No organization and person in NFL history are more tied together in their identity than Al Davis and the Raiders. George “Papa Bear” Halas with Chicago (coaching the Bears for most of their first 48 years in the NFL) and Tom Landry in Dallas (coach for first 29 years) are also in that discussion. For Davis, though, it went just beyond longevity, and it was a cult of personality that dominated. He was the Raider way.
It’s technically true that he wasn’t with Oakland from the beginning, though he practically was the start of the Raiders as we know them. Oakland entered the AFL as the weak sisters, coming in as a late replacement for the Minneapolis franchise that bolted for the NFL. The AFL had already held its initial draft, and the other 7 teams had already begun signing away the Minnesota selections. Predictably, Oakland struggled to a 9-33 record in its first three seasons.
Then, 33-year old Al Davis came in. He had been the brash assistant on the highly successful Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers teams of Sid Gillman. The team had been 1-13 the year before, but under Davis, immediately began the “just win” philosophy that would become his ethos, jumping to a stunning 10-4 record in 1963. Davis coached for only three seasons before moving to bigger things.
In the spring of 1966, Al Davis was made the American Football League commissioner, in response to the NFL breaking a “gentleman’s agreement” and signing away veteran kicker Pete Gogolak from the Buffalo Bills. He immediately went after the NFL’s stars, signing away some of the NFL’s big veteran stars, including star quarterbacks John Brodie and Roman Gabriel. Meanwhile, without Al Davis, but certainly driven by his forcefulness as commissioner, Lamar Hunt and Tex Schramm began negotiating a merger. When the AFL and NFL announced its merger that summer, including terms that required teams in shared markets with the NFL (Oakland, New York) to pay a fee, Davis opposed it, and resigned as commissioner.
Those events were the impetus for Al Davis’ feuds with Commissioner Pete Rozelle and the league for the rest of his life. He was not football royalty–he didn’t come from a background that gave him any advantages in the sport, and he earned everything he got. He was the outsider, and he, and his organization, took to the role with aplomb.
When he returned to the Raiders, he began acquiring players that would set the stage for a great twenty year run. Al Davis loved speed, and he loved attitude. He traded for backup Daryl Lamonica, the mad bomber, who could throw the deep ball like none other. He acquired Willie Brown, he drafted Gene Upshaw, he brought in outcasts like Ben Davidson. In 1967, the Raiders went 13-1 and advanced to Super Bowl II. They would go on to have the best record for the last three years in the AFL, and dominated the AFC West in the 1970’s.
He challenged Rozelle about moving the team to Los Angeles, and then later challenged the NFL when they left. He sued the NFL from time to time, and often voted contrary to most of the owners. The league probably would have been in trouble with 32 Al Davis types. It absolutely needed the one it had, though.
He was the counter culture, the brashness, the competitiveness that the league needed. Because he wasn’t part of the culture, he pushed it. He hired his former lineman, Art Shell, as the first minority head coach in NFL history, ahead of the system. He didn’t need a Rooney Rule.
Sure, the last half of the Al Davis wasn’t as successful, and the last eight years wasn’t very good as Davis’ impatience and controlling nature produced some bad teams. Just like star players, though, we ultimately don’t remember those final seasons holding on. We remember the greatness, and that is how Al Davis will be remembered.
The Autumn wind has come to take home the greatest Raider, and he’s probably laughing at how he’s pillaged, conquered, and won.
[photo via Getty]