in the Raiders arsenal. The fullbacks, Marv Hubbard and Mark Van Eeghen, crashed up the middle. Near the goal line, Pete Banaszak would often get the call, with the fullback leading him through the hole. Predictable, but very effective.
Davis didn’t like the changes, and he didn’t like Madden’s independence on player selections. Before the 1973 AFC championship game in Miami, he told intimates that he was going to fire Madden, win or lose.
Though the Raiders lost that game, Madden kept his job, but he battled Davis for the rest of his 10-year career as Raiders head coach. When he retired as coach, he mentioned none of his problems with Davis. He does not burn bridges, another sign of his intelligence, but there is no question the constant battles with Davis were a big factor in his retirement.
AFTER HE quit coaching, Madden was lost for a time. He even thought he’d go back to teaching, and he taught a course in football appreciation for Cal Extension. He was very good at that; I sat in on one of the classes and learned some things.
Very soon, of course, he got into broadcasting and has had an immensely successful career at that.
Partly because he’s been regarded as a Davis puppet by some writers who didn’t understand what really happened in Oakland during his coaching career, and partly because it was assumed he’d try to get back into coaching, Madden has never been considered for the Hall of Fame, though his overall winning percentage is second only to Vince Lombardi and his teams won one Super Bowl and got to the AFC/AFL Championship game another five times.
Now, Ira Miller has gotten Madden on the Seniors ballot. Ira has tremendous influence with his fellow writers because of his well-deserved reputation, and I think that will get Madden into the Hall of Fame.
It’s past time.
HISTORY: A reader reminds me that I should have given a link to my story on the 1981 season which launched the 49ers dynasty. Just go to www.49ers.com.
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