By Bruce Macgowan
Special to the Examiner
“Oakland Raiders’ General Manager Al Davis did something unusual this off season. He handed the reins of his team to a young, obscure Raider assistant coach. 33 year old John Madden. A big, affable puppy dog of a man is now the new field boss of the Raiders.” — True Magazine’s football preview magazine of 1969
When you mention John Madden’s name, you usually think of him as that super-enthusiastic TV commentator on the NFL games who could explain the intricacies of football in a clear and concise manner without talking down to viewers.
But many here in the Bay Area remember Madden, who died Tuesday at age 85, just as much for his brilliant 10-year run as head coach of the Raiders. Much of the Raiders’ legend was built around the teams that Madden coached.
“I had the best players and the best owner a coach could hope to get,” he explained to me during an interview many years ago when I was working for a radio network in New York. “But the thing that made it easiest for me was working for one man — Al Davis. Most coaches have to deal with general managers, club administrators, owners. But I only had to deal with Al Davis. And that guy lived and breathed football.”
The Raiders won over 90% of their home games at the Oakland Coliseum under Madden’s tenure, while the club had 11 players who later made it to the NFL Hall of Fame. As a matter of fact, Madden had all 11 of those guys together on one Raider team in 1975, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Silver and Black won Superbowl 11 the next season in a crushing win over the Vikings.
But along the way, the Raiders earned a reputation of being a “dirty team” featuring “outlaw players who would hit below the belt and break the rules any time they could get away with it,” according to then-Pittsburgh Head Coach Chuck Noll, who once referred to Madden’s Raiders as having a “criminal element.”
“People always liked to say we were this and we were that. Yeah, we had some dirty players. But so did a lot of other teams,” Madden said. “My response to that was always, ‘Yeah, our guys can be dirty. So what are you gonna do about it?’”
Madden gave his players a long leash. Guys wore wild clothes and they partied hard, but they were always ready to go by Sunday.
“I only had three rules,” he said. “First, be on time for the meetings, and then pay attention when I’m talking. And finally, play like heck on Sunday. And I think our guys followed those rules pretty well.”
From the media’s standpoint, Madden was a dream. He was rarely offended or upset by a leading question, or what some coaches would call “a stupid question,” and was anything but the button-down, uptight, cliché-spouting men of that era.
If anything, Madden was the antithesis of such characters. He usually wore a rumpled short-sleeve shirt with a dark tie that was already loosened by kickoff. And he’d prowl the sidelines during the game, his hair blowing askew while his big hands gesticulated to his players and to officials when they couldn’t hear him over the din of a noisy crowd. But his booming voice was rarely missed.
“Hey, what the @#$% kind of a call was that? How the #@$% could you call that an incomplete pass? My guy had two feet in bounds! That was a @@$#%$# call!”
Television cameramen working the sidelines often were warned to turn off their camera mics during games because every other word out of Madden’s mouth was sometimes not exactly PG.
But Madden’s teams always seemed to have a knack for winning close games, whether it was 43-year-old George Blanda kicking field goals or tight end Dave Casper catching Kenny Stabler passes or scoring winning touchdowns in unforgettable games like the “Ghost to the Post” double overtime playoff win at Baltimore, or the “Holy Roller” game in San Diego.
“John always had our backs,” said longtime Raider defensive back George Atkinson, who knocked Pittsburgh receiving star Lynn Swann out of several games with questionable hits. “We played our asses off for that guy. We loved playing for John because he was kind of like a big brother.”
Bruce Macgowan is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.