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Imagine what might have happened had John Madden coached the Bills

John Madden was riding in his 45-foot-long luxury cruiser, motoring east toward Buffalo to work that week’s game between the Bills and New England 14 Decembers ago, when he gave me a doozy of a “what-if” story over the phone.

The man who already had established himself as a legendary football coach, broadcaster and video-game pitchman told me how he came close to taking a job with the Bills in 1969. Madden had served the previous two years as the Oakland Raiders linebackers’ coach and when head coach John Rauch resigned to take the Bills top job, he asked Big John to shuffle off to Buffalo with him. But Al Davis had other plans. The maverick Raiders owner believed Madden was an up-and-comer, and didn’t want to lose him. So, a few weeks after Rauch departed, Davis shocked the football world by giving the head coaching job to the burly, inexperienced 32-year-old.

“Rauch offered me a job with the Bills, and I seriously considered it,” Madden told me. “You wonder what would have happened had you taken that job.”

Perhaps he would have become a legend in Buffalo, where his prodigious appetite for food, drink, football and life would have been a table-smashing fit. But, given that dark period of Bills history, it’s more likely he would have been a flash in the pan. The career of a guy who feared flying probably never would have gotten off the ground. Had Madden left Oakland prematurely, it’s doubtful Fox Sports would be airing a two-hour tribute to this extraordinary, multi-faceted 85-year-old on Christmas Day.

What we do know is that Rauch, after employing the crazy strategy of turning O.J. Simpson into a decoy, guided the Bills to a 4-10 record in 1969 and a 3-10-1 mark the following year before being fired. And what we also know is that things worked out marvelously for Madden in Oakland. Davis told him to “Just win, baby!” And Madden did just that, leading the Silver and Black to 112 wins and a Super Bowl title in 10 seasons before retiring from coaching in 1978 because of ulcers caused in part by aerophobia.

The lovable lug then made a smooth transition from the sidelines to the announcer’s booth, and became a huge hit with fans who enjoyed his down-to-earth, light-hearted, avuncular approach to a game many analysts had treated like matters of life and death. Madden definitely put the color into color commentary, punctuating his comments with “Booms!” “Bams!” and “Pows!” while using his Telestrator to diagram plays and highlight Gatorade victory showers on the sidelines.

His unbridled love for the game clearly resonated during a broadcasting career that saw him win 16 Emmy Awards while working for five different networks. And his influence continues to be felt a generation later with his eponymous, best-selling video football game.

“I’ve had three different careers and they’ve all been pretty good,” he told me in 2007. “And none of them were planned. After we lost the championship game in 1968, Rausch leaves and I get to take over a football team loaded with talent when I’m just 32-years-old. That wasn’t planned. After I retire from coaching, I start broadcasting, and I’m still at it 30 years later. That wasn’t planned. And our video games originally were just supposed to be a teaching tool used by high school coaches. So that wasn’t planned, either.”

Madden’s .759 winning percentage remains a record among NFL coaches with at least 100 victories. Four of his wins came against Buffalo, but the Bills game that made the greatest impression was the one he lost in Orchard Park on Sept. 16, 1974. With 26 seconds remaining in that Monday night contest, Joe Ferguson fired a 13-yard touchdown pass to Ahmad Rashad to give Buffalo a 21-20 victory and hand the Raiders their first prime-time loss in 13 appearances.

“After the game, I’m getting onto the team bus and (legendary announcer) Howard Cosell says to me, ‘Hey, John, thanks a lot. You put on a great show for us. We needed that,’” Madden recalled. “I said, ‘Show, my butt. It might be a show for you, but it’s our livelihood.’ We just lost a heartbreaker and a guy’s congratulating me for a great show. I went berserk on Howard. That’s the biggest thing I remember about that night, reaming out Howard.”

Madden, though, also remembered how electric the atmosphere was that night in the stadium then known as Rich.

“That’s one of the things I always liked about Buffalo, coaching there and doing games (as an announcer) there,” he told me while riding in that customized bus that became his main mode of transportation after swearing off flying for good following a panic attack in 1979.

“The energy is always great. Buffalo is one of the great venues in the NFL. I remember arriving for a Friday practice, and people were already tailgating in their RVs and motor homes. Most places, it’s a game-day thing. People show up the morning of the game and leave. But in Buffalo it’s a weekend thing. And I love that.”

It’s a place where he would have felt right at home had the circumstances been different and Davis not made him an offer he couldn’t refuse a half-century-and-change ago. Perhaps, after firing Rauch, Bills owner Ralph Wilson might have promoted Madden had Madden been on his staff. And perhaps Madden, rather than Lou Saban, would have been the one to resuscitate Simpson’s career and the Bills fortunes. We’ll never know. It’s a delectable “what-if.”

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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