John Madden Found the Golden Nexus of Personality and Football
Of all the men who have coached professional football teams for at least 100 games, John Madden has the highest winning percentage.
In his 10 years coaching the Oakland Raiders, his teams won 103 games, lost 32 and tied 7. That’s a .759 percentage. For those who don’t follow sports, that’s good.
But when Madden died Tuesday at the age of 85, it’s likely that more people, at least younger people, remembered him more for his television commentary, his numerous TV commercials or his Madden video games.
Those gigs earned hundreds of millions of dollars, which means that after he retired from coaching at the young age of 42, he arguably had an even higher winning percentage.
Good for him. He earned it. He was well liked. He worked hard. Few friends, colleagues or fans begrudged him the success or the money.
His story was also big enough to reflect at least two major cultural ascensions that came to pass during his lifetime.
One was celebrity personality. The other was football.
Celebrity personality? Madden owned it.
While animated coaches were nothing new in sports, Madden spent his Raiders years stomping, gesturing, bellowing and generally acting aggrieved over anything that had just happened. If some people were surprised that he got job fatigue at 42, they could have looked at any random blood pressure reading from the previous decade.
Curiously, his TV commentating career didn’t pick up exactly where his coaching career left off. His first appearances were relatively sedate, more in the traditional style of calm, reserved analysts.
The “Doink! Boing!” stuff arrived gradually, though not too gradually. He did it a little, then a little more, and when both his bosses and viewers liked it, he did it a lot more.
It was “rewarding the behavior” in the best sense, and once he had established that style as his brand, advertisers came knocking. Miller Lite, Ace Hardware, Tinactin.
TV ads introduced him to people who didn’t watch football. Soon his name became popular enough to sell millions of video games.
Celebrity personality. It’s the modern American dream.
Now sure, there have always been celebrity personalities, back to Socrates and Plato. But only a few years after the arrival of television, celebrity became redefined as “appearing on TV” and it became a tantalizingly real possibility to people who previously felt doomed to live their whole lives un-famous.
In recent years, the entrance ramp has only gotten wider. With the amusingly named “reality” TV, you no longer needed a skill. Anyone could be on TV who was willing to risk looking ridiculous or start a brawl. You come off an an idiot? So what? You’re on TV.
Then the Internet happened and the bar fell further. You only had to turn on your phone to post yourself on a social media platform.
The only catch is that you now had to entice people to watch, and if you didn’t have a skill, you could compensate with, yup, personality.
Now John Madden was not a Kardashian. He was not famous for being famous. He had something to say. He was a skilled coach and he did his homework as a TV analyst. But in an age when personality carried ever-increasing weight, the fact Madden had one helped catapult him to the peak he eventually reached.
The ascent of football, which John Madden also helped promote, isn’t any big secret. It’s just a little painful to discuss for those of us who were raised and remain baseball guys.
That’s not a knock on football, which is a perfectly decent sport. Baseball, to me, is more interesting, and at one time enough Americans agreed that it was called the National Pastime.
Over the course of my life, a majority of Americans have come to disagree.
I get why. If you had to design a sport for modern America, you’d probably design football. Each team only plays once a week, so a game is an event. It’s almost always on weekends, so you can have subs, wings, dip, beer, friends and a party. It’s perfect for television, so you can watch in sweats. The game itself incorporates both elaborate athletic skills and primal brute force. It has good guys and bad boys, the latter personified by Madden’s 1970s Raiders teams.
And oh yeah, in case you hadn’t noticed, football is easy to bet on.
Baseball moves at a more deliberate pace. The action is intense but intermittent. The strategy is more subtle, which makes it tempting to say the game is more cerebral, except that’s part of the problem.
The generation that has grown up with Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and Marvel movies wants action now. It doesn’t want to sit back and contemplate baserunning or bullpen strategy. It’s not that no one today can appreciate a game that plays out over three hours, because a lot of people still do. They just aren’t the majority of American sports fans. It hurts to say that, but they aren’t.
And part of that shift comes back to personality. Through the first 60 or 70 years of the 20th century, baseball personalities were part of our common culture. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean, Ted Williams, right up through Mickey Mantle and Jackie Robinson. You could reference them to people who didn’t follow sports and they knew who you were talking about.
Today, a non-fan might not know a single baseball name. Mike Trout? Juan Soto? Max Scherzer? Great players. Not personalities.
That’s now Tom Brady or LeBron James.
Or John Madden.
The Incredible Exploding Football Coach became an American reference point, with all the privileges and rewards thereunto appertaining.
Because Madden hated flying, he famously did all his traveling for 27 years in a motorized coach. In the process, he often said, he found America. And, boing! doink!, the American dream.