I actually liked Al Davis. But in the last few years, the feeling wasn’t mutual. He told me I wasn’t writing any positive stories about his Raiders, and I reminded him that his Raiders were awful on the field and that he was spending too much money on players — JaMarcus Russell, for one — who weren’t worth a dime.
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One thing about Davis, who died Saturday morning at 82, although we all believed he would live to be a 100, was that he was forever passionate about his team and pro football. There was no one in the game, especially on the ownership side, who knew the game as intricately as Al. He was an excellent scout, an assistant coach, a successful head coach, an astute general manager and one of the most competitive owners the NFL has ever seen.
As a young commissioner of the American Football League, he helped bring the mighty NFL to its knees by devising a plan to go after the more established league’s best players and quarterbacks. It led to the merger of the two leagues in 1970 and for years many of the old-guard owners resented Davis for his actions, something today’s fans take for granted.
The Packers may be today’s best team, but the Patriots, a former AFL franchise, were the most dominant team of the last decade. And Davis deserves some credit for the current landscape of the NFL.
But Davis was always singular with his motives. When his franchise was struggling financially in Oakland, he jumped at the chance to move the Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982. It led to a bitter federal anti-trust case that Davis won, to the shock of the late Pete Rozelle and most NFL owners.
Davis took on the establishment, believing that eventually pay-TV was coming to pro football and he wanted to own its largest television market. It never worked out the way Davis wanted, and he wasn’t the greatest marketing man, and that’s why he eventually returned to Oakland.
Along the way, he collected $10 million from the tiny Southern California town of Irwindale, telling those folks he may move there, before taking $30 million from Oakland to return.
Granted, the year was 1995, but when considering those sums — a total that he paid Nnamdi Asomugha the last two seasons — he made a bad financial deal. But he really thought Los Angeles treated his team poorly and he longed for the good, old days when his team dominated and lived in Oakland. It was a common Davis trait. He loved to live in the past, and relive the glory days. I do believe he finally hit on the right coach in Hue Jackson, who has restored a form of toughness to the Raiders.
Undoubtedly, one of his greatest attributes was that Davis was color blind. When he made his Hall of Fame lineman, Art Shell, the team’s head coach in 1989, Shell was the only African-American head coach in the NFL. What Davis did was open the doors for others like Tony Dungy, Marvin Lewis, Lovie Smith and Mike Tomlin. Today, there are eight minority head coaches in the NFL when 25 years ago there were none.
In the 1980s, the Raiders won two of their three Super Bowls. With Jim Plunkett throwing and Tom Flores as head coach, the Raiders beat the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV and then demolished the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII, 38-9. Davis was on top of the football world. Those teams were full of amazing talent, players that Davis either drafted or traded for, like Howie Long, Ted Hendricks, Mike Haynes, Marcus Allen and Dave Casper, all Hall of Famers. And some, like receiver Cliff Branch and cornerback Lester Hayes, were borderline players worthy of induction. In fact, Plunkett is the only two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback not in the Hall.
Davis forever had the eye of a talent scout, and he loved resurrecting the careers of former first-round players, players who may have fallen on tough times.
Plunkett, the Heisman winner from Stanford, was the perfect example. Plunkett was beaten up while quarterbacking the Patriots, but once his body healed, the Raiders were able to protect him and he did the rest in the biggest of games.
Haynes was having contract problems in New England, and somehow Davis was able to get him, a move that is more typical today in the age of free-agency. Somehow, Al was always willing to spend the extra money in order to win.
Loyalty was another Davis quality. To this day, Plunkett works on Raiders’ telecasts and his former Hall of Fame center, Jim Otto, was a companion at Raiders games for decades until poor health made it rough for both men to attend.
Just Win, Baby. That’s all Davis really cared about while collecting enough money to simply lead a good life. He wasn’t really serious about stockpiling money. He knew his team came from a blue-collar city and most of his fans were blue-collar people. Even today, the Raiders have strong followings in the African-American and Mexican-American communities. To many of those fans, the Black Hole is heaven on earth.
In 1963, the Raiders, at the time a struggling franchise in the young AFL, hired the 33-year-old Davis to be their head coach and general manager. Davis immediately reversed the team’s fortunes and was named the AFL’s Coach of the Year in his first season.
On Davis’s watch, the Raiders won Super Bowls XI, XV and XVIII. His team might have won more, but in the 1970s the Pittsburgh Steelers were also very good. Twice, the Steelers knocked the Raiders out of the playoffs, beginning with The Immaculate Reception, one of the most storied plays in NFL history. Davis was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1992.
What will happen to the Raiders? Many believe Davis has left his majority shares to his son, Mark, who has been more visible in the team’s offices the past five years. A few years ago, to keep the franchise solvent because the team wasn’t selling out in Oakland, Davis sold a percentage of the team to New York investors.
Some believe that Mark will sell the team, possibly to Los Angeles investors, or to people who would return the team to Los Angeles. Many NFL owners would be in favor of such a move now that Al Davis has passed.