Playbook: Lessons From John Madden

John Madden

I am currently reading “Madden:  A Biography” by St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist and HBO “Real Sports” contributor Bryan Burwell about NFL Hall of Fame  (HOF) coach and television analyst John Madden.   

Believe it or not, Madden’s great-grandfather moved from Pennsylvania to Iowa in the 1800’s, settling outside of Eldora.  One of his childhood friends is former USC and Los Angeles (St. Louis) Rams coach John Robinson. 

Madden is more than a great coach, commentator, and the name behind one of the best-selling video game franchises ever. 

John Madden to me, is one of the most creative leaders in sports history.  Beyond the big goof and “rumblin’ stumblin'” persona, Madden’s love of sports growing up helped him become one of the best coaches in football.  

Madden during his tenure as Raiders coach. I’m digging those sansabelt slacks from the ’70s.

There are several points and moves Madden made during his playing, coaching, and television career that made him, in my opinion, a creative and innovative mind. 

– Player’s coach:  the 1960’s brought a seismic shift of societal attitudes, specifically in the NFL.  John Madden brought a new philosophy of coaching that was in contrast to the buttoned-down conservative task-mastering of Vince Lombardi and George Halas.  Madden had three rules for his players:  

“Be on time.”

“Pay attention.”

“Play like hell when I tell you to.”   

Three simple rules, but it signaled a change in the locker room and how coaches and players interacted.  Madden didn’t scream at his players or demean them like an army general.  Former Raider Monte Johnson added another line that his coach told his players:  “I am interested in what you do Monday through Friday.  But I care greatly about what you do on Sunday.”  Madden was always interested in what his players did after practice (most of it was wild and crazy), and what they thought about topics and families. 

Madden had the foresight to understand that his players had lives away from the practice field and were adults.  So whatever they did during the week was fine, but as long as they showed up and performed on Sunday, that was important to him. 

One of John Madden’s requirements when he agreed to launch the Madden video games was that the video game had to resemble the actual game to the smallest detail.

Know what everyone’s job is:  When he sustained a knee injury that ultimately ended his playing career with the Philadelphia Eagles, Madden would finish rehab in the mornings and head into the bowels of old Franklin Field and watch game film with another Hall of Famer, quarterback Norm Van Brocklin.  Van Brocklin was the first to open Madden’s eyes to understanding how the play developed, as well as knowing what every single player’s responsibility was on the play. 

It fueled Madden’s passion for pro football in a way that helped him in the next chapter of his life:  coaching. 

Managing “Renegades”:  Madden was never a fan of conformity, but as a coach, he had to manage a team full of non-conformists that all bought into playing as a team.  Pat Toomay recalled how Madden had to handle John Matuszak, who was from time to time out of control.  Contrary to public perception, yes the Raiders played aggressively, crossed the line of “dirty play” occasionally, but consider this:  in 5 of the 10 years Madden was coach, the Raiders were one the least-penalized teams in the league.  That is attributed to the rules that were in place at that time in the NFL. 

Today, no team wouldn’t be able to get away with what they did over 40 years ago.

The greatness of the Raiders during Madden’s tenure.

Secondly, Madden preached repetition during practice.  Despite his sometime disheveled appearance, Madden was a perfectionist.  The team would run a play over and over in practice until every player knew what they were doing. 

-“Do your homework”:  After retiring as Raiders coach, Madden was approached by CBS to be a color analyst for their NFL games.  Madden noticed that CBS had a lackadaisical approach and attitude when it came to covering and broadcasting NFL games.  With the arrival and help of a new producer, Terry O’Neil, Madden and O’Neil changed how CBS broadcasted the games.  Today, all announcers, analysts, producers, and the entire game crew would spend the entire week watching game film, learning and understanding the “game” so it wouldn’t be foreign to them.  

Madden strongly felt that viewers wanted to see the game, not “entertainment”. Being a football man, he demanded that the television crew that was assigned to work with Summerall and him learn what plays were being run, what the defensive scheme is, and what to expect on the next play.   

Below is the first game that John Madden and Pat Summerall called on CBS.  (Minnesota vs. Tampa Bay, Week 13, 1979)

Madden bringing his coaching instincts to television rubbed off on Pat Summerall.  Summerall and the late Tom Brookshier would go out on a Saturday night, get ripped, head to the broadcast booth on Sunday, and call the game while drinking cocktails.  When O’Neil confronted Summerall and told him that his party days were over and his new partner was going to be different from Brookshier, Summerall wised up. 

Strengths and weaknesses:  Before the pairing of Pat and John, Madden was originally paired with Vin Scully (yes, Scully called NFL games for a while).  Madden realized quickly that Scully was great, but Scully was a baseball guy at heart.  Madden was a football guy.  The marriage, long-term, wasn’t going to work.  O’Neil knew this as well, but from the viewpoint of announcing styles.  Scully’s a wordsmith, Summerall’s a minimalist.  Pat could summarize a play in a few words and John could explain the play in detail. 

Plainly speaking, Madden believed that everyone who is working a football game should be focused on the the sport they are covering most of the time.  To John, it was football.  To Vin, it was baseball. 

The old #1 CBS NFL announcing team, Tom Brookshier (left) and Pat Summerall. Brookshier would be replaced with John Madden.

Right place, right time:  One day in 1966, a NFL executive visited San Diego State University to watch a practice.  Madden was a defensive coach for the Aztecs.  He was working on a defensive scheme to stop South Dakota State’s “wing-T” offense.  Madden was so excited about what he figured out, when the executive walked over, the burly red-headed assistant coach showed him.  The executive was not only impressed, but he added a suggestion to add to the scheme. 

Several days later, the Aztecs defeated the Jackrabbits. 

The executive:  Al Davis

A year later, Davis hires Madden as an assistant.  The following year, Madden becomes Head Coach.

There are several more takeaways about how John Madden’s life and career is a playbook for leadership, creativity, and being prepared, but I highlighted the key points about why Madden has left an indelible mark on pro football and away from the field.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. nflste says:

    Great post – hope you don’t mind me reblogging it

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