John Madden died unexpectedly Tuesday morning at the age of 85, and tributes have been pouring in for the legendary former head coach, broadcaster and pitchman. His announcing partnership with Pat Summerall forged an indelible mark on NFL fans across several generations.
The first game Madden and Summerall announced together was in 1979 for CBS. Summerall’s partner on the network’s top announce team, Tom Brookshier, was on break to introduce his daughter at a debutante ball.
Madden had retired from coaching in 1978 after 10 years with the Raiders that had included one Super Bowl championship. He began broadcasting for CBS in 1979, first working with Bob Costas in a tryout, and subsequently several other play-by-play people including Frank Gleiber, Dick Stockton, Gary Bender and Vin Scully.
On this day with Summerall, afraid of heights in a live shot outside the booth, Madden was noticeably ill.
“Sweat droplets ran down his face and he was flushed,” Summerall wrote in his autobiography. “I worried that he might be having a heart attack. If not, he certainly didn’t appear ready for primetime.”
Nevertheless, Madden settled down when they returned to the booth, and the pair quickly found chemistry.
“For two guys who had never worked together before, we fell into a natural rhythm very quickly,” Summerall wrote. “With other temporary partners, I had often resorted to hand signals to let them know when I was done speaking, but it wasn’t necessary in John’s case. We were in sync.”
CBS had grown concerned with the partnership of Summerall and Brookshier. While the duo received plenty of praise that they were just like family members inside viewers’ living rooms, they were a rowdy pair with their heavy drinking.
The duo had a heck of a swan song. At Super Bowl 15 in New Orleans, Summerall said that their hotel party room tab stretched “all the way across the lobby.” Brookshier analogized it to the Magna Carta.
The following Fall, in 1981, two years after they were paired as temporary partners, Madden and Summerall were tabbed as CBS’ top NFL announce team — after Summerall beat out Scully in two months of live auditions. Madden and Summerall would remain together, at CBS and later Fox, through Super Bowl 36 (Rams vs. Patriots) in 2002.
The pair worked wonders. Summerall, who died in 2013 at age 82, was succinct and understated. Madden’s enthusiasm for the game magically crossed through the television screen, akin to how he would burst through the wall in a classic Miller Lite commercial.
“I don’t know if anyone learned from Pat Summerall what the secret to his success was, but I’ll tell you what it was,” Madden said in a biography of himself written by Bryan Burwell. “A lot of play-by-play guys think they have to lead the analyst where they want him to go, which is a really huge mistake.
“Too many of them often lead the analyst to a place where he doesn’t want to go, or even worse, where he’s not prepared to go. But Pat’s genius was that instead of leading you, he would always tag you. In other words, he would let you start and talk about something you felt was significant, then let you go, and then put his commentary on the end of whatever you were saying.”
Lance Barrow, a producer who worked with Madden and Summerall at CBS Sports, echoed these sentiments for how Summerall would tee up his broadcast partners.
“What made him wonderful, and one of the best who’s ever done that job, he let the analyst — be it Tom Brookshier, John Madden, or Ken Venturi or Tony Trabert on golf and tennis — he’d make them the star, and he let them be what they were supposed to be,” Barrow said in 2016. “Analyze the action. Analyze the game. And Pat would get them from Point A to Point B or Point C, and he never got in the way of his analyst.”
Bob Stenner, who worked with the duo at CBS and Fox, concurred, providing an illuminating analogy.
“What’s interesting is that they were not the kind of guys who would hang out together, but on Sundays, they just complemented each other,” Stenner said. “It was just a great style. Pat didn’t say much. John could be all over the place like you put in a pinhole in a balloon and it would fly all over the place; Pat had an ability to land safely.”
Stenner spoke about how the pair’s authenticity and enthusiasm resonated with audiences.
“I always preached that you can’t be a different guy when that red light goes on,” he said. “You’ve gotta just be you. It’s not like you’re an actor, where you’re one way before a game and another during it. That really doesn’t work. People see through it. Don’t take the viewers for granted. They’re smarter than we think.
“I don’t think there’s a big secret to being good. The secret is just to have people like you. Likability. I don’t like tension. There’s enough s–t going on. I just want to relax on Sunday. I don’t want to sit on the edge of my chair. I want to sit back in my chair and enjoy the day. Pat and John allowed you to do that. You felt like you could approach them on the street and tell them you liked their work without their jumping down your throat. They were people’s people. They just were. To me, that’s the secret. You’ve got to want people like you. Don’t be phony about it. Just be who you are.”