Millennials and Gen-Zers know John Madden as the namesake of a popular video game franchise, but what really defined him in flesh and blood was his passion for the body-smashing game of football. He reveled in it as a coach, most famously for 10 years with the wild and crazy Oakland Raiders, and as a kinetic TV broadcaster who brought viewers into the action.
Madden began his coaching career in 1960 at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria while earning a master’s degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he had played some football and baseball. Santa Barbara native Ernie Zampese, who was on the Hancock staff, recalled several years ago that Madden “was an extremely bright guy. He had that persona. He was a leader. He loved being that guy.”
When I had a conversation with Madden himself about his friendship with Zampese, a longtime NFL assistant coach, he talked at length about the Santa Maria tri-tip barbecue that both enjoyed. Besides football, food — the hearty kind, not the gourmet kind — was one of Madden’s favorite topics.
He met his future wife, Virginia Fields, in a Pismo Beach bar when both were Cal Poly students. They were married on December 26, 1959, at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Santa Maria. They had two sons. Virginia Madden gave a rare interview to the Santa Barbara News-Press in 1984, divulging that during her husband’s high-pressure coaching years, “if there were problems at home, I didn’t discuss them. I didn’t want to add to his problems.”
The decade Madden worked for Al Davis’s Raiders was both sweaty and sweet, peaking with a triumph in Super Bowl XI. His NFL coaching record was 103-32-7. “Winning is a great deodorant,” he once said.
He died last month at his home in Pleasanton, two days after his and Virginia’s 62nd anniversary, one of the most colorful figures in sports gone but not forgotten.
The sense of humor that often exploded from Madden seems to be lacking in many present-day coaches. Alabama’s Nick Saban is notoriously grim, although I suspect he can loosen up behind closed doors after watching him subvert his reputation in a TV commercial.
Old-school coaches like Duffy Daugherty, who fielded some of the nation’s most powerful teams at Michigan State in the ’50s and ’60s, could find levity in a crushing defeat. His heavily favored Spartans were upset by UCLA, 14-12, in the 1966 Rose Bowl game. “After we lost to UCLA, I caught the flu and had to go to bed,” Daugherty related. “Here comes this telegram saying, ‘The Board of Trustees wishes you a speedy recovery by a vote of 4 to 3.’”
Daugherty had actually fled from Pasadena to Santa Barbara, where he played golf with his old friend “Cactus” Jack Curtice, the coach of UCSB’s erstwhile football team and another man who could handle defeat with humor — and he had more practice at it than Daugherty.
Curtice had a 14-36 record as Stanford’s head coach before he came to UCSB. His son Jim recalled that after a loss to UCLA, he was asked what was the turning point of the game. “When they played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” he replied.
Curtice retired with a winning record at UCSB and was named College Division Coach of the Year in 1965 when the Gauchos went 8-2. One of their signature wins was by a 3-0 score at Hawai‘i on a field that was swamped by heavy rain. Curtice joked that when they looked for the ball that Steve Ford had kicked for the winning field goal, they found out it was a catfish.
When the old coach was a candidate for cardiac surgery, his Santa Barbara physician recommended Stanford’s medical center. Curtice thought it over and decided to choose another venue so he could “live to coach another day.”
Daugherty settled in Santa Barbara after his retirement. He died in 1987, outliving his friend Curtice by five years. A gallery of Hall of Fame players and coaches attended his funeral at the Old Mission. During his coaching days, Daugherty resisted bringing religion into the game. “All those football coaches who hold dressing-room prayers before a game should be forced to attend church once a week,” he said. “The good Lord has more to worry about than the outcome of a football game.”
Francie Daugherty, the coach’s wife, who is buried with him at Calvary Cemetery, told me an interesting story about Duffy’s relationship with Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama coach. Daugherty ran an “Underground Railroad” at Michigan State, loading his teams with outstanding players from the Deep South. One such player, Jimmy Raye, was the first Black quarterback of a national championship team.
Before segregation broke down at Alabama — thanks in no small part to Santa Barbara’s Sam Cunningham and the 1970 USC team — Bryant recommended several Southern Black players to his friend at Michigan State. In return, Francie Daugherty said, her husband told Bryant about a promising quarterback from Pennsylvania who did not meet Michigan State’s academic requirements. Joe Namath wound up at Alabama and led the Crimson Tide to the 1966 national title.
Another witty coach from that era was USC’s John McKay. After the Trojans suffered a 51-0 loss to Notre Dame, he told his team, “All those who need showers, take them.” He coached the Tampa Bay Bucs in their inaugural season when they went 0-14, and when a reporter asked about his team’s execution, McKay replied, “I’m in favor of it.”
Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly twisted that zinger into an unfunny comment after a game last season. “I’m in favor of execution,” he said. “Maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight. We just didn’t execute very well.” Kelly was one of the coaches who recently jumped to richer pastures, LSU signing him to a 10-year, $95 million contract. For that kind of money, Tiger nation expects plenty of Ws — wins, not witticisms — and maybe that makes it harder for these guys to be mirthful.