He was a great football commentator because he was great at commentating on football. That’s the best short-form tribute I can muster for John Madden, the broadcasting savant known for such gridiron axioms as “you bring what you got” and “if you’re going to lose, you lose.” Madden, who died on Tuesday at the age of 85, was better than anyone before or since at simplifying football’s complexities, using his trademark Telestrator to demystify the West Coast offense.
But those explications of X’s and O’s aren’t what made Madden an American icon—a jolly, wall-smashing beer pitchman and the namesake of one of the most enduring and influential game franchises ever. To understand his genius and appeal, you need to watch this clip from Super Bowl XXVI, in which the country’s favorite color commentator demystifies the indoor blimp.
“See what it is, is it’s a tethered blimp,” Madden told an audience of 80 million, drawing a bunch of yellow lines to highlight the wires keeping said blimp in place. He then focused on the camera dangling below the uncrewed aircraft, adding: “That’s the thing that you take the pictures with.”
On one level, this is a shtick—John Madden playing the part of John Madden, scribbling on the screen and saying goofy stuff. But that shtick didn’t feel forced or inauthentic. And watching that clip now, I’m struck less by the silliness than by Madden’s curiosity, and the joy he took in sharing it.
Given his larger-than-life appetites and fondness for saying “boom!” and “doink!,” Madden’s closest cultural analogue is probably the doltish sitcom dad. But Madden wasn’t Homer Simpson in a headset. What he proved every week, and what his imitators still haven’t figured out, is that an everyman doesn’t have to be an idiot.
Too many of Madden’s television peers think the best way to appeal to a mass audience—to be “relatable”—is to play dumb. I wrote about this phenomenon during the 2012 Olympics, when Meredith Vieira, an intelligent person who was no doubt assisted by a small army of researchers, described a stadium light show as “one more thing I don’t understand.” I don’t mean to pick on Vieira—proud professions of ignorance are a go-to broadcasting cliché. Tune in to pretty much any sports broadcast, and you’ll hear an announcer yukking it up about how he got a D in study hall and never mastered anything more advanced than the pick-and-roll or the bump-and-run.
As Bryan Curtis explained in the Ringer, Madden built trust with viewers by sharing what he knew, not reveling in what he didn’t. His broadcasts were a classroom, a place “where you’d get a little smarter and the professor would never act like he was smarter than you.”
You can see that Madden-as-teacher persona in this demonstration of the ins and outs of the Chicago Bears’ 46 defense.
But Madden didn’t need a whiteboard to get into teaching mode. Even his comedy bits, like this one about a family of buckets, are about dispensing knowledge.
Or consider this short lecture on the steam rising from offensive lineman Nate Newton’s bald dome, which veers toward observational humor—“You can have a barbecue on that head!”—even as it makes an important point about body heat in cold weather.
And then there’s this classic from 2002, where Madden shares his views on turducken.
One takeaway from this slice of television history is that John Madden is a large man who enjoys large quantities of meat. When he chops open the poultry Matryoshka with his bare right hand, his Monday Night Football partner Al Michaels can’t hide his delight and disgust. But this is also a lecture: In a handful of minutes, Madden explores the ins and outs of this culinary beast and how to slice it. I learned less in some college classes.
Madden was a coach, and he never pretended to be anything else. He understood that football wasn’t nuclear physics. But he was just as inquisitive as he was unpretentious. It’s that enthusiasm—for the technique of a pulling guard and the rigging of an indoor blimp—that I’ve missed the most since he’s left the booth.