What you saw is what you got with the great John Madden. He was so real and so down-to-earth. His relatable personality connected him to millions, and that’s one of the reasons the former Oakland Raider’s coach was so successful in the broadcast booth.
I had the opportunity to interview John Madden in 2000 at his celebrity golf tournament in California. The show was one of over 500 “Sports Innerview with Ann Liguori” shows that I hosted with sports legends, airing from 1989 to 2008.
Part of our interview was taped on his Madden cruiser, his ultra-luxury recreational vehicle that he used to get him from game to game, all over the country. He had a fear of flying, so the Madden cruiser was the perfect solution. There were numerous televisions on the bus and a separate area he used as his office that had a desk, another TV monitor, books and game tapes.
When I mentioned how he made people he’d never met before feel like they have been friends for years, Madden quickly replied, “I’ve really been lucky. I’ve never worked a day in my life. I went from playing to coaching to broadcasting, and I’ve always been the same guy. I’m no different now than when I was a junior in high school. When I do something, I don’t look at it. And I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. When I do a game, I never look at a tape of it. I figured if you’re supposed to be yourself, and you are yourself, and if you don’t like it, then what do you do? So I figured, why watch it?”
That was quintessential John Madden: funny and honest.
I then asked Madden about why he quit coaching after 10 years as head coach of the Raiders.
“I don’t know… I wasn’t burned out,” he admitted. “I was the type of guy who gave everything I had. I coached for 10 years and as a head coach; I figured that’s all I had in me […] I started when I was 32, so I retired when I was 42, so I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I wasn’t going to coach anymore, and I just fell into broadcasting. And then when I started that, I loved it!”
“When I first retired,” Madden continued. “I wanted to spend time with my family. When you’re a football coach, you work all the time and you’re never home. You’re being pulled all the time. If you’re in coaching, you have to win. You have tunnel vision. So I said, ‘Ok, I gave that part of my life to football, and now, I’m going to spend time with my family.’ So I went home, but there was no family there. They don’t stay home waiting for you. The kids have school, they have teams, they have places to go. My wife was independent … so I was sitting home with my dog. So I thought, there has to be more to it than that. So I knew I had to do something. I didn’t want to be a broadcaster. I turned them down three or four times. As a coach, I didn’t really respect what they did. I really didn’t respect television. I was a coach and everything else was a distraction. I was never television-friendly or media-friendly when I was coaching. For a while, that was a joke, that I was never [media friendly] and then I get into it and so I did not want to do it. But the first time I did it [broadcast a game], I said, ‘This is it! This is what I want to do!’”
One of the most revealing segments of the interview was when I asked Madden if he ever missed coaching once he became a broadcaster. “Did you ever look back?” I asked.
“I only looked back one time,” Madden shared, “and it was when Jimmy Johnson was working with us at Fox. He had left Dallas and had worked at Fox for a couple of years and then went back and was going to coach Miami. And we were at a party in Dallas, and he was so excited about going back that he got me excited about going back! He said, ‘I’m going to do this and that and all these things…’ And so I got excited and said, ‘I’d like to be doing what Jimmy was doing.’ And I was kind of envious of him. And then I remember walking back to my hotel and I remember thinking, ‘I hope this feeling goes away overnight’… and I woke up the next day, and I didn’t have that feeling anymore.”
Madden’s take on golf was hilarious. He admitted that he was a lousy golfer because, he mused, “anyone who is an old lineman is not a good golfer. Because in football, you’re always taught to keep your head up and hit everything as hard as you can. Then you go to play golf and they say, ‘keep your head down and swing easy.’”
“If you’re bad in golf, you want to play tennis,” continued Madden. “Because if you’re bad in tennis, it’s over quickly. If you’re bad in golf, it’s just prolonged.”
This interview was getting funnier by the moment, I thought, as Madden’s big voice got louder and more animated. His fun stories came out with such ease and passion. It didn’t take much coaxing.
“In golf,” Madden added, “there’s only one guy that I really compete with. I admit that I’m not a good golfer. I was highly competitive in football. I admit that I’m not good at golf. I don’t play well, and I don’t care. Now I lost to Don Shula. I competed against Don Shula my entire professional life, so I play him in golf. I beat him the first four or five holes, so I start laughing, telling jokes and then he ends up beating me! So I don’t think anything of it because I don’t care. So now, he pulls out a scorecard at the end and asks me to sign it. And I said, ‘For what?’ ‘Because I beat you,’ he said. ‘And I said, I didn’t know that we were competing!’ And so I’m driving home after that, and I thought, I forgot how to compete. I got to a point in my life where I don’t compete anymore…So I chased Don Shula for two years and the harder I tried, I couldn’t beat him. A year ago, last summer, I played him on a Saturday. We broke even, and I played him Sunday, and I beat him. And do you know what, I never played him again!”
Classic John Madden stories! Wow, what a treasure! He was so loved, such an original and loads of fun. It was such a privilege to spend some time with him.
To view Ann Liguori’s entire collection of sports interview videos, please visit: sportsinnerview.com and annliguori.com. All material in this article is copyright Ann Liguori Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.