Twenty-eight years ago, in a dark, deserted parking lot outside
Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., Monday Night Football's past
and future collided in spectacular fashion. In the wee hours of
Sept. 17, 1974, shortly after his team had blown a lead and
dropped a 21-20 thriller to the Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders
coach John Madden trudged out into the night. It was the only
time in Madden's 13 MNF appearances as the Raiders' coach that
he would emerge a loser, and no sane person was especially eager
to court his company at that moment. But from the darkness
Madden heard a familiar voice--that of Howard Cosell, the
controversial MNF analyst with the unmistakably nasal, New York
inflection. "John, con-GRAT-u-LA-tions," Cosell said. "That was
great. You gave us one HELL of a show."
Madden froze. Though he considered Cosell a friend--and unlike
many Americans was an unabashed fan of the announcer's brash
style--the coach's celebrated temper flared. "Show, my ass!" he
screamed at Cosell. "To you it's a show; to me, it's life."
While generations of young football fans know Madden only as a
folksy television analyst, corporate pitchman and video-game
godfather, anyone who had the pleasure of watching him flounce
up and down the sideline, sweating and swearing up a storm, can
picture the blowup. If he has mellowed over the years, Madden
still brings an unequaled big-game buzz to the broadcast
booth--and now comes the biggest test of his illustrious,
23-year second career. With Monday Night Football attempting to
rebound from seven years of ratings declines, Madden, at 66, is
the show. In February, when Madden left Fox to join Al Michaels
in the MNF booth, ABC honchos viewed the move as a tonic for
their ailing prime-time franchise. Sure, people reasoned, the
Dennis Miller experiment might have fizzled, but he was a
comedian and football dilettante. If Madden, the ultimate
football guy, can't save MNF, perhaps nothing can.
As he prepares for his debut in a new booth--Madden and Michaels
will work the Hall of Fame game between the Houston Texans and
the New York Giants on Aug. 5--America's best-known bus rider
sat down with SI at his production studios in Pleasanton,
Calif., about 20 minutes from his old stomping grounds in Oakland.
SI: When you got the Monday Night gig in February, you described
it as a dream job.
JM: I knew the feeling I had as a coach when we played on Monday
night. It was always a festive thing, and I always thought that
somewhere in my life I would like to be part of Monday Night
SI: For the most part you've been praised by critics throughout
your broadcasting career. Now you get the prime-time critics. Is
that something you've thought about much?
JM: Look, nobody likes criticism. I know that there's going to
be more now, and working with Al Michaels will be different.
They're going to take our temperature sooner and more often--the
first quarter, how did they jell? I care, but I don't worry. You
have to be yourself. Besides, I'm my own worst critic. I was
that way as a coach, and I'm that way as a broadcaster.
SI: Did you like Cosell?
JM: Yeah, I knew him very well, and I liked him. If you go down
the list of things and people that were good for football,
Howard Cosell's name is on it. Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, the
Giants-Baltimore game, the Jets' winning the Super Bowl....
Well, the advent of Monday Night Football and Howard Cosell was
SI: Was Cosell the greatest MNF analyst?
JM: I don't break it down like that. I think the
combination--Meredith and Cosell--was very good. I used to work
with my coaches on Monday nights, but we'd always have someone
call us in to watch the halftime highlights.
SI: Will you be part of the halftime show?
JM: I have no idea, but I hope not. That's the only time you have
to take a leak or whatever.
SI: What did you think of the Dennis Miller experiment?
JM: I believe the game is the thing, that people tune in to
watch the game. If the game is the thing, we don't need
entertainment. If I go to watch a comedian, I don't expect a
football game to break out.
SI: I'm sure you're aware that there's been a steady ratings
decline for Monday Night Football over the past several seasons.
What can be done?
JM: People tune in to watch good games. We have to realize that
football has changed. Free agency, the salary cap, good teams
becoming bad.... It's a different game in broadcasting; it's a
different game in scheduling. The networks have to say in
December what games they're interested in for the next season.
Years ago, you'd know in December who the top seven or eight
teams were going to be. Now you have no idea. Where did the
Patriots come from last year, the Ravens the year before that,
the Rams the year before that? There's no way to schedule
reliably the way we do it now--we do the wish list in December,
the schedule is made in February and March, and it comes out the
first of April. Shoot, they haven't even had the draft yet, let
alone the second round of free agency in June. In December, if
you had had to pick between Baltimore and Buffalo on this year's
schedule, who would you have chosen? Well, Baltimore. They were
the defending champions and headed back to the playoffs; Buffalo
was in last place. Well, since then the Ravens decimated their
team and Buffalo got Drew Bledsoe.
