Renegades. Desperadoes. Outlaws. Castoffs. Misfits.
Those were the polite adjectives applied to many players under John Madden in his 10 years as Oakland Raiders coach. The descriptors were also useful for some of the beat writers.
The late Jack Smith, a friend and colleague from our days at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, was covering the Raiders for the San Francisco Chronicle at training camp in Santa Rosa, CA. Years away from sobriety in Seattle, Smith, drunk from a wild night at a distant bar, had a taxi drop him off in the wee hours at the team hotel where he was staying.
“Charge it to Madden,” he told the driver, slamming the door. As he staggered into the hotel, the cabbie cursed him. Said he was calling the cops.
A few hours later at practice, Madden, tipped to the episode, had arranged to get Smith out of jail and confronted him.
“Jesus, Jack,” said Madden. “I can’t be doing this. I got enough on my hands with the players.”
“I know,” Smith said. “Who do you think got me in the cab with no money?”
The tale was one of many Smith told of the raucous aura around the successful era under contrarian owner Al Davis, a brilliant football mind who populated the Raiders with players as cantankerous as he was.
A lot of them weren’t Madden’s preferences. But he was 32 in 1969 when Davis promoted him to head coach. Who was he to tell Davis what to do?
So Madden went 12-1-1 his first season. The building of a legend had commenced, ending only with his death Monday at 85. It included a Super Bowl triumph over Minnesota in 1977 and a .759 winning percentage (103-32-7), best among coaches who worked 100 games or more.
Madden had a brilliant football mind of his own, and didn’t constrain it with old-fashioned priorities such as decorum and propriety. Remember, this was the late ’60s.
“I always thought his strong suit was his style of coaching,” QB Ken Stabler once said of his coach. “John just had a great knack for letting us be what we wanted to be, on the field and off the field.
“How do you repay him for being that way? You win for him.”
Madden had three basic behavior rules for players: Be on time, listen, and play like hell when he asked.
“Sometimes (other coaches) were disciplinarians in things that didn’t make any difference. I was a disciplinarian in jumping off-sides. I hated that,” Madden said. “Being in bad position and missing tackles, those things. I wasn’t, ‘Your hair has to be combed.’”
Madden’s priorities were mindful of another coaching legend who also grew up in the Bay Area. Pete Carroll was 15 years his junior and just beginning his career when Madden, at 42, retired from coaching.
Their professional paths never crossed, but when it comes to taking risks with players who push conventions, rules and sometimes laws, they seem to be kindred spirits.
Times have changed and more players are conformist. But Carroll’s success in taking on Marshawn Lynch and his fundamental resistance to authority stands out as a Madden-esque tolerance for game-breaking talent. It doesn’t always work (Percy Harvin), and it upsets some fans, but NFL margins are wafer-thin. Take at look at the current NFL standings: With two weeks left in the regular season, only five teams have less than five defeats.
Pat Toomay, a 10-year NFL defensive end, came to the Raiders in 1977 and was surprised at what he found with Madden.
“Qualities surfaced that differentiated Madden from his peers,” Toomay, author of two books, wrote for ESPN years ago. “Idiosyncratic behavior by players that would have driven other coaches nuts was greeted with a shrug and a chuckle.
“During film sessions, which many coaches regarded as an opportunity to humiliate or shame, Madden kept criticism generic, rarely naming names. Under no circumstances would he publicly condemn a player’s character. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t chew somebody out for making a mistake in practice, because he would. But even those outbursts would be tempered by a wink and a nudge, as if the whole thing were a kind of joke.”
A less appreciated virtue with Madden was his ability to handle the boss. In Madden’s case, he had to satisfy a mercurial owner who knew even more than he did about football. Most times, coaches have to satisfy owners who know little. Hard to say which is more difficult, but both are essential tools to master in order to survive in pro football.
I asked Carroll Wednesday what in Madden’s coaching tenure might be relevant for today’s coaches. He chose managing up.
“Al was a tough guy to deal with, but John knew how to get the most out of that relationship,” he said. “Al was really a part of everything, and John took advantage of the wisdom, the strength, and the philosophy. Al had a lot to do with the scheme, and I think he represented Al in really the best fashion.
“That was a powerhouse relationship, and we saw the benefits from it. I think that is still crucial in today’s game. I don’t think there is anything but that.”
Now that the Seahawks’ annual who stays/who goes carnival has had an unexpectedly premature start, it’s worth keeping in mind that if Carroll is sincere in the belief that a powerhouse relationship between owner and coach is foundational, it means that, at 70, he’s unlikely to want to change what he has developed over the past four years with owner Jody Allen. Basic business logic says she is unlikely to want to tip over the table after one bad season. And since general manager John Schneider is a central figure in the relationship, he would seem secure too.
On his Monday ESPN 710 radio show, Carroll said, “Not one reason at all am I thinking that we have to restart this whole thing and create a new philosophy and a new approach. I don’t think that. I think we’ve got the essence of what we need.”
So the lesson from Madden’s tenure, as Carroll sees it, is to preserve, despite 5-10, that which, over time, has worked.
I just hope Carroll also took notes on how to treat drunk sportswriters.