They became football legends, although not the way they once planned.
John Madden and John Robinson rose to prominence as coaches, not players, their lives had intertwined since they met as fifth-graders at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in a neighborhood south of San Francisco.
“Just two doofuses from Daly City,” said Robinson, 86, the former USC and Rams coach wistfully repeating a phrase the two pals used often over the course of their nearly 80-year friendship.
They met as rival catchers at a youth baseball clinic, each sizing up the other and essentially saying, “Well, I know I can beat out that guy.”
They became fast friends, two dreamers dead set on playing professional sports while, in their minds, setting objectives that were realistic and readily reachable.
“Our plan was to play for the Yankees and the 49ers,” said Robinson, who was eight months older. “But we weren’t going to play basketball.”
Robinson spoke by phone this week from his home in Baton Rouge, La., and reminisced about his lifelong buddy who died unexpectedly Tuesday at 85.
“He was a brilliant guy,” Robinson said. “A lot of people miss that about him. His social intelligence — I don’t even know if that’s a word — but understood people. He could look at people and tell you a lot about them. He just had that ability.”
Most impressive to Robinson was the way Madden, hired by Al Davis to coach the Oakland Raiders, could keep that collection of renegades in line. At 32, Madden was the youngest head coach in American Football League history.
“John slept and ate a lot.”
John Robinson, on lifelong friend John Madden when they lived together in school
“They were hard to handle,” Robinson said. “And John handled them just as easy as you could a group of choir boys.”
Though they would attend different high schools, Madden and Robinson maintained their friendship throughout their teenage years, working as caddies together at the Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, driving around in beat-up cars supplied by Madden’s father, an auto mechanic, and talking endlessly about football.
After graduating from Junipero Serra High, the eventual alma mater of Barry Bonds and Tom Brady, Robinson headed to the University of Oregon, where he played end on the 1958 Rose Bowl team.
Madden, who attended Jefferson High, had a brief stint with Robinson at Oregon before suffering a knee injury that scuttled his season. The two lived together with four other guys.
“John slept and ate a lot,” Robinson said with a chuckle.
There were other memories, one of which is now part of Eugene lore. It involved Madden and roommate Jim Bailey, a star on the Oregon track team. A graduate student from Australia, Bailey would go on to run for his country in the Olympics and also became the first man to break the four-minute mile on American soil, in a race at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
But on this particular night, Madden broke him.
“We were sitting around drinking beer, and I came up with this thing that John Madden could beat Jim Bailey in a race,” Robinson said. “Everybody laughed, Jim laughed. And I said, 'No, I’m serious.’ ”
What started as chatter turned into an excited commotion that spilled out into the street outside the Sigma Chi house at about 1 a.m. Robinson was the hype man.
“I was taking bets,” he said. “John and I had about four dollars between us and we had bets out for probably 50 bucks. So I’m coaching John, saying, 'You’ve got to win this damn thing.’ They walked off a sprint of about 70 yards through the main street of the Oregon campus, and somehow it spread so there were about 150 people watching this race.
“John Madden killed him. We wound up with about 40 bucks. We went out and got good sandwiches. Oh, we had a helluva time.”
This wasn’t the beefy Madden that America grew to love, but a leaner version.
“He had slender legs,” Robinson said. “He had a sprinter’s legs on a big body. He could run. I used to say, 'John, that’s the highlight of your career right there.’ ”
Of course, it was just the beginning. Madden left Oregon and briefly attended College of San Mateo and Grays Harbor College before resuming his playing career at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where he started on the offensive and defensive lines, as well as playing catcher on the baseball team.
The Philadelphia Eagles selected him in the 21st round of the 1958 draft, and he spent one season there before a knee injury ended his career.
Madden returned to Cal Poly for his master’s degree in education, met his future wife, Virginia, and soon after began his coaching career at Allan Hancock Junior College. Meanwhile, Robinson finished his playing career in 1960 and joined the Oregon staff as an assistant coach. He would stay there until 1971.
Robinson and Madden had a pact. Whomever became a head coach first would hire the other as an assistant.
But when Madden got the Raiders job in 1969, and offered a position to his pal, Robinson had to turn it down. He had just been promoted to quarterbacks coach at Oregon, and a promising young prospect, future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts, was about to begin his college career.
Robinson eventually joined the Raiders for the 1975 season, sandwiched between stints as USC’s offensive coordinator (1972-74) and head coach (1976-82). He coached Oakland’s running backs and rode to and from work with Madden.
“He was emotional yet very intellectual as a coach,” Robinson said. “He knew how to press buttons for players. He had a phenomenal ability to keep a team together. They absolutely loved him. John would always say, 'Show up on time and be ready to play.’ He was the perfect fit for Al Davis, and Al knew it, too. John and Al were two very smart human beings.”
In his 10 seasons as coach of the Raiders, Madden guided them to seven Western Division titles, seven seasons with double-digit victories and eight playoff appearances. In 1976, the Raiders capped a 13-1 season with a victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl.
Robinson, who led USC to a national championship in 1978, coached the Rams from 1983 to 1991 and twice reached the NFC title game. His 75 victories are the most in franchise history. He returned to coach USC from 1993 to 1997, and later was coach then athletic director at UNLV, and more recently a consultant for coach Ed Orgeron at Louisiana State.
During the 2008 NFL season, when Madden was color analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” Robinson traveled with him for several of the games, at times flying to a city and joining him on the “Madden Cruiser” bus to the site of the next game.
Madden had a fear of flying and felt claustrophobic in planes. He didn’t even like riding in an elevator with someone else. He and Robinson were able to get a lot of work done on the bus.
“We would look at film and get a game plan together,” Robinson said. “He would study individuals, and I would look at a film off to the side a little bit, and then we would come together and talk about the game.”
The bus was the height of comfort. For one of them.
“He had a great big double bed in the back,” Robinson said. “I slept on a damn chair.”
Mealtime underscored just what made Madden the everyman the entire country embraced.
“We’d eat at some of the worst restaurants I’d ever seen,” Robinson said. “He’d say, 'Oh, there’s my kind of place.’ I’d say, 'John, that’s a hole-in-the-wall.’ For him, that was perfect.
“He ate everything he could get his hands on. It was the restaurants that catered to the average Joe. There was no intellectual quality. He just liked the people. He liked when a guy was smoking a cigar when he was cooking in back. That was his kind of place.”
Two friends, living the dream.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.