When CBS hired John Madden, the former Oakland Raider football coach as an analyst before the 1979 season, the only thing they told him was, "Be yourself."
That may be particularly good advice in Madden's case because he is a well-rounded, engaging man -- a person. It is, too often, not enough advice, because many of the ex-jock sportscasters haven't been smark enough to adapt to a new situation; frequently, they don't work hard enough at it and soon fade out of the picture. Or they hang on long after they should be dumped.
"I could be myself," Madden said, "but what kind of self in this particular situation?" That was something I had to find out. I couldn't very well speak on the air the way I am talking to you now because I am not being short and dramatic, not being precise. I had never even been in a situation of watching a football game from a press box before.
"I was a sideline guy," he said. "I had always been in a game or watched from the sideline as a coach or assistant coach. After I quit Oakland and went to a game and sat in the stands for the first time, I didn't know what to do. I felt totally detached from the pounding and the impact. Everything seemed distorted, the guys seemed smaller. I felt out of place, I left."
He prepared for his work by talking to anybody he knew in the TV business, going up to the broadcast booth for Raider games when he wasn't working. I always like to know the whole picture of anything I am involved with." And when he rides trains across the country to each assignment, he listens to what fans tell him about his announcing, picking out what he thinks might be helpful.
"I've found that viewers can follow certain technical details," he said. "When I tried to explain the kind of stunting the 49ers did on the Giants, people talked to me afterward about the 49ers being able to blitz through the middle. They were repeating, in effect, what I had been talking about."
He said, "The descriptions for people in this job have changed. We have been called experts and color men. I would like to be regarded as an analyst who is somewhat entertaining."
He showed a nice balance of analysis and good humor in recent games.
He said he didn't wear all that phone and wire equipment when he was a coach roaming the sidelines because "I probably wasn't smart enough to listen and talk at the same time." He said coaches watch so much film, "the first thing to go with coaches are the eyes, not the legs." When a first-down call rested on how an official placed the ball down for the measurement, he said, "It's not always a game of inches; sometimes it's a game of spots." And in a discussion with sidekick Gary Bender about which crowds are the toughest, Madden gave the nod to Pittsburgh fans. "Pittsburgh is all-league in booing," he said. After one technical explanation, complete with the animated arm-gesturing that Bender kids him about, he said, "Does that make sense?"
As with all analysts, Madden's preparation consists of looking at game films during the week on the teams he is working that weekend. He has been making the point that "ever since mid-season, teams are going to the blitz more than ever. That seems to be the way they are coping with the new rules which make it easier for the passing game."
He explained how San Francisco was blitzing the Giants to death, suggesting that the Giants could beat it in one respect with short passes to receivers cutting on a diagonal into the middle. In a later conversation he also diagrammed how the Giants could adjust their blocking to counter the blitz, something he should have been led into on the air by Bender, who usually does set Madden up well. "I should have got that in, too, shouldn't I?" he said.
Football coaches long have reacted to critics by disparaging them, scoffing at reporters as nonknowing observers who hadn't seen the films. Now, more and more ex-jocks -- players and coaches -- are being critical on the air, and some football people are still responding with the knee-jerk line that "they haven't seen the films."
Madden, who was among the most successful of all coaches, responds, "I won't say anything critical unless I am sure. And if I say I'll stand by it.And let's face it, the game isn't such a mystery." He has been particularly enlightening with these observations.
On a field goal attempt, he said that good kickers don't look at the goal posts, but at the hash marks on the field, because the goal posts look narrower than the distance between those markers on the field.
About a player supposedly suffering the rookie blues, he said, "All their lives in high school and college, they are used to playing about 10 games a season. At that point, in the pros, they are only in mid-season, so there might be a letdown at this point."
When punter Dave Jennings was seen warming up with practice kicks on the sideline, Madden said, "I used to hate seeing my punter warming up on first down. I'd say, 'Doggone it, have confidence, sit down.'"
Each new analyst coming into the business has a set of fresh and interesting observations. The challenge is to build on the perceptions one brings to the job, to stay fresh and keep coming up with topical and incisive comments, not repeating oneself, while avoiding cliches and bad grammar and not grasping at superlatives.
Given Madden's intelligence, humor and an obvious interest in the TV business, it appears he has a good chance of averting those traps and developing into one of the best TV analysts. "I try not to state the obvious," he said. "If I do, I hate myself."