Davis, Jobs had common characteristics
Judging by the makeshift memorials that have popped up in the Bay Area, it has been a good week to be in the floral industry here.
The deaths of Steve Jobs and Al Davis, titans of industry and icons of iconic brands, have brought forth flowers, candles, handmade signs and outpourings of not quite grief but disbelief that they are actually gone.
Never mind that Jobs had been ill and that Davis had been frail in recent years. For the acolytes who were drawn in by sentiment for their products — the optimism of beautiful technology and the defiance of a black-hat football team — the idea that their deaths were inevitable, never mind at hand, had always struggled to gain traction.
Now, all of a sudden, they are gone. So, like, uh, now what?
Jobs and Davis, iconoclastic and idiosyncratic, were indistinguishable from the companies they fronted, the products they produced and even the logos that were their proxies: the smart Apple with the byte, er, bite taken out of it, and the brazen one-eyed pirate in silver and black.
They were not just the brains, they were the embodiment. And because their deaths were separated by a matter of days, and they happened to be headquartered nearby, it is not hard to be struck by the similarities in style.
Davis and Jobs managed with an iron fist, demanding adherence to their outside-the-box vision and showing little patience for those who did not embrace it. They managed their images as fiercely as they did their underlings, bullying the media and speaking only when they had a message to sell. When they did appear in public, it was almost always in uniform — Jobs in his de rigueur black turtleneck and jeans, and Davis in an all-white jump suit or, if the occasion were formal, an all-black pinstriped suit ensemble.
And yet as dogmatic as they could be, the obituaries tell us, both were abidingly charitable and caring to those close to them, or those in need.
Where they diverge is in matters of substance, where the split is as distinct as the cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the East Bay.
For Jobs, form was paramount. There was an adapt-or-die ethos, a constant search for designs that would make technology alluring and the future one of endless possibilities. It made nerdy stuff cool.
Think Different said it all.
So, too, did the Raiders’ mantra. All of their style – the aura of intimidation, the roguish characters and the pompous rhetoric – was a matter of function, serving a solitary master: Just Win, Baby.
The Raiders were among the first teams to mine black colleges in the 1960s, finding future Hall of Famers like Willie Brown (Grambling) and Art Shell (Maryland-Eastern Shore), and Davis in 1968 had the audacity to draft a black quarterback in the first round (Eldridge Dickey), ten years before anyone else would.
Long before the NFL instituted the Rooney Rule, which mandates that teams interview minority candidates for head coaching jobs, the Raiders had already hired the first Latino coach (Tom Flores), the first black coach (Art Shell) and the first female executive (Amy Trask).
While Davis’ belief in equality certainly factored into those decisions, altruism was simply a cloak for the same reason Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson: they made the team better.
The remembrances of Jobs and Davis invariably refer to their genius, their roles as innovators, whose success came from their ability to operate ahead of the industry or even societal curve. But in more recent years, while Jobs rolled out an assembly line of successes – iPod, iPad, iTunes – Davis exhausted his supply of ideas.
As his world evolved, Davis never did.
The salary cap changed the way NFL organizations were run, as did technology. Players changed, becoming faster and stronger, and so did the rules, favoring offenses at every turn. Schemes came and went, but the Raiders stayed rooted in a past generation.
Davis was one of a kind, but so was the last dinosaur.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who went through a perfunctory job interview in 1998 – he knew Davis only hired offensive coaches because he was the de facto defensive coordinator – noted recently that the Raiders have run the same defense and kicking game for more than 40 years.
“They have their style of play, they have their way of doing things,” Belichick said. “As much as you can say this is a copycat league and things like that, you can’t really say that about them because they’ve done the same thing now for decades defensively and, to a certain extent, offensively.”
The problem has been that, as Davis clung to ideas the way he did his wardrobe, there was no one around to save Davis from himself, or at least suggest he try.
Whereas Jobs challenged his engineers to present new ideas, Davis valued loyalty over everything else and thus ended up with an organization filled mostly with yes men and sycophants. If you didn’t drink the Kool-Aid, you weren’t there long.
It didn’t matter if you were a vital player (Marcus Allen), a once close confidant (Fred Biletnikoff), or a competent coach (Mike Shanahan, Jon Gruden) or executive (Mike Lombardi).
And so is it any wonder that the Raiders have been to the playoffs six times in the last 25 years and haven’t had a winning season since reaching the Super Bowl nine years ago? Or that the only people willing to coach the Raiders are the likes of Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Joe Bugel, Tom Cable, Lane Kiffin, Mike White, a long-out-of-football Shell and now Hue Jackson? Or that they’ve cornered the market on big-money draft busts like JaMarcus Russell?
There is great intrigue in both organizations about what comes next. Apple has appointed a new CEO, but it remains to be seen just how unique Jobs’ uncompromising eye was and how critical it was to Apple’s success. As for the Raiders, the future is even murkier. Davis’ son, Mark, inherits the team along with Davis’ wife, Carol, but Mark Davis has always viewed it more as family than a vocation and stayed far in the background.
Freed from Davis’ yoke, the Raiders are now free to choose a new course. There is – pardon the metaphor – a black hole to be filled, providing an opportunity to refresh and regenerate the organization.
Then again, after decades of intellectual atrophy, it is easy to imagine meetings where everyone sits around a table, looks at each other quizzically, and asks: what would Al do?
This is what is left on both sides of the Bay, where a cult of personality dies a slow death, no matter if the leader left too early or stayed too long.