SI: Do you think we'll see a flexible schedule when the next TV
deal is signed in 2005?
JM: Even before that. My idea is to push everything back. The
schedule doesn't have to come out in April. The networks' wish
lists can come later. And then I think you just give out three
quarters of the networks' schedules, the first 12 games. At the
halfway point, they pick the last four.
SI: So who will this year's New England be?
JM: Al Michaels asked me that, and it had to be a team coming
from nowhere. I just blurted out Cleveland. I think Butch Davis
is a good coach.
SI: Have you and Al had a chance to get to know each other over
the last few months?
JM: I've known Al Michaels for a long time, and I've always had
a lot of respect for him. Hell, when he was the [San Francisco]
Giants' announcer, I'd see him at games. Since I've signed with
ABC, we've gotten together at quite a few things. I've brought
him in on the EA Sports video game Madden 2003, so we've been
together for voice-overs. So far, everything has been very
smooth. He's a pro; he's smart.
SI: There's been talk about you and Al--is the booth big enough
for both of them? Pat Summerall was very spare, and Al can get
mighty expansive. Will that be a big adjustment?
JM: It is, and it isn't. A lot of times replays dictate when an
analyst talks. If you get a replay, you have to talk. The
producer in the truck has a lot to say about that.
SI: A lot of coaches have had trouble working with Al Davis, and
you thrived in that situation. If you were talking to Bill
Callahan about coaching the Raiders, what would you tell him?
JM: I think you just have to be yourself. A lot of stuff Al says
is just to start an argument--outrageous stuff he doesn't
believe, just to see how firm you are in your beliefs. It's like
a game. He'd say, "If you could have anyone in the whole league,
who would you take? I'd take this guy." And then I would have to
say who I would take. The biggest argument we ever had was, he
believed that you built a team with corners, and I believed
offensive line. And to this day I would argue that with him,
that if you don't have an offensive line, nothing else works.
And he would probably still say corners. So I would tell
Callahan, "Just coach." Don't get caught up in the perception
that he wants you to say everything he says. He really doesn't.
He's a contrarian. And he likes the contrarian.
SI: Who's the best coach in football?
JM: I have a lot of respect for Mike Holmgren and Mike Shanahan.
Bill Belichick. Bill Cowher's been able to do it with different
guys and different systems in different eras. And Steve
Mariucci's a good coach. He's had a tough time with ownership
changes and all those things above him, but he was able to
SI: If you've got to play in the Super Bowl tomorrow, who would
be your quarterback?
JM: I love Kurt Warner, and Peyton Manning's coming up. But if I
have to pick a guy, I'd take Brett Favre.
SI: Who's the best player in football?
JM: Marshall Faulk. I had said in the past that Randy Moss was
the best player. And it's still close, but the direction Moss
started to go, I didn't necessarily like it. Still, I know if I
were coaching defense, I would hate to go against Randy Moss. If
you take any defensive coach, the only thing he's really worried
about is speed. It scares the s--- out of all of them. And he is
the fastest player in football. Now, you may say, "Well, you
wouldn't like to coach him, either." I probably would like to
coach him.... Here I am talking all about Moss, but I'm picking
Marshall Faulk. It's just that if I'm gonna pick a guy, that guy
has to play every down.
SI: In addition to not playing every down, Moss made some pretty
strong statements last year, such as, "I play when I want to
JM: I know Randy Moss, and he's not that way. Did you ever get
into a position that you were forced to defend, and you didn't
even believe it yourself? I think that happened with Randy Moss
a little bit.
SI: Name a guy who typifies the All-Madden concept?
JM: They're all offensive linemen. They're the guys who never get
the recognition. Chicago has a guy, Olin Kreutz. What a name:
"Hey, Kreutz." Whenever there's one last hit downfield at the
whistle, it's always centers like Kreutz who will take it.
SI: Do you consider yourself a journalist? An entertainer? A
JM: I'm a football coach doing television. I'll never think that
I'm a journalist, and I'll never think that I'm a television
personality or an actor or anything like that.
SI: Do you think there are kids out there who consider you the
"video-game guy" who happens to do TV?
JM: Yeah, I know who those kids are, because I talk to them. I
have a lot of quirks, but one of the advantages that my quirks
bring me is that I never leave the ground. I know this country
as well as anyone, I think--geographically, the old people, the
kids. I talk to them, and I know what they think: I'm the guy in
the video game who's on television too. Kids say, "We're playing
Madden," like I'm a thing, not a person.
