February 4, 2011
On February 4, 1969 the Oakland Raiders elevated John Madden, an assistant coach in charge of linebackers, to head coach. At 32 (he would turn 33 prior to the ’69 season), Madden, hardly the household name that he would later become, was the youngest head coach in either the AFL or NFL.
Madden succeeded John Rauch, who had compiled a 35-10-1 record over three seasons (including the playoffs) that included an AFL Championship in 1967. However, Rauch had clashed with Al Davis, the managing general partner, and resigned to take over as head coach in Buffalo (signed to a four-year contract, he lasted just two seasons as the Bills went 7-20-1). Davis had originally come to the Raiders as head coach (as well as general manager) and had served in that capacity for three seasons prior to a short stint as commissioner of the AFL, but made clear upon Rauch’s departure that he would not serve again in that capacity.
Davis chose to stay within the organization and elevated Madden instead of offensive line coach Ollie Spencer. The burly young coach had played tackle in college at California Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo and received all-conference honors. Drafted in the 21st round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1958, a preseason knee injury brought a quick end to his pro career – although he did receive mentoring from Hall of Fame QB (and future pro head coach) Norm Van Brocklin. From there he went into college coaching and advanced through the ranks, with four years at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, California (two as head coach) and two years as defensive coach at San Diego State (on the staff of another future NFL head coach and mentor, Don Coryell). He joined the Raiders coaching staff under Rauch in 1967.
It was anticipated that going with a new coach who was already associated with the team would maintain stability, and with the club’s recent success, significant change was hardly in order. The Raiders had won the AFL Western Division for the second straight year in 1968 with a 12-2 record, defeating the Chiefs to break a tie at the top of the standings but then losing the league title game to the Jets.
There was no letdown under the new coach in 1969 as Oakland once again topped the division at 12-1-1. The offense was explosive, and QB Daryle Lamonica (pictured with Madden below) had an MVP season (UPI) as he led the AFL in its last pre-merger season in passing yards (3302), TD passes (34), pass attempts (426), and completions (221) – although also in interceptions, with 25. Deep-threat WR Warren Wells caught 47 passes for a league-leading 1260 yards and 14 touchdowns, while possession WR Fred Biletnikoff ranked second in pass receptions (54) and gained 837 yards while adding another 12 TDs.
Speedy HB Charlie Smith led the club with 600 yards rushing and also caught 30 passes and FB Hewritt Dixon, hindered by injuries but effective when healthy, added 398 yards on the ground and 33 receptions. The offensive line featured All-AFL performers in C Jim Otto, G Gene Upshaw, and OT Harry Schuh.
The defense was known for its aggressiveness and featured ends Ike Lassiter and Ben Davidson and tackles Carleton Oats and Tom Keating on the line. Gus Otto was an AFL All-Star for his play at right outside linebacker, while Dan Connors held down the middle. The backfield was outstanding and included cornerbacks Willie Brown and Nemiah Wilson plus FS Dave Grayson and SS George Atkinson. Oakland’s opponents completed just 38.9 percent of their passes. In addition, 42-year-old backup QB George Blanda was still one of the game’s most reliable placekickers and Mike Eischeid a good punter.
However, the ’69 season ended in disappointment. For the league’s last year, instead of the two division champions vying directly for the title, an extra layer was added to the postseason, with each first place team facing the second place finisher in the other division. The Raiders had no trouble disposing of the Houston Oilers, who finished second in the Eastern Division with a 6-6-2 record, bombarding them by a score of 56-7. The Jets, top finishers in the East and seeking a second consecutive title, lost to the Western Division’s second place team, the Chiefs, by a 13-6 tally. Oakland had beaten Kansas City in both meetings during the regular season, but in the final AFL Championship game, it was the Chiefs prevailing, 17-7, and then going on to defeat the champions of the NFL, the Minnesota Vikings, in the Super Bowl.
Success during the regular season followed by disappointment in the playoffs became a near-annual event, and the Raiders developed a reputation as a good team that couldn’t win the big games. In 1970, they won the division and advanced to the first AFC Championship game, but lost to the Colts. After going 8-4-2 and missing the postseason in ’71, the Raiders were back atop the AFC West at 10-3-1 in 1972 but lost in gut-wrenching fashion to the Steelers in the Divisional round as a result of the “Immaculate Reception” touchdown by RB Franco Harris. They were back in the conference title game in ’73 but lost to Miami. In 1974 and ’75 they also made it to the AFC Championship game, and lost to the Steelers both times.
Finally, Oakland went the distance in 1976, going 13-1 during the regular season and handily beating Pittsburgh for the conference title. In the Super Bowl, the Raiders defeated Minnesota in convincing fashion to finally achieve the elusive NFL Championship.
Madden coached for two more years but stepped down after the 1978 season. An animated and excitable coach, he had developed stomach ulcers and chose to leave the profession at age 42. He would, of course, transition into a long and prominent career broadcasting pro football games. He would also achieve recognition for his coaching achievements, gaining induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
Madden’s coaching record was 103-32-7 in the regular season, for a gaudy .763 winning percentage (the highest in league history for a head coach with at least ten seasons), and his teams went 9-7 in the postseason, including the one NFL title.