Al Davis: a football maverick remembered

During his many years as the coach and chief executive of the Oakland Raiders, Al Davis had one simply stated motto: 'Just win, baby.'

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
In this 1998 file photo, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis gives a thumbs-up to fans prior to the game with the Kansas City Chiefs, in Oakland, Calif. The Oakland Raiders announced Saturday, Oct. 8, that longtime owner and Hall of Famer Davis died.

Brass knuckles were as right for Brooklyn-raised Al Davis, the owner of the NFL Oakland Raiders, as diamonds were for the fingers of Elizabeth Taylor.

Davis, who died Oct. 8 at his home in Oakland, never did anything the conventional way. Al was a fiercely impatient man who was also a calculated risk taker. It didn’t make a difference to Davis whether he was taking on the commissioner of the National Football League or his two original partners with the Raiders.

The fact that many of his best players were picked up from rival NFL teams who got tired of explaining their off the field activities to police never bothered Al.

The name Al Davis first began to grow to billboard proportions when he was an assistant coach at The Citadel, a military school in South Carolina, except that this man who once sold hotdogs at Ebbets Field was never an assistant anything.

From there, Davis joined the coaching staff at the University of Southern California where two years of recruiting violations resulted in the Trojans football program being put on probation.

When USC head football coach Don Clark retired and the Trojans gave the job to John McKay, Davis was so upset that he joined the American Football League’s San Diego Chargers. Even though most fans have forgotten by now, it was Al who signed future pro football greats Lance Alworth and Keith Lincoln.

In 1962 the AFL's Raiders were a disaster area. They turned in records of 2-12 in 1961 and 1-13 in 1962. Co-owners Wayne Valley and Ed McGah liked Davis's nine years of experience as an assistant coach and hired him to be both general manager and head coach. The only boss Al Davis would ever have to answer to was himself.

For many years, Davis was consistently able to find quarterbacks, including Daryle Lamonica and Ken Stabler, who fit the Raiders' long-ball passing game. But when Jim Plunkett retired after the 1986 season, Al couldn’t seem to find anyone to take his place, perhaps the only time in his career when frustration tackled him from behind.

Davis built an organization that basically was an extension of himself. He didn’t believe in titles. Everybody under Davis was an administrative assistant.

With Davis in charge the Raiders went 10-4 in Al’s first year as head coach. After that came 15 division championships, four conference titles, and five trips to the Super Bowl. Three of those visits resulted in Raider victories, in 1977, 1981, and 1984 – the first with John Madden as head coach and the latter two achieved under Tom Flores, the NFL's first Latino head coach (Davis also hired African-American, Art Shell, a former Raider lineman, to break the league's coaching color barrier, and its first female chief executive, Amy Trask).

The team's 1984 Super Bowl victory occurred while the team was based in Los Angeles. It would take at least another 500 words to explain why Davis, who became a part owner of the team in 1966, moved the Raiders to Los Angeles.

When rival NFL owners voted 22-0 against it, Davis hit them with a $160 million lawsuit. Davis won, collecting millions in the process.

One of the things Davis explained after being named to pro football’s Hall of Fame in 1992 was the drive that helped him build the Raiders into champions.

“I always wanted to take an organization and make it the best in sports,” Davis said. “I admired the New York Yankees for their power and intimidation. I admired the Brooklyn Dodgers under Branch Rickey for their speed and player development. I felt there was no reason the two approaches couldn’t be combined into one powerful organization.”

Phil Elderkin is a former sports editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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