Hall of Fame Inductee: John Madden, The Consummate Color Commentator
In the business of sports broadcasting, few names are as ubiquitous as John Madden’s. Known as much for his lively, colorful personality as for his in-depth commentary, he spent three decades calling NFL games for all four major networks. During 50-plus years in football, the Pro Football Hall-of-Famer cemented his standing as a cultural icon, attracting a whole new audience to the game and driving interest in the NFL like never before.
“John had the ability to talk to every level of fan,” says Sandy Grossman, who spent more than two decades directing Madden and his long-time play-by-play partner, Pat Summerall, at CBS and Fox. “He was brilliant at bridging the gap between sports and entertainment. It was football, it was fun, it was insight, it was the whole package.”
Madden grew up just outside San Francisco and earned all-conference honors as an offensive tackle (although he started on both offense and defense) at Cal Poly University. He was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 21st round of the 1958 NFL Draft , but a knee injury ended his professional career before it could begin.
He quickly made his way into coaching, first at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, CA, and then as an assistant at San Diego State University under coaching legend Don Coryell. Madden segued into the pro game when the Oakland Raiders brought him on as an assistant in 1967, and he became the youngest coach in the league two years later at the age of 32. He led the Raiders to 10 consecutive winning seasons and the Super Bowl XI title before retiring following the 1978 season as the youngest coach ever to win 100 games (112-39-7 overall). His .763 regular-season winning percentage is still the highest of any coach to spend at least 100 games on the sideline.
“I think John’s coaching experience obviously helped a great deal,” says Bob Stenner, who produced Madden’s telecasts during his years at CBS and Fox. “As a coach, he provided a different perspective and new way of bringing the game to the viewer.”
In 1979, Madden began his second life as a color commentator, and, after just two seasons in the booth, CBS Sports elevated him to its NFL A-team, pairing him with the veteran Summerall. Over the next 21 years, the two would call 300-plus games and eight Super Bowls, more than any other broadcasting team in history. Summerall’s reserved but poignant play-by-play style provided the perfect foil for Madden’s animated, long-form analysis.
“John and Pat are very different people and very different announcers,” says Stenner. “But, when they stepped into that booth, they could not have been more on the same page. They knew just what the viewer wanted, and they knew just how to get it to them.”
However, the booth was not the only place where Madden made his mark. As a former coach, he saw game-tape analysis and extensive pregame interviews as an integral part to the preparation process.
“John totally changed the way we did things,” says Stenner. “Before John, we didn’t look at a lot of game tape, and we would mostly just talk to the PR people before games. But John prepared in a totally different and new way. We would watch hours of tape together before every game. And he would sit with coaches and coordinators and go over every single player on the flip card — whether they were first-string or third-string.”
This attention to detail seeped into the broadcast, as Madden pioneered the use of a telestrator to illustrate his points more clearly to viewers. As a result, the look and feel of the telecast underwent a drastic transformation that has since become the norm.
“When there’s a book written about directing football, there needs to be an entire chapter dedicated to directing for John Madden because he changed the way things are done,” says Grossman. “Everyone always wanted to get tighter and tighter [shots], but John always wanted wider and wider [shots]. He believed that the more you could see, the better it was. We had to tailor what we did to meet those demands.”
Despite his playful on-air persona, however, Madden was also known as a model perfectionist, demanding the same level of excellence from his crew as from himself.
“People may not know this, but John is extremely demanding of people,” says Stenner. “That’s not always the best trait in the world, but that’s how he did it, and the results speak for themselves — as both a coach and an announcer. He believes that the harder you are on people, the better they will perform. As a result, people rarely made the same mistake twice. Everybody worked harder because they didn’t want to disappoint him.”
Following Summerall’s retirement after the 2001 season, Madden moved on to ABC’s Monday Night Football and then to NBC’s Sunday Night Football in 2006, making him the only sports broadcaster ever to call games for all four major U.S. broadcast networks. In all, Madden called more than 500 NFL games, including Super Bowl XVI, which is still the highest-rated sports program of all time (49.1 Nielsen rating). In addition, his long-running Madden NFL videogame series and commercial appearances have made Madden a fan favorite across nearly every demographic.
A father of two sons, he still lives in the Bay Area and recently celebrated 50 years of marriage with his wife, Virginia.
“John is one of the brightest men I’ve ever known,” says Stenner. “He realized very quickly what he brought to the dance: genuine enthusiasm, an unbelievable child-like curiosity, and an energy that fans really embraced — no matter what kind of fan they were.”
For more information about the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, click here.