To Tom Flores, John Madden’s gift lay at the crossroads of intellect and work ethic.
The duo spent seven years as colleagues, with Madden hiring Flores in 1972 as the receivers coach for the Oakland Raiders. The interview felt like more of a formality, the man who eventually succeeded Madden as head coach of the Raiders in 1979 said with a laugh: Flores had been a quarterback for the Raiders for seven seasons in the 1960s, playing for owner (and then-coach) Al Davis, and he felt sure that his hire was directed by the strong-willed owner.
But whether the relationship was organic or had been highly encouraged, Flores believes they complemented each other well. Madden offered brilliant defensive expertise; Flores’ background was steeped in offensive experience. Each strove to live by a value Flores’ father had imparted.
“Roll up your sleeves and go to work,” Flores told USA TODAY Sports by phone Tuesday night. “John was a good coach. He was a working man’s coach.
“A relentless worker.”
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This work ethic was evident throughout the game preparation. But memories of game day floated more readily Tuesday night for Flores, who at 84 years old reminisced after a dinner of soup.
He remembered discussing opponent tendencies and game strategy, the most memorable leading up to a 1977 AFC divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Colts. Studying film, Flores suspected the safety was sneaking up when receivers ran ‘in’ routes. Opportunity thus awaited tight end Dave Casper, aka “The Ghost,” in the post. The time needed to be right, but Flores anticipated quarterback Ken Stabler and Casper could capitalize. During the game, Flores called down from the booth to the sideline to advise Madden it was time. The iconic “Ghost to the Post” play helped the Raiders force overtime. They won the game in double-overtime, 37-31, on the third of Casper’s three touchdowns to advance to the AFC championship game.
“I saw during the week in practice film from games that whenever the opponent would go into a certain formation, they would run a certain coverage,” Flores said. “When that happened, ‘Ghost’ had a chance to be open for a big play. It had to be a big play, and it had to be a spectacular throw and catch.
“Casper made an incredible catch.”
“Ghost to the Post” was an on-field highlight of their time together, but Flores learned a lot from his predecessor, too. Madden’s talents ranged from his knack for implementing key plays at key moments to his necessary interpersonal skills.
Madden taught Flores “how to get along with Al Davis,” Flores said.
“Working for the Raiders, that was very important. I paid attention, watched him interact with Al. Because Al was not an easy to guy work with or for.”
After Madden died Tuesday at 85, Flores thought back to another surreal exit: after the Raiders’ Super Bowl XI victory. Raiders players hoisted Madden into the air, carrying him off the field.
“That was it,” Flores said. “These are his guys. They had grown up in the system with the Raiders under his head coach tutelage.
“No better feeling than that.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter: @JoriEpstein