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Remembering John Madden: Alumnus and football legend dies at 85

A black and white photograph of two men in football uniforms in the 1950s.

Pro Football Hall of Famer John Madden, who played football and baseball in the late 1950s at Cal Poly before earning bachelor's and master's degrees and enjoying a highly successful career as a football coach and announcer in the National Football League, died Tuesday morning, Dec. 28.

Madden, who lived in Pleasanton, Calif., with his wife of 62 years, Virginia, was 85. The NFL announced his "unexpected" death and did not list a cause.

"John Madden is a true Mustang, a legendary role model for us all," said Cal Poly president Jeff Armstrong. "Whether on the field, as a coach, a commentator or a husband, father and grandfather to his family. May he always lead the way and 'Ride High' among the Mustang family for generations to come."

A black and white head shot of John Madden in 1958
John Madden in 1958.

In the 1980s, Madden was a major fundraiser for Cal Poly's athletic programs as he lent his name to an annual golf tournament. He also was involved in Cal Poly's 1991 athletics referendum which ultimately led to the Mustangs' elevation to NCAA Division I status in 1994.

"You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has meant more to the sport of football than John Madden," said Cal Poly director of athletics Don Oberhelman. "As a former player and alumnus, his support and involvement in our football program has meant the world to all of us at Cal Poly."

Madden was an imposing 6-foot-4-inch, 260-pound offensive and defensive lineman on Cal Poly's football teams in 1957 and 1958, earning all-California Collegiate Athletic Association honors as an offensive lineman, and also played baseball in 1958 and 1959 before he graduated with a bachelor's degree in education in 1959. He earned his master's degree, also in education, in 1961.

During Cal Poly's virtual commencement exercises last June, Madden received an honorary doctor of science degree (click here for speech).

Born on April 10, 1936, in Austin, Minn., Madden grew up in Daly City, Calif., graduating from Jefferson High School and working as a caddie at San Francisco Golf Club.

After one year at Oregon, Madden briefly attended College of San Mateo and Grays Harbor College before enrolling at Cal Poly to resume his football career. He started on both sides of the ball on the line and was a catcher on the Mustangs baseball team.

A 21st-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958 (the 244th selection overall), Madden was with the NFL club for one season before a knee injury halted his professional career. He never played in a regular season game with the Eagles.

Madden's coaching career began at Hancock College in Santa Maria, first as an assistant coach in 1960 and 1961, then two seasons as a head coach in 1962 and 1963. He was hired as a defensive assistant coach at San Diego State from 1964-66 under Don Coryell.

Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis hired Madden as a linebackers coach in 1967 and he replaced John Rauch as head coach in 1969, guiding the Raiders to a Super Bowl title following the 1976 season, a 32-14 triumph over Minnesota, and seven American Football Conference championship game appearances.

Madden was 103-32-7 in 11 seasons with the Raiders, including a 9-7 mark in postseason games. He never had a losing season as a head coach and still holds the Raiders record for most wins as head coach.

Following his retirement after the 1979 season, Madden turned his attention to the announcer's booth, winning an unprecedented 16 Emmy Awards for outstanding sports analyst/personality, and covering 11 Super Bowls for four networks from 1979 to 2009.

Madden started his broadcasting career on CBS, primarily with Pat Summerall, then moved to Fox in 1994, again with Summerall, and called prime-time games with Al Michaels at ABC on Monday nights and NBC on Sunday nights before retiring in 2009 following Pittsburgh's 27-23 win over Arizona in the Super Bowl.

Madden was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 2006, and was a charter member of the Cal Poly Athletics Hall of Fame in 1987. He also has been inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame, California Hall of Fame and National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame.

He wrote five books -- "Hey, Wait a Minute, I Wrote a Book"; "All Madden: Hey, I'm Talking Pro Football"; "The First Book of Football"; "One Size Doesn't Fit All"; and "Everything Else You Need to Know About Football".

He also lent his name to the EA Sports video game, Madden NFL, which has sold over 250 million copies, and appeared in two movies, "Little Giants" and "The Replacements".

John and Virginia Madden were married in 1959 in Santa Maria, Calif., and had two children, sons Michael and Joseph. Michael was a wide receiver at Harvard while Joseph played football at Brown. John and Virginia also have five grandchildren.

Services for Madden are pending.