SI: What made you stop flying?
JM: You know those things you have where you say to yourself,
"If I ever get through this, I'll never do it again"? On the
Sunday after Thanksgiving, 1979, I was flying home from the game
in Tampa. I got on the plane, and when the flight attendant
closed the door, before we'd even moved, this feeling came over
me that I just had to get off the plane. So I had a meeting with
myself: I know if I get up and start running at that door and
make a scene, there's no way they can stop me from getting out.
Or I can gut it out. I decided to gut it out, and on that flight
I had a complete, full-blown panic attack. I was sweating,
shaking, the whole thing. And this isn't about fear of flying,
bad turbulence or anything. This is just about being encased and
not being able to get out. That's when I said to myself, "If I
live through this"--because you think you're gonna die--"I will
never get on another airplane the rest of my life." So I had
three choices. I could either quit what I was doing, my first
year in television; I could get professional help, see a
hypnotist and all that; or I could change my way of traveling,
which is what I decided to do. After that I started taking
trains, but I didn't tell anyone because I was too embarrassed
to say that I didn't fly. I was O.K. on a train because I had
control--there are a lot of stops on a train, and I felt like I
could get off if I had to.
SI: What will happen when the MNF crew covers the Pro Bowl in
JM: I won't go. Right off the bat we told ABC that.
SI: What if there were a Super Bowl in Hawaii?
JM: I'd take a boat because then it would be worth everyone's
SI: What are some of your favorite places to stop during your
travels across America?
JM: Down in Mississippi I've got a seafood place I go to. In Van
Horn, Texas, it's Chuy's. We always call ahead, and Mama Chuy
makes a chicken dish with beans and rice, and she makes her own
tortillas. In Georgia there's a place called Georgia Pig. It's
not even Georgia, it's "G.A. Pig." It's just barbecue. Davis
Love told me about it. It's in this tiny little town, I don't
even know what it's called. In California we get out on I-5, and
it's not long before we have to make our first stop: the
Woolgrowers, a Basque restaurant in Los Banos. I like to go into
the small towns and find a new place that's not a franchise.
When I first started doing this, it was easy, but it's getting
harder and harder. I mean, you go into a truck stop now, and
you'll find a Taco Bell.
SI: I'm guessing there's no fitness center on the bus.
JM: Yeah, that's tough. I tried to get a treadmill on the bus,
but it didn't fit. For me, it has to be an industrial-sized
treadmill. It can't be some little thing you buy at Wal-Mart. So
what I do is, when we stop for fuel, it usually takes about a
half hour, and I just start walking away from the main road and
then turn around and walk back.
SI: Where were you on September 11?
JM: Our opening game was St. Louis at Philadelphia, on Sunday
the ninth, and that night I came back and stayed at my apartment
in New York. So I was there that Tuesday morning. And being
there just makes that whole thing indelible. After the second
plane hit, I walked out to get a newspaper, and the streets were
empty. There was an older lady standing by the newsstand, and
she said, "This is the end of the world."
On the second day people were talking about, "Are they going to
play this weekend?" I said, "There's no way. We're at war." I
stayed in New York until they decided to cancel the games--we
were supposed to do Green Bay at New York--and then our next
game was in San Francisco, so I could head home. Someone from
International Management Group, which represents me, called to
tell me that another one of their clients, Peggy Fleming, was
stranded in Pennsylvania. Peggy's from the Bay Area too, and
there were no flights, so they arranged for me to pick up Peggy,
and she drove with us across the country. It was wild. I
remember we stopped at this little store in Omaha to buy some
flags for the bus. The guy couldn't believe that Peggy Fleming
and John Madden had just walked in. He said, "Just do me one
favor: As you leave town, just drive by in the bus and honk at
me." As we came across the country, you could just feel the
country coming together and the patriotism.
SI: You're 66, past mandatory retirement age in some states, but
I imagine you're raring to go out and kick butt in your new job.
Have you given any thought to how long this can go?
JM: I think forever. As long as I can. It's fun, and it is my
life and my passion and my recreation--it's everything. I was at
a golf tournament, and I met a guy who was a year behind me in
high school, and he's retiring. I said, "Let me get this
straight: You're retiring, and I just signed a four-year
contract. One of us is going in the wrong direction."
For more of Michael Silver's interview with John Madden, go to
when I said to myself, "If I live through this.... "
I tried to get a treadmill on the bus, but it didn't fit. For me
it has to be industrial-sized, not some little thing.