I’ll level with you. I didn’t really think that much of John Madden as an analyst, at least for most of my experience listening to him. That doesn’t mean I didn’t think his personality or presence didn’t warrant his standing at the top of the broadcasting game. They very much did. And perhaps I’m just of an age where my first exposure to Madden was at the point after he first took over the CBS No. 1 chair, before he moved to NBC, where he became aware of the phenomena and character that made him so beloved that he played into it more and more. He was more “the mud goin’ and the gut goin’ and the grass in the facemask goin’...” than he was bothering to tell us what was really going on.
He became more part of the show than telling it, at least in my mind. After he moved to NBC, when he’d clearly cinched his legacy and perhaps didn’t feel like he had to live up to the character everyone knew anymore, we saw more of the analyst again. And he was really good at it.
But what made Madden that guy was the balance of genuinely enjoying what he did, having that pour through his headset, and also the knowledge to justify his place there. Maybe he leaned into the former too much at times, but that’s ok. All the impersonators after Madden, and god there have been so goddamn many, never got that right. They treat it too seriously while they try and belch out noises and phrases in a way that just came naturally to Madden. It’s not about cracking jokes or telling everyone how much fun you’re having to the point where we wonder if they even believe it (rhymes with “Tony Romo”). It’s just supposed to be natural. Because after all, you’re getting paid to watch and talk about football for three hours. It’s a steal! Madden’s successor, Cris Collinsworth, tries his best to balance both, and I think he gets closer than most give him credit for. But there is something phony about him at times. There was nothing phony about Madden, whatever you thought of him.
Madden always sounded like a guy who couldn’t quite believe he was getting paid for this, which is probably the biggest reason he was so beloved. It’s supposed to be fun, and watching a game where the guy broadcasting it sounds like he’s just as happy to be there as you are only enhances that.
Madden coached like that, too. The Raiders job kind of landed on him, and though he hardly lacked for knowledge. The Raiders, thanks to Al Davis trumpeting it with every fiber of his being, gained an outlaws-in-pads rep, and Madden was used as a prime example. What they really did was just eschew the normal football bullshit. Madden didn’t require 18-hour days or draconian, meetings start five minutes before they start bullshit. It’s football. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Get here, work hard, win. Who cares about the rest? Madden had a .759 winning percentage over 10 seasons. You’ll find that’s the best of all-time. He got there just cutting right to the heart of it, coaching like he couldn’t quite believe he got paid for it.
The best broadcasters in any sport find this balance without forcing it. And the worst don’t. Everyone hates John Smoltz (rightly) because it sounds like whatever game he’s doing interrupted his golf game. Doris Burke is beloved because not only can she break down everything in a way anyone can understand, but you can hear the enjoyment in her voice as she does. I’d say the same for Jeff van Gundy. But it’s not a character. It’s not forced. It’s who they are. NBC’s coverage of the Premier League is anchored by Arlo White and Lee Dixon and Graeme Le Saux. All of them generally sound like they’re having the time of their life, even if Dixon complains a bit much. He has fun complaining! That’s a big reason the Premier League’s and NBC’s coverage of it has rocketed in popularity through the years.
That’s why Madden was Madden, and probably what helped lead him to lend his name to what became the most popular video game of all-time. Games make sports more fun. Madden just wanted to translate the way he saw it to a platform that didn’t have it. The game was supposed to be authentic but it also entertaining. Just like Madden. Look how that worked out.
That’s what it’s all supposed to be. It’s why we’re here.
Gonna end this on a personal note. Jeff Dickerson, who worked for ESPN 1000 here in Chicago for years covering the Bears and other sports, passed away yesterday from cancer. He was just 44.
Scan Twitter and you’ll see dozens of notes about what a great guy and professional Jeff was. I can vouch for both. I interned for Jeff at ESPN way back when. There were a few around that station who seemingly got off treating interns like shit, probably because that’s what they went through, or they thought it was some sort of test, or they genuinely thought that’s how you teach someone.
Not Jeff. Jeff always made everything look fun and light, because it was (we were talking about sports all day for fuck’s sake), while teaching me far more than anyone else did. I can barely recall him not having a smile on his face. When he did, it was because someone else was treating the job like it was VITALLY IMPORTANT, and usually Jeff would walk away and take me with him to work on something else and blow off steam. It was a great lesson to see someone with the job I wanted treat it like a gift.
Perhaps a leading memory was one afternoon when the host of the show was complaining about the overall stupidity of the industry and job, as if this had just dawned on him (it being stupid is what makes it great!) It’s like he just found out he wasn’t curing hunger. Another producer was trying to convince him that no, what we did was important and not stupid. We then all turned into the producer’s booth to see Jeff practicing his batting stance and swing with a hammer. That was Jeff.
I ran into him a couple times over the years at Hawks games, and he was genuinely happy I’d found success in my own way. It’s been a long time since. But I’ll always appreciate him for showing me that you can do the things you want while being a good guy about it and never hesitating to enjoy it. Done my best to follow that, even when things get pretty dour around here.
Anyway, Jeff’s wife passed away a couple years ago from cancer as well, and there’s a GoFundMe for his son Parker if you’d like to donate: