Never mind his Super Bowl victory as coach of the Raiders; never mind the dominance of his branded football video game; never mind his outsized mannerisms (could Frank Caliendo have launched a career, however low its arc, impersonating Phil Simms?). For me the measure of John Madden is much simpler: He helped make Sunday the new Monday.
Time was, Monday Night Football was the televised NFL showcase. But when Madden and his sharp, street-smart partner Al Michaels went from MNF to NBC’s Sunday-night game, they took all the gravity with them. Monday nights, now in the hands of the very good Ron Jaworski and a couple of genial ESPN emoticons, became optional; Sunday’s game was the must-watch. Partly that was because NBC just got better matchups. But a large part of it was Madden and his chemistry with Michaels.
They complemented each other nicely, Michaels’ spiky intelligence softened by Madden’s grandfatherly burr. The word “avuncular” seems coined for Madden, and yeah, he often seemed avuncular to a fault. He occasionally said inane, quite obvious things or, as Harvey Araton pointed out in the New York Times, left certain important things unsaid, “punting most controversy.” He was content to address what happened on the field, which was why we loved him—there’s a time for sociology, and there’s a time to telestrate a vicious hit and yell “BOOM!” We didn’t look to him for social commentary—that’s what Harvey Araton is for.
From Madden we wanted to know about the actual game, and the dude delivered. He had relevant experience. And despite the doughy look, he was no softie. You don’t successfully coach the Raiders under Al Davis unless you have a terminator’s metal spine. “He brought that old-school no-whiners philosophy to the game, which fewer and fewer coaches and commentators have,” says a friend and fellow Madden-liker. The big fella alchemized all of that into a sense of authority that even veteran former players like Troy Aikman and Phil Simms—both good color men—couldn’t quite match. (Jaworski, with his analytical mojo, and Cris Collinsworth, with his mix of snark and gall, came closest.) And lo, Sunday became the new Monday.
Now he’s outta there, leaving a large void in the booth next to Michaels that we’ll have to see if Collinsworth, his designated successor, can fill. Frank Caliendo, this may be it for you.