John Madden/Mike Singletary; AlDavis/Lane Kiffin/Tom Cable
by Glenn Dickey
Dec 17, 2008

IF MIKE SINGLETARY ia named head coach for the 49ers next year, as he should be, he’ll be following the path of John Madden, 40 years ago, in going from an inexperienced linebackers coach to head coach.

Singletary has the advantage of having been an NFL Hall of Famer as a linebacker for the powerhouse Chicago Bears of the ‘80s.

Madden had no such distinction as a player. Though he was drafted out of college, Cal Poly, by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, a knee injury in training camp the next season ended his playing career. He made the logical transition into coaching, and worked up to being head coach at Allan Hanock JC (Santa Maria) before moving to San Diego State as an assistant under Don Coryell.

His only pro experience when he was hired by the Raiders in 1967 was his brief playing time with the Eagles, but he brought intelligence and an ability to communicate with players that always served him well.

As it happened, 1967 was also my first year as the beat writer on the Raiders for The San Francisco Chronicle (we are also only two months apart in age). My first real contact with Madden was on an Eastern road trip.

At that time, the Raiders took a three-game swing through the East, playing the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills and (then) Boston Patriots on this trip, and stayed there to keep down costs. That year, we stayed in Niagara Falls, a great place for a honeymoon but not much fun with 40 football players.

John Rauch was the head coach and not exactly a barrel of laughs; he met with the writers on the trip only at designated times. Offensive line coach Ollie Spencer was friendly and the most literate of the assistants; we would exchange information on books we had read.

But Madden was by far the most outgoing of the assistats. He would talk with the writers often, and one time, he sat down at a table with two of us, Bob Valli, then the beat writer for The Oakland Tribune and later the paper’s sports editor, and me. He peppered us with questions about a head coach’s responsibility toward the media.

Fast forward to the 1968 season. Though the Raiders went to their second straight AFL championship game and had lost only three regular season games in two years, the tension between Al Davis and Rauch was palpable. Before their loss to the Jets in the championship game, I wrote that Rauch would be gone before next season, though I anticipated that he would be fired. He resigned, instead, to go to the sad sack Buffalo Bills, a sign of his desperation.

Those around the club knew Davis wanted to hire from within for a replacement for Rauch. Though I liked Spencer, I never thought of him as a potential head coach. Defensive coordinator Charley Sumner was a brilliant tactician, but he frequently butted heads with Davis. I thought back to the conversation Valli and I had had with Madden in 1967, as well as subsequent conversations, and predicted in my Chronicle story that Madden would get the job.

After writing my piece, I stopped by the office of Raiders PR man Lee Grosscup, Ron Reid, then writing for The San Mateo Times, was also there. Grosscup told us both that we might speculate that Madden was a leading candidate. Reid then went back to his office and wrote that but I wasn’t worried. My story appeared in the morning in a paper that had by far the largest circulation in northern California. Reid’s appeared in the afternoon in a paper whose circulation was limited to San Mateo, where there were no Raiders fans.

When my story appeared – and was picked up on local radio and TV – Davis was enraged, storming around his office and shouting about a leak in the organization. Technically, there was one – Grosscup – but my story had been written before Lee had talked to us.

Madden’s strength was always his ability to bond with the players. They would jokingly refer to him as “Pinky” because his face would get red when he was angry, but they played their hearts out for him. They knew he truly cared about them.

In 1969, Madden knew little about offensive strategy and admitted that he would lean heavily on Davis. In time, he butted heads with Davis over strategy and players, but his players respected him for that.

And, in time, he became the first Raiders head coach to win a Super Bowl. He didn’t always get the respect he deserved because he operated in Davis’s shadows, but he eventually made it to the Hall of Fame.

Singletary has the same rapport with players that Madden enjoyed, and the same lack of knowledge about offensive football. The biggest knock on him, in fact, has been that he’s not an X’s-and-O’s guy. But that’s nowhere near as important now as it was 40 years ago because few head coaches do much actual coaching these days. That’s handled mainly by the coordinators, with the coach having more of a CEO role.

