At his core, though, Madden was a coach and by extension a teacher; as he proudly noted in interviews, he graduated with a master’s degree in physical education, a few credits short of a doctorate, from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. His unscripted style translated as well in the Raiders’ locker room, where he guided a cast of self-styled outlaws and misfits to eight playoff appearances in 10 seasons as head coach, as it did in living rooms, man caves and bookstores.
“He was who you saw on TV,” said Ted Hendricks, a Hall of Fame linebacker who played for Madden from 1975 through 1978. “He gave us freedom, but he always had complete control of his players.”
As inclusive as he was beloved, Madden embodied a rare breed of sports personality. He could relate to the plumber in Pennsylvania or the custodian in Kentucky — or the cameramen on his broadcast crew — because he viewed himself, at bottom, as an ordinary guy who just happened to know a lot about football. Grounded by an incapacitating fear of flying, he met many of his fans while crisscrossing the country, first in Amtrak trains and then in his Madden Cruiser, a decked-out motor coach that was a rare luxurious concession for a man whose idea of a big night out, as detailed in his book “One Size Doesn’t Fit All” (1988) was wearing “a sweatsuit and sneakers to a real Mexican restaurant for nachos and a chile Colorado.”
For more than 20 years, that bus shepherded Madden to and from his assignments, a fulfillment of sorts of a favorite book, “Travels with Charley,” by John Steinbeck, who had driven around America in a camper with his poodle. When Madden greeted family members and friends on the flight he had chartered for them to attend his induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in August 2006, it was his first time in an airplane in 27 years.
“When you pulled up somewhere in that bus, it was like Air Force One had arrived,” said Fred Gaudelli, who as Madden’s producer at ABC and NBC traveled with him for seven years. “It was amazing the way people would react to that thing.”
If contemporaries like Bud Grant and Tom Landry epitomized the archetype of coach as sideline stoic, Madden served as their counterweight. He imparted an iconoclastic, demonstrative presence, one that echoed the spirit of the 1970s and the countercultural nexus of Northern California and that also suited his team of so-called renegades. The enduring image of Madden was of his oversize frame bounding onto the field, flouting the tenets of sideline decorum with arms flailing, mouth racing and red hair flopping against a pink face.
Madden ditched the dress code and encouraged individual expression, tolerating his players’ penchant for wild nights and carousing because, he knew, they would always give him their full effort — especially on Sundays. Unlike the disciplinarians of his day, he imposed few rules, asking them only to listen, to be on time and to play hard when he demanded it. Madden told The New York Times in 1969 that “there has to be an honesty that you be yourself”; for him, that meant treating his players as “intelligent human beings.”