This article originally ran in The Tribune on July 3, 2009.
John Madden, a former Super Bowl winning coach of the Oakland Raiders and the face of pro football on Sunday and Monday nights before he retired from broadcasting in April, is arguably Cal Poly's most famous alumnus.
He was one of the university's biggest fundraisers in the history of its sports programs in the early 1980s and remained publicly visible in that capacity into the 1990s.
But though he has touted former Cal Poly stars like Mel Kaufman and Chris Gocong on national TV, he hasn't attended an official Cal Poly event since 1996.
Madden's absence has long been attributed to a controversy that arose in the handling of his last philanthropic endeavor in 1993, as well as his desire to see Cal Poly more committed to having a stronger football program.
Now that he's retired, the 73-year-old Madden told The Tribune that he could possibly get involved with the program again if the university gives its football program a higher profile.
A bigger stadium
The main reason for his distance from Cal Poly, he said in a recent telephone interview, was how the school allowed its football program to be significantly bypassed in facilities, opponents and opportunities by Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State. "They just jumped ahead of us, " Madden said of the three schools. "And if you look at those schools, they all have bigger stadiums."
Cal Poly collected nine wins against the three from 1952 to 1958, including a 4-1 mark from 1957 to 1958, when Madden was an offensive and defensive tackle for the Mustangs.
Now, more than 50 years later, the other three all play in stadiums seating at least 30,000, and enter seasons with eight guaranteed conference games at the Football Bowl Subdivision level (formerly Division I-A).
Cal Poly, on the other hand, accommodates fewer than 12,000 spectators and begins each scheduling period struggling to complement just four ensured conference dates in the Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA).
"That's still my idea, that Cal Poly needs a bigger stadium, " Madden said.
His optimism for such an upgrade has recently dimmed, though, in light of the nation's economic woes and California's budget problems.
"I wanted a bigger stadium to get back to bigger games against bigger-name teams, " Madden said. "It's something I talked about years ago. Now, you talk about it in this economy, and it's not a popular thing. I know the situation in California. I know that. It doesn't make sense to me to say the university should do more because people are losing jobs. So now is not the time to bring it up. But there was a time."
'There was a time'
Shortly after retiring as the head coach of the Raiders following the 1978 season, Madden lent his name to an annual charity golf tournament for Cal Poly.
Beginning in 1983, the John Madden Celebrity Golf Classic, usually played in early May at Blacklake Golf Resort in Nipomo or the Avila Beach Golf Resort, eventually raised $50,000 to $75,000 each year.
In 1991, when the school's athletic department was faced with arguably its biggest fiscal crisis ever, Madden stepped in. The school's students were presented with a referendum asking them to pay $35 more per quarter by 1994 in order to prevent the then- Division II school from dropping eight sports (including football) and instead elevate all of its 16 sports to the Division I level over the three-year span.
In an attempt to persuade the students to vote yes, Madden wrote to them: "Competitive athletics is the common thread that generates pride for students, alumni, faculty and the community alike. ... Even if you do not participate as a player, manager or spectator, there is a sense of satisfaction just in knowing Cal Poly is competing on a given weekend."
In the largest turnout in the history of the campus' elections, sports were saved by a 267-vote margin 5,318 to 5,051 (a 2.6-percent difference).
"It's what we needed, " Madden said of the support. "We were going to lose football. We came very close. It was something to fight for, so I was really heavily involved to keep it going."
Madden severed his fundraising ties to the university in 1993 when the golf tournament, featuring a raffle auction, was embroiled in controversy.
The tournament's director, former Mustangs football head coach Jim Sanderson, acknowledged later that he purposely chose a man's raffle ticket in order to give him the prize of a Hawaiian trip to make up for the previous year, when the man had won a similar prize only to have it wrongly claimed by someone else.
When the controversy came to light, Cal Poly fired Sanderson, who worked for the athletic department.
But the golf tournament scandal (which Sanderson profusely apologized for at the time) wasn't the main reason for Madden's estrangement.
From 1981 to 2004, while Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State moved up the ranks, Cal Poly appeared in just one postseason and failed to string together three straight winning campaigns.
"He (Madden) wanted to take a couple of years off and see where things were going to go," then-Cal Poly assistant athletic director Chuck Sleeper told The Tribune in 1995. "We interpreted him as saying, 'I want to see that Cal Poly is committed to having a strong program. I want to see where it's going.' "
Between 1993 and 1996 while the time demands on Madden grew as a video-game and product-endorsing icon the only personal contact he is believed to have had with a representative of the Cal Poly football program was a June 1994 lunch with then-Mustangs head coach Andre Patterson on the set of the movie "Little Giants" in Arroyo Grande.
"It's tough for us, " Sleeper said in 1995, "because honestly, we don't have (a relationship) with him."
The last time current Mustangs athletic director Alison Cone can recall Madden attending an official Cal Poly event was June 21, 1996, at the football program's 80-year reunion.
"I think what happened was those programs (Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State) went up here" he held his hand over his head "and Cal Poly went down," Madden told The Tribune that night. "And I don't like it down there."
Madden then added he wanted Cal Poly to have "the best state football college in California."
"That, to me, is a reachable goal," he said that evening. "We're talking apples and apples. We've been there and, with the right support, you can do that. ... The part that it's a small community and stuff that obstacle has to be eliminated."
Madden remains optimistic that when the economic outlook improves, there will be another opportunity for Cal Poly to build a bigger football stadium and enhance the program's stature.
"There'll be another window, " he said. "There's going to be another opportunity, but it's not now."
As for his own involvement with Cal Poly, Madden said "there may be a window," possibly depending on whether a larger stadium is built, when he and others who "got a free education" from the university could assist the program, potentially including "helping with more scholarships."
In the meantime, Madden said he plans to attend more Raiders games ("I have a box there") and watch more high school football, which he said both his sons coach.
April 10, 1936: Born in Austin, Minn.
1957-58: Starts at right offensive tackle and defensive left tackle for Cal Poly after transferring from Oregon and San Mateo College (near Daly City, his home since about 5 years old); also a catcher for Mustangs baseball team
Jan. 28, 1958: Chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 244th overall pick (in the 21st round) of the NFL Draft, but a knee injury during rookie training camp ends pro career
1959: Earns bachelor's degree in physical education from Cal Poly; marries Virginia Fields, whom he met at Harry's Bar and Grill in Pismo Beach
1960: Begins coaching career as interim spring head coach at San Luis Obispo High, and then as a line assistant at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria
1961: Earns master's degree in physical education from Cal Poly
1962-63: Allan Hancock head coach
1964-66: San Diego State defensive coordinator
1967-68: Oakland Raiders linebackers assistant
1969-78: Oakland Raiders head coach; wins Super Bowl XI in 1977
1979-93: Announces NFL games for CBS
1989: The first yearly "Madden NFL Football" video game debuts
1994-2001: Announces NFL games for FOX
2002-05: Announces "Monday Night Football" games for ABC
Aug. 5, 2006: Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame
2006-09: Announces "Sunday Night Football" games for NBC