Singletary has shown he can make decisions, and he’s a strong personality on the sidelines, just as Madden was. His personality and experience as a motivational speaker give him the ability to inspire players.

He doesn’t have the advantage Madden had of a steady stream of outstanding players coming in, but neither is he faced with overwhelming expectations. In Madden’s time, anything less than a 10-win season (and in what was a 14-game season) was a down year. The 49ers now would celebrate a .500 season.

So, the comparison is not an exact one, but the ability they’ve both had to bond with players will be the most significant factor in Singletary’s coaching career.

VENTRILOQUIST’S DUMMY: When Tom Cable blasted Lane Kiffin for taking his offensive line assistant, my first thought was, “Is Cable so dumb he thinks Kiffin left with warm, fuzzy feelings for the Raider organization?”

Later, I heard what I should have realized from the start: It was all orchestrated by Al Davis, who continues his battle with Kiffin though his fired coach is long gone – and in a much better place, which is what probably chafes Davis because it shows what little regard football people have for his judgement.

Cable has faithfully done everything Davis has wanted, even lying about the reason DeAngelo Hall was released and why he took over the playcalling. He thinks it gives him a chance to stay on next year as head coach which really shows how dumb he is. He’s totally lost his players, who just mailed it in for the New England track meet last Sunday, because they know exactly what’s happening.

He’s a ventriloquist’s dummy, emphasis on dummy.

DICK VETLIEB: The death of Dick Vertlieb brought back a lot of memories, including one very personal one.

The Warriors won their only NBA title in Vertlieb’s first season as general manager. The next year, they were in the playoffs again, but I had planned our first European trip with my wife and son, who was then a couple of months from his 6th birthday.

About a week into the trip, we were in a Rome hotel room when I got a call in early morning. It was from Vertlieb, who told me he was leaving the Warriors and thanked me for all my support.

I had not been looking at even the European version of The Herald Tribune – I go on vacation to get away from my work, not continue it – but I didn’t have to. After that phone call, I knew the Warriors had lost in the playoffs.

The fragile chemistry of the Warriors had exploded, as his younger teammates rebelled against Rick Barry’s domineering tactics. When I returned, KPIX sports anchor Wayne Walker showed me the film of their final game, with Barry standing with hands on hips as his teammates resolutely refused to pass him the ball, even though their tactics cost them the game.

BOWL GAMES: Is there anything more irritating than the bleating by media types about the BCS system? They act as if college football is being played for them, with their constant demands for a national playoff system.

In fact, as John Madden has pointed out, college football is not just an NFL farm system and should not be run like a minor league NFL. I enjoy both the pro and collegiate versions, though there hasn’t been a lot of joy with 49ers and Raiders games lately. But the collegiate games are a special joy because it’s a total picture, with the bands - unless you’re a Stanford supporter – being a very important part of the whole picture. Before the Big Game, I was walking around the Cal campus with my wife and son and got to the Campanile just as the Cal Band was walking up the hill, playing the Cal fight song. So, we stopped and watched them come by and then continue their march up the hill to the stadium. Great stuff.

And, I’ve always liked the bowl system, chaotic as it is. The media scoffs at the lower bowls but they’re great fun for the players, who get tours of the local area – which they don’t for regular season games. Some Cal players weren’t excited about the Emerald Bowl originally because San Francisco is just across the bay, but the reality for Berkeley students is that they don’t have time to visit San Francisco. That’s especially true for football players, who have even less free time.

So, I’m content with the current BCS system. For those in the media who are not, repeat after me: College football is not played just for my satisfaction.

TV: For those of you living in the Bay Area, I'll be on "49er Preview" at 7 p.m. Friday on KPIX (5)

VACATION: This will be my last website column of the year because I’m taking some time off; the next column will be January 7. I will have three upcoming Examiner columns, however, on Dec. 19, Dec. 23 and Dec. 26. My first Examiner column of the new year will be Jan. 6.

Happy holidays!

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