The first thing you notice about John Madden is just how large he is. Large hands. Large feet. Large face. Larger than life. It's hard to believe Madden will complete his 30th year in broadcasting today when he calls Super Bowl XLIII along with partner Al Michaels for NBC. He is one of the most successful coaches in NFL history: 10 seasons (1969-78) with the Raiders, 10 winning seasons, a Super Bowl championship. But he probably is better known for the video game that bears his name and his work as a color commentator for CBS, Fox, ABC and now NBC. His down-to-earth persona, knowledge, humor and made-up words (Doink! Whap! Blam!) have made him, arguably, the most famous football broadcaster ever. "John Madden is the best analyst in the history of the National Football League and, in my opinion, the best analyst of any kind in sports television history," said Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics. "John is much more than a football legend; he's an American icon." As he prepared to broadcast his 11th Super Bowl, Madden, 72, sat down for an exclusive interview with Times staff writer Tom Jones to talk about his career in football (including his biggest regret as a coach), the night he almost returned to coaching and whether today will be his last game as a broadcaster.
Did you imagine that when you retired from coaching in 1979 and became a broadcaster that you would still be doing it 30 years later?
No. Because I didn't imagine anything. It's not that I wasn't thinking 30 years ahead; it just never occurred to me. It's like the video game. People ask me if I could have imagined the video game taking off like it has. This stuff just happens. I was just happy to be a part of football. I went from player to coach to broadcaster. When I went to coaching, that took the place of being a player. Then when I went to broadcasting, that took the place of coaching.
You see a lot of coaches now take a year or two off from coaching and then come back. Did you ever consider going back to coaching after a year or two away?
You knew you were done?
I knew I was done. I knew I would never come back. And I said that at the time and no one believed me because I was so young. I was only 42 years old. And some of these guys now are considered young getting jobs at 42 years old.
It must have crossed your mind at least once to come back, didn't it?
In the first 10 years out, I had a lot of opportunities to come back, and it never led to anything. I was never offered a job, but it was the type of thing of, "Would you be interested if they were interested," and I never was. I never talked to anybody. And then when Jimmy Johnson was at Fox and I was at Fox — this was after Jimmy was in Dallas and before he went to Miami (in the mid 1990s) — and we were doing a playoff game in Dallas. So Jimmy and I are talking, and we're talking about what we learned after leaving coaching. He's all excited, talking about he would do this and he would do that. We had this talk at dinner. So now I'm walking back to the hotel with Matt Millen and I tell Matt, "Matt, I want to coach again." It was the first time I ever had that feeling. And I said, "I hope I wake up in the morning and see if I still feel the same." (Laughs) I swear to God. And I woke up in the morning and the feeling was gone. That was the only time in all those years.
Ever get the itch on game day or before a big playoff game?
No, but I always think of what I would do if I was the coach. I'm going to always think that way. I still think that way. But I never thought that I would want to be down there like Mike Tomlin or Ken Whisenhunt.
The other night on ESPN they showed the old Sea of Hands playoff game between your Raiders and the Dolphins in 1974.
Man, that was a mistake. (Madden pounds the table.) Man, I screwed that up!
Wait, you won that game.
Miami was undefeated in 1972 and were the (back-to-back) champions. So we get them in the playoffs in '74 and we beat them. There was so much made of that game that we thought it was the championship. And we celebrated too much, they carried me off the field and so forth, and we lost the next week against Pittsburgh. So I learned a lesson that day. My biggest regret. But I learned. When we went to the Super Bowl (in the 1976 season), after we won the AFC championship, the first thing I said to the team was, "We haven't done anything yet. We haven't done a damn thing. Not one thing. If you go to the Super Bowl and lose, they're going to forget you. You have to go to the Super Bowl and win."
You coached what seemed like huge games every year in the 1970s — the Immaculate Reception game, the Sea of Hands game, playoffs practically every year and the Super Bowl. What was it like physically and mentally to be involved in such roller-coaster games every year?
It was great because it was all winning. I never had a losing season.
But you had some tough losses.
Yeah, I had some tough losses. But some big wins, too. For every one I lost, I won some, too. I had Sea of Hands and … hey, you know, in my coaching career, I probably had more games with titles than any coach.
That's true — the Immaculate Reception and Sea of Hands and Ghost to the Post and Holy Roller.
Yeah, they all had a name.
Are the lows lower than the highs are high?
Oh, yeah, it's not even close. That's what gets coaches.
Is that what got you?
Yeah, that gets everyone. It gets to a point that the longer you do it, the better you are, the better your team is, you expect to win. I never went into a game in my life that I thought we were going to lose. I knew we were going to win every game. So when you win it, it's not much of a high because you knew you were going to win it. But when you lose it and you knew you were going to win, the low is overwhelming. It's what got me. I couldn't do it anymore.
Was there one loss that really stands out?
The worst ones are the final games because you can't get it back. If you lose a regular-season game, then it's, "We'll get 'em next week." You still have time to come back. When you lose that last one, you can't do anything about it until next year, and it just sits there. That's the one you never forget. It sticks in your gut and it sticks there forever.
You coached a team that everyone outside of Oakland hated. The Raiders were always considered villains. And yet you become a broadcaster and immediately become universally loved. How do you account for that?
You don't. If you try to think about it or account for it, you wouldn't believe it.
But do you realize how big you are, that you're an icon?
No, I really don't. And I'm being honest. This isn't just me trying to be humble. I just never think about it. I'm just a guy. Just a guy. I don't think of words like "icon" or anything like that.
But can you even go out without being mobbed by fans?
No, but it's not bad. I like people. I enjoyed dealing with people. Now if there's a crowd or something and you can't get through it, then I don't like it because I'm claustrophobic. But other than that, it's fine.
How do you like working with Al Michaels?
I've been lucky. My whole career, I've worked with two guys — Pat Summerall and Al Michaels. They're both great. Two of the best. And Al is the best. I was asked if I would ever want to work with anyone else, and I said I'll never work with anyone else. And I won't.
This past year, for the first time ever, you took a week off. It just so happened that it was a game here in Tampa Bay. Was it difficult to take a week off?
No, it wasn't difficult. I wanted to do it. When I was at CBS and Fox and ABC, I would have a home game. For me, that would be San Francisco or Oakland. The 49ers and Raiders were good and so once a month, I would be home. But this season, I wouldn't have been home for six months. I mean, I'm riding on the bus and can't get home. I got the same underwear. (Laughs) I just had to spend some time at home. So it worked out with a bye week for the World Series, and then I took the next game off. If I hadn't, I would have to gone from Philadelphia to San Diego to Tampa. So the only way to get a week off was to take off the Tampa game.
At that point, some started to wonder if you were thinking about retiring.
I didn't expect that. To this day, I have no idea where that came from. One newspaper had a contest or something guessing when I would quit.
Well, the rumors are out there that this Super Bowl will be your last game.
No. Absolutely not.
You will keep going?
Any timetable for how much longer you want to do this?
There is no heavy lifting here. It's once a week, and football is my passion. It's what I love and enjoy and what I do. The only thing is not having home games. The Raiders and 49ers both got bad at the same time. And Seattle is down. No team in L.A. That's the tough part.
But you still enjoy it?
I love it. This is who I am. There is no place I would rather be. I'm not going anywhere.