What John Madden Learned from His Idol Vince Lombardi



John Madden was a standout offensive linemen in High School and College. He would earn his education/teaching degree from Cal Poly.

In 1958, he would get drafted in the 21st round of the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles. His annual salary was $7,000. His playing career got cut short when he sustained a knee injury his rookie year in training camp. He would never play a single game.

“I really thought I was going to play all my life. I never thought about life after playing.”

Madden’s morning rehabilitation sessions left him alone with quarterback Norm Van Brocklin [Norm would later coach the Vikings and Falcons] who was used to watching film by himself.

“I would finish in the whirlpool in the back and watch film with him. Soon I wouldn’t get in the whirlpool, I would just get their early in the morning and wait for Norm to come in. One day he [Norm] said to me, ‘You can sit up here with me.’, and what he was always trying to figure out was how to get the best players to do what they do best. That lesson would become part of my coaching. That is when I first started learning football.”

He also found that his love for teaching pulled him to coaching.

There was no coach that John Madden looked up to more than Vince Lombardi.

“Vince Lombardi was my idol. You have to have someone you study that you want to be like when you grow up. Vince Lombardi was that guy (for me). Anything that was ever written or said, or talked about Vince Lombardi I read.”

In 1960, John Madden became the assistant coach at Allan Hancock College, and was promoted to head coach in 1962. The following year he was hired to be the defensive coach at San Diego State.

While he was an assistant at San Diego State he saw that Vince Lombardi was going to give a coaching clinic in Reno, Nevada. He emptied his savings account to go to the clinic.

“I went up there and Vince Lombardi spoke on one play for eight hours. One play, eight hours. I couldn’t speak on any subject for more than two minutes. I realized at that point, I didn’t know a damn thing. I’m a bluff. My knowledge was just surface.”

The experience changed the way he studied the game and he started to become fanatical about football.

In 1966, John Madden was an assistant coach for the San Diego State Aztecs. One day an NFL executive came to visit. John had been working on a new defensive scheme to stop the South Dakota State Jackrabbit’s “win-T” offense. Madden was so excited about what he figured out that when the executive walked over, the burly red-headed assistant coach showed him. The executive was not only impressed, but he added a suggestion to the scheme. Several days later, the Aztecs defeated the Jackrabbits.

The NFL executive was Al Davis.

A year later in 1967, Al Davis hired John Madden as linebackers coach of the Oakland Raiders. Back then there was no Defensive Coordinator. The linebacker coach was basically the defensive coordinator because the middle linebacker called the defense.

The defense flourished under Madden, and they would tally up more sacks his first year than any other team in AFL history and made it to the Super Bowl.

In this same season he would play against his idol Vince Lombardi, which just so happened to be Vince Lombardi’s last game as the head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

“It was the thrill of my life to be on the same field as Vince Lombardi. I remember being directly across the field and looking at him and thinking to myself, I’m coaching against Vince Lombardi. This is the greatest feeling in the world.”

The Raiders would lose in the Super Bowl. The head coach of the Raiders left to coach the Buffalo Bills.

John Madden walked into Al Davis’s office and told him he would like to be the head coach.

“I told him. I can be a head coach. I’m only 32 years old which doesn’t’ mean a dog gone thing. I can either do it or I can’t do it.”

On Feb 4th 1969, John Madden at 32 years of age became the youngest head coach in Pro Football. He had a hard act to follow, stepping in on the back of a great season. He was up for the challenge.

John Madden would go on to win Coach of the Year his rookie season. He would win his first 100 games faster than anyone in football history. He never had a losing season.

John learned the fanatical elements of coaching from Vince Lombardi but he tweaked his methods to make his own unique style.

Madden’s methods were unorthodox. While everyone else was imposing Lombardi discipline, he scrapped the Raiders dress code, let his players sit on helmets, and encouraged individual expression.

“I didn’t have a lot of rules because a lot of the rules didn’t make any sense. They didn’t have anything to do with winning or losing. If you are going to have rules you better just have a few of them, and they better be simple so that they [players] all understand them so they can follow them.”

John Madden had three rules.

  1. Be on time
  2. Pay attention
  3. Play like hell when I tell you to

In addition, most other coaches were emotionless or stoic on the sidelines. The only time they showed emotion or yelled was at players. Madden was the opposite.

“You don’t want to yell at your players a lot during a game. I mean a guy drops a pass, there is no one who feels worse than the guy who dropped the pass. You don’t have to yell at him… You can always yell at the official.”

John Madden would coach the Oakland Raiders from 1969 – 1978, including the Super Bowl winning season of 1977. He retired from coaching at the age of 42. His winning percentage including playoff games ranks second in league history.

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