September 25, 2023
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John Madden made his mark on the Central Coast


John Madden, right, with Pat Lovell, teammates at Cal Poly in the late 1950s. (photo courtesy Cal Poly)

Legendary Hall of Fame football coach, broadcaster and video game personality John Madden made lasting connections on the Central Coast.

When he died unexpectedly at his home in Pleasanton on Dec. 28 at age 85, an outpouring of grief and condolences followed from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo.

Madden is one of the most successful coaches in pro football history. He became head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 1969 at the age of 32.

In the 10 years that ensued, he amassed a National Football League record of 103-32-7 with the Raiders, winning seven division titles, reaching the playoffs eight times and winning the Super Bowl in 1977.

He retired after the 1978 NFL season and his .759 winning percentage is the best of all-time for coaches with more than 100 games.

He retired at age 42 and transitioned into a broadcasting career that lasted nearly three decades, working for all four major television networks that broadcast football: CBS, FOX, ABC’s Monday Night Football coverage and NBC’s Sunday Night Football coverage.

He won 16 Emmy’s during his broadcasting career and covered 11 Super Bowls.

Throughout his entire journey, however, Madden never forgot his Central Coast roots.

The legendary coach played the majority of his college football career at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1957 and 1958.

In those two years Madden, a 6-4, 260-pound offensive and defensive lineman, earned all-California Collegiate Athletic Association honors for his work on the offensive side of the ball. He also played baseball for two years at Cal Poly.

John Madden at Cal Poly in the late 1950s. (Photo courtesy Cal Poly)

He graduated in 1959 with a bachelor’s degree in education and earned his master’s degree, also in education, in 1961.

After his NFL career was derailed by a knee injury in his rookie year in 1958, Madden transitioned into coaching, starting as an assistant coach at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.

During the 1960 football season, Allan Hancock went undefeated and won a state title. Madden served as the head coach of the team in 1962 and 1963 before accepting a position as an assistant coach at San Diego State, an NCAA Division 1 program.

“Coach Madden was a very special part of Hancock football history which players and coaches remember fondly,” Hancock Athletic Director Kim Ensing said in a statement.

“Our hearts are heavy, and we express our sincere condolences to his family.”

Even as he became a household name from the 70s-on, Madden continually spoke kindly about his alma mater, Cal Poly.

In the 1980s, Madden was a major fundraiser for Cal Poly’s athletic programs as he lent his name to an annual golf tournament, the school said in a statement.

He also was involved in Cal Poly’s 1991 athletics referendum which ultimately led to the Mustangs’ elevation to NCAA Division 1 status in 1994.

“You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has meant more to the sport of football than John Madden,” Cal Poly director of athletics Don Oberhelman said in a statement.

“As a former player and alumnus, his support and involvement in our football program has meant the world to all of us at Cal Poly.”

Madden was inducted into the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987.

“John Madden is a true Mustang, a legendary role model for us all, whether on the field, as a coach, a commentator or a husband, father and grandfather to his family. May he always lead the way and ‘Ride High’ among the Mustang family for generations to come,” Cal Poly president Jeff Armstrong said in a statement.

Cal Poly paid tribute to Madden during the Rose Parade Ceremony Jan. 1, with a last-minute change to their parade float with a small football with Madden’s name on it.

Though Madden will always be memorialized by his accomplishments in real life, his name will also continue to be honored through a football video game series.

Electronic Arts’ Madden NFL series is the most successful football video game franchise in history. The franchise has lasted 33 years, with its latest entry being Madden NFL 22.

Trip Hawkins, founder of EA, first met Madden in 1984 after Madden had agreed to lend his name and football prowess to the football simulation video game franchise.

Hawkins, now a Santa Barbara resident, founded EA in 1982, with the goal of creating a true football gaming experience.

“I played football and studied the game but wanted a successful coach to fill in some gaps in my knowledge that would help me make the first authentic football video game,” Hawkins told the Business Times via email.

“I had grown up watching him and his successful Raiders teams, so I knew he was a great coach. But he had also turned himself into a fabulous consumer brand with his smart and fun broadcasting style, making fun of himself in the Miller Lite commercials, as the ACE Hardware Man and as the author of a bestselling book. He was a wonderful collaborator – enthusiastic, smart and tireless.”

For years, Hawkins thought of launching a 7-on-7 football series, rather than a true 11-on-11 experience due to the limits of the hardware at the time, but Madden was not a fan.

“If it was going to be me and going to be pro football, it had to have 22 guys on the screen,” Madden once told ESPN.  “If we couldn’t have that, we couldn’t have a game.”

By 1988, the first 11-on-11 experience was finally created and launched to the public. For the first 12 years of the franchise’s existence, Madden was the cover of the game.

“He and I both cared about making an authentic football game, and it has endured with strength,” Hawkins said. “As a football brand, Madden could last as long as the game itself.”

Hawkins said Madden’s passing “is a very dear loss” to him adding that he feels as though “the keel of my boat is gone.”

“John Madden was a great teacher and father figure for me, and for my generation. Truly a coach at heart, but one with contrasting abilities that are surprising. Both versatile and a virtuoso, he embodied authenticity and humor, head and heart, ingenuity and determination, greatness and humility… all the while being both disciplined and completely casual,” Hawkins said.

He and Madden were very close in the decades that followed with Hawkins saying some of his favorite memories were being invited to many of Madden’s personal events, such as milestone birthday parties, where he met team owners and other Hall of Fame players and coaches.

“His wife Virginia for many decades made sure I got a big box of chocolates every Christmas. They are a great family,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins grew up in Southern California and spent most of his adult life in the Bay Area, but has called Santa Barbara in recent years.

“The Central Coast is unique, with relatively unspoiled natural beauty and a balanced approach to life,” Hawkins said.

“There’s better health and less burnout, with integrated values that include mindfulness, compassion, nature, and spirituality.”

Madden is survived by his wife of 62 years, Virginia, and two children, Joseph and Michael.