Instead of criss-crossing the country in his bus, John Madden could have been traveling on his own train for the past decade.
''I believe we came within about 12 hours of signing him back in 1994," Dick Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Universal Sports & Olympics, said yesterday during a conference call to announce that Madden would be joining the network as its game analyst when ''Sunday Night Football" makes its NBC debut in the 2006 season.
''Jack Welch, who was CEO of
Madden, 69, agreed to a six-year deal to become the first member of NBC's broadcast team in its return to the NFL. He will complete an NFL broadcasting Grand Slam next year. He began his broadcast career at CBS in 1980, joined Fox when it obtained the NFC rights in 1994, and moved to ABC in 2002, where he's worked alongside Al Michaels on ''Monday Night Football."
Michaels and Madden will work ABC's upcoming ''lame duck" year as it ends its run as an NFL broadcasting partner. It will be a long year, as the pair will do a wild-card playoff game and the Super Bowl in Detroit.
After that? Ebersol left no doubt he'd like to have Michaels and Madden continue as a team at NBC. ''When the NBA Finals are over [Michaels is doing play-by-play of that series for ABC], we'll talk extensively with Al," said Ebersol. ''He's clearly one of the great play-by-play announcers in TV history."
''Al called from Detroit to congratulate me," said Madden. ''I've been fortunate to work with great people: Pat Summerall for 20 years [CBS and Fox] and now Al. It doesn't get better than that."
Ebersol also confirmed two other rumors regarding possible hires: His NFL plans include ''a major role" for Bob Costas, already NBC's signature voice, and ''We will continue to talk with [Fox analyst] Cris Collinsworth once he returns from a vacation in China."
Ebersol also said NBC would go with a two-man broadcast booth in its return to the NFL. NBC gave up its NFL partnership in 1998, declining to bid to renew its AFC contract, which CBS has held since then.
Why would NBC hire Madden, who would be 75 when his NBC contract expires?
His video game for EA Sports -- ''Madden NFL Football" -- could be the reason. The game has sold more than 43 million units since its 1989 release.
''More than any TV figure, John resonates across all age groups," said Ebersol. ''Fathers remember watching him walk the sidelines as coach of the Raiders, kids know him from playing his game."
All the way he's kept his passion for the game, putting 14 Sports Emmys on his mantel. ''I've been in this business for 38 years, and I'm blown away by how passionate John is every time out of the box," said Ebersol, who knows something about bombast and analysts, especially those with the initials J.M. NBC has John McEnroe as its lead tennis analyst, Johnny Miller as its lead golf analyst on this week's US Open telecasts, and now John Madden.
Over the final seven weeks of the season, NBC will have the option of choosing its game, and Ebersol expects Madden to be a major voice in those decisions, including a dry run this season.
''One of the main reasons the broadcast component moved to Sunday was that the league felt that prime-time broadcast has tremendous growth potential," said Ebersol. ''It also made the flex schedule possible because games would only shift a maximum of seven hours," an inconvenience to fans and teams that's more palatable than moving a Sunday game to Monday on short notice.
Decisions on switching games would be made 12 days out.
''The way it's set up is that the network with the national Sunday doubleheader gets to protect one game," said Ebersol, ''and we'd have our pick of the rest." As a result, the late game would be either the best or second-best potential matchup each weekend.
For the national viewer, it means a surprise team such as Pittsburgh -- which wasn't on ''Monday Night Football" last season -- could get a late-season showcase (or two) on ''Sunday Night Football."
Madden says it won't be awkward working this season. ''We're doing the NFL on ABC with a first-rate crew," he said. ''It goes all the way to the Super Bowl. After that, I go to work for NBC."
Where will it all end?
''Who knows?" said Madden. ''I never saw any of this coming. But I know one thing: I want to do this forever."
But he'll be doing it by bus. The train left the station years